Forty-eighth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-50
We don’t like straight answers. We think we do, but we don’t. Especially when we’re growing up. Up or down, black or white, yes or no – they answer our questions unambiguously, but oftentimes without telling us what it is we really want to hear. Part the fault is, of course, ours for not asking better questions, but the rest is simply not knowing enough – which is why we ask the question in the first place. Then when the straight answer comes, we may have more questions, or we may simply not like the answer and try to negotiate. We don’t like not being in control of the answer, so the answer can’t be too clear, too direct. But we like to think we like these answers, because our resulting victimization at the hands of this answer gives us an illusion of control we can comfortable with. (“Yes or no?” “Yes.” “Oh. Fine. Whatever.”) (“Black or white?” “White.” “I knew you’d say that!”) (“Up or down?” “Down.” “You’re sure it’s not up?”) And the reason I can feel so sure in stating all this is because, as the readings today illustrate, there comes a time – I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced it – when we ask almighty God, “Am I going to spend eternity with you, yes or no?” And He says to us, “That, My child, is up to you.”
And we resent the hell out of it.
Consider the First Reading, from the end of the Isaiah prophecies. Part of God’s master plan, as it were, is to gather all peoples to Himself. Since the beginning God has called families, then clans, then nations to be His own, and step by step along the way saying to them, “This is not enough.” Now the Israelites are to be the light to the other nations, and those nations will find God by that light. He will also gather to Himself those who have been scattered from Him, both by the hardness of their hearts and by the physical destruction of the kingdoms and the exile in Babylon. God will accomplish all this through the people who are true to His name and His commands. Yet here God says, “From them I will send fugitives to the nations…, to the distant coastlands who have never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.” Imagine the consternation of this beat-up and demoralized people asking God, “Are you finally going to gather all Your people to Yourself?” only to be told, “That’s the plan, so go get them!” God may have made Israel the light to the nations, but that light still had to shine!
A similar thread runs through the Gospel reading. Jesus’ followers ask Him, point blank, “[W]ill only a few people be saved?” He doesn’t say Yes, and He doesn’t say No. Instead, the founder of the religion of the “both/and” says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate; for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” This statement, perhaps the greatest of God’s “definite maybe”s, reminds us that salvation is offered to all, but must be accepted – for what it is and on its own terms. Jesus’ own Mother understood this when she said to the angel “Let it be done to me according to your word.” She freely chose to orient her entire will towards that of God, and already enjoys the fullness of eternity with her Son. To make it through the crowds huddled around the narrow gate Jesus speaks of, we need to have that kind of strength. We can’t simply wait to get pulled through the gate by an unseen hand; we have to at least be reaching out, or we’ll get left behind if that gate should close. “[S]ome are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
If it seems God is being a real pain in the neck about all this, especially for an all-powerful and all-loving source and sustenance of the cosmos…well, perhaps you’re right. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews would agree with you. He would also remind you, as he does in our Second Reading, that such is the love of a Father Who is training His child to be an adult. “God treats you as sons,” he writes. “[W]hat ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline?” Think back to what I said earlier about straight answers and control. We’ve seen this, and we’ve experienced it ourselves. Which did we resent more as we grew up: a Yes or No answer we couldn’t negotiate, or something we felt should have been done for us being left to us? It’s one thing not to like an answer; it’s another thing entirely not to act because we think we shouldn’t have to. No one becomes an adult that way. No one becomes an impartial minister of reconciliation that way. How can we call ourselves “merciful like the Father” and yet leave it to the Father alone to show mercy?
Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet
with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands
with which He is to bless His people.
There comes a time when the answers are up to us. “Strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet.” And when all else fails, go ask your Mother.