21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – The Number of the Saved

If you were the only person in the whole world in the whole of human history whom God needed to redeem, he would have sent his only-begotten Son.

“The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” 12th century, St. Catherine’s Orthodox Monastery, Sinai, Egypt.
“The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” 12th century, St. Catherine’s Orthodox Monastery, Sinai, Egypt. (photo: Public Domain)

How many people will be saved?

That question has agitated Christians over the generations. It even helped produce two American states.

When John Calvin’s theology mixed up ideas of predestination with Protestant Sola Scriptura (think the heavenly admission turnstile preset at 144,000 rotations — cf. Revelation 7:1-17), it eventually gave birth to a Puritanism that immigrated to Massachusetts before causing civil war and regicide in England. Because the Puritans believed in a cramped number of elect and, agitated by the same question as today’s Gospel, they developed various ideas to determine whether they were part of that number. These included external signs of election (e.g., prosperity, hence, the Protestant Work Ethic) and ecclesiastical practices (e.g., baptism coupled with the baptized’s profession of faith). 

Eventually, as time and generations passed and ardor waned, the Puritans needed to figure out how their seemingly less zealous children could still be counted in the church, understood as a community of the elect. They eventually invented ideas like “the half-way covenant,” counting these baptized children as “half-way” members of the church until they had and testified to their own personal conversion experience before the community. 

Because some Puritans thought that accommodation, among other things, was unjustified and too permissive, they packed up and went down the Connecticut River Valley to found that colony. Those who thought Hartford was not rigorous enough eventually broke off to found a short-lived Puritan “paradise” in New Haven (which produced missionaries that founded a place in New Jersey called “Newark,” the “New Ark” of the covenant). 

But I digress.

The digression shows, however, that the question of today’s Gospel — “will only a few people be saved?” — has always animated Christians. 

Jesus, however, revises the question. Instead of answering it (or questions like “are you now going to restore the rule to Israel?” or “when is the Second Coming coming?”) Jesus redirects the inquirer’s curiosity to different efforts.

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”

Jesus suggests on the one hand that the admissions barrier is high. “Many … will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Many will reclama that the Master who locked the door had “ate and drank” in his company while he “taught in our streets.” Yet he says, “I do not know you.”

On the other hand, Jesus adds “many will come from the east and the west and the north and the south” to recline in the Kingdom of God. “Some of the last will be first, and some of the first will be last.”

Most immediately, Jesus is addressing the thinking of his Jewish contemporaries, who still clung to an exclusive notion of their election. They failed to grasp that their election was an advance mission by which God would extend his saving action to all humanity (“east and west and north and south”), a mistake exemplified by Jonah’s efforts to avoid bringing God’s Word to those nasty Ninevites. 

Jesus’s message is, of course, not limited to his times alone. Sometimes Catholics also seemed to forget that their mission was to bring all people to Christ, not just wait for them to come to them. 

Even the 144,000 of Revelation Chapter 7 has been misinterpreted. Protestant Biblical literalism distorted the Scriptural text to suggest that, from all of human history, God plans on populating a heaven just a bit smaller than today’s Syracuse, New York. No. If we understand the symbolic conventions operative in Revelation — obviously intended to conceal messages in resistance literature written amid the Domitian persecution — then Revelation 7 says exactly the opposite from what Protestant literalists pretend.

In the Israel of Jesus’s day, 12 was a perfect number: 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles, and 1,000 was an extremely large number. In our day, when we see cities of millions of people, it’s not much, but in Jesus’ day 1,000 people in one place was a lot. So 12 (perfection) x 12 (perfection) = 144 (perfection squared) x 1,000 (unlimitedness) = 144,000. Contrary to the literalists, a Christian of the late first century would have read Revelation 7 and said, “Wow, that means God wants to save almost everybody!”

The very next line in Revelation (7:9) suggests as much: “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

So, we have two poles to our problem. On the one hand, God seeks the salvation of all persons. There is no person who had ever lived, is living, or will live for whom Jesus Christ did not suffer and die for his justification. Indeed, as Father Leo Trese once put so well: If you were the only person in the whole world in the whole of human history whom God needed to redeem, he would have sent his only-begotten Son (cf. John 3:16).

On the other hand, the reason we need redemption, justification and atonement is because there is something that separates us from God, something we cannot fix: sin. God is holy. We are not. And between those two realities is an insurmountable barrier.

Insurmountable to us, but not to God.

But God’s way of overcoming that barrier is not by pretending it does not exist. It is not by closing his eyes and saying “I don’t see your sins” — as the classical Protestant theory of “forensic justification” (you’re a sinner but God doesn’t indict you for it) maintains. Justification is not acquittal on a technicality: the accused is still guilty but the judge does not hold his guilt against him. 

No, guilt has to be “un-guilted,” sin has to be cleansed, man has to become holy (and not just simply pretend they are).

In that sense heaven, like grace, is not “cheap.” Take a look at the Cross to see its cost. 

And it’s not because God is fixated on sin. As Margaret Turek notes, God loves us with a passionate, fierce love. He wants to save us. His anger is directed at what gets in the way of his love, what cannot be saved: sin. 

Sin is not just something out there. When we sin, we make that lack of being, that lack of holiness, part of ourselves. More accurately, we lop off part of ourselves. We engage in self-destruction. Some today might call that “affirming one’s identity,” but one’s identity is not achieved by self-mutilation. 

God seeks us. He seeks us whole. Holiness require wholeness. That is what redemption is about.

But the temptations of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Summa teologiae, II-II, 55, 1) constantly assail us. So the question Jesus wants us to ask is not one of intellectual curiosity — “how many will be saved?” — but one of personal integrity — “what am I doing to be among them?”

St. Paul warns the Christian to “work out his salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) not because God is unreliable but because we are inconstant. He says that from experience, knowing he has not done the good he wanted to but has one the evil he didn’t (Romans 7:19). That’s why Jesus demands we adopt a sober discipline, holding to “the narrow way.” After all, do you really want to gamble on the stakes?

(Perhaps you do. There’s a certain contemporary mindset that tries to undermine the seriousness of sin and of salvation by pretending God does not really make it a matter of “stakes” or our decisions, but that in the end, God will make it all good, even at the cost of our freedom. “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” We should hope and even more so pray, but daring to hold that view in the light of the most cursory survey of the moral state of humanity today and in the past suggests a certain presumptuousness behind that “dare.”)

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by a 12th-century icon, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” from St. Catherine’s Orthodox Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. The motif combines the Old and New Testaments. It alludes to Jacob’s ladder, recounted in Genesis 28:10-17. 

Jacob is in flight from his brother Esau, whom he was cheated out of his inheritance. He stops for the night and has a dream, in which angels are ascending and descending along a ladder that stands on the earth and reaches into heaven. Roman Brandstaetter, the Polish Catholic-Jewish author, identifies Jacob’s Ladder as Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” in whom heaven is joined to earth and earth finds its justified way to heaven. (The St. Catherine’s icon seems to treat Jesus primarily as the end of the ladder, not the ladder itself, which is more a symbol of spiritual ascent which, of course, cannot happen outside of Christ and his Spirit).

In the St. Catherine’s icon, monks — men — are scaling the ladder. They seek heaven and the God who awaits them. It’s a “narrow way,” a ladder that on this icon occupies a narrow swath of the whole picture. 

It is a ladder of freedom that leads to God, but it is also a ladder that recognizes the spiritual warfare that occurs along the path of salvation (Ephesians 6:12). Multiple black devils prowl (1 Peter 5:8) around the ladder, looking for prey, trying to make men slip. The path is narrow, and those lacking in surefootedness, in resolution of goal, can slip from its rungs.

The image of the Ladder is drawn in Eastern Orthodox spirituality from a book for monks on progress in the spiritual life, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” written about the year 600 by John Climacus.

So the question to take home this week is not “how many will be saved” but — like John Paul II asked of Michelangelo’s rendition of the Last Judgment — “where am I in this picture?”