First Reading: Is 66:18-21; Psalm: 117. R. v. Mk 16:15; Second Reading: Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Gospel: Lk 13:22-30
THE DISCIPLINE OF THE NARROW DOOR
BY FR VALENTINE NNAMDI EGBUONU, MSP
In my years in High school, one of the hottest arguments I occasionally had with my classmates outside lecture time was on faith and religion. For my class comprises students of different religious backgrounds; namely: Catholics, Protestants, Restorationists (Jehovah witness), and Islamists. One recurrent conclusion each time we argued was our conviction that our individual religious practices have the monopoly of salvation. Every one of us believed that only those who practiced our faith would be saved. And in a less strict sense, the believers of our faith and perhaps others. The debate was endless.
As Jesus journeyed towards Jerusalem through towns and villages of predominantly Jewish inhabitants, someone asked him “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” I suppose this fellow should have been a member of my High school class. Apparently, as a Jew he believed that salvation was exclusively for the Jews whom he categorised as “few”. Jesus then said to him, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk 13:24).
It is instructive that Jesus mentioned “many” and not “few” in his reply; for salvation is a free gift from God and is not limited to any group of people of specific religious belief or affiliation. This deflated the belief of the Jewish people who claimed predestined salvation as descendants of Abraham. The chastisement of Jesus on this complacent belief of the Jews became even more severe when he disclosed to them that the means to salvation for all was the narrow door. So if they must be saved, then they must strive to enter by the narrow door.
But what does it mean to “strive to enter by the narrow door?”
The word “strive” (agonizesthe in Greek) is used in various passages of the New Testament. Saint Paul used it to speak of the ‘exercise’ of an athlete for a competition (in 1Cor 9:25); ‘fighting’ the good fight (as in 1Tim 6:12; 2Tim 4:7); and training ourselves through ‘toil and strive’ in Godliness (as in 1Tim 4:10). So when Jesus said, “strive and enter by the narrow door”; he was in other words saying: exercise, fight, battle, toil, or struggle to enter by the narrow door. This implies that making our way to salvation does not come easy as the Jews misconceived it. So although salvation is a free gift from God, our individual efforts are indispensable to make it happen. For God cannot save us without our co-operation.
This narrowness of the door to salvation suggests the toughness of the way to heaven. Which is the reason why Jesus is urging us to make ardent effort to enter it? Success is a product of hard work for nothing good comes easy. Athletes, footballers and those into modelling subject themselves to strenuous exercise and diet in order not to jeopardise their career. If we want certain results in life, we need certain discipline. What Jesus is asking of us is that discipline of an athlete; that exercise or training that dislodges all acts of ungodliness in us.
If we wish to see how narrow the way to salvation is, and how difficult it is to pass that way, then think of the demands of our faith. Think of that struggle we go through when we are promised jobs, promotions, and some other attractive incentives if only we compromise our faith. Think of the pain and struggle we undergo to forgive our unfaithful spouse, wasteful son, incorrigible daughter or the betrayal of a friend. Think of the doubts we nurse about our faith in times of adversity and the temptation to stop believing in God. Think of the sacrifice of pleasure for holiness sake; the call to give when we have very little; the time we spend and the frustration we experience caring for the sick and the dying; and the call to love even when we are hated. Indeed, narrow is the door to salvation.
These spiritual disciplines are what St Paul was referring to when he said “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Heb 12:5-6). The beauty of gold comes out when it passes the testing of fire. Likewise, for us to gain salvation and behold the beauty of heaven, we must pass through the heat of spiritual discipline. If we must be spiritually healthy, we must burn off our sinful habits through the spiritual exercise of prayer, mortification and self discipline. This can be very tough. But let these words of Saint Paul serve as a booster to us: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Heb 12:11).
If this door to salvation is narrow; why should it be shut at all? After all, passing this narrow door is already a hard task. Why then should Jesus complicate issues by threatening to shut us out? This is not a threat but a fact. God has to shut this door at some point because our opportunities to live on earth are limited. And we can only have the chance to make our way through that door while we put up on earth. Even an athlete who competes in a race knows of the rule of the ‘finishing line’. Once that line is crossed, the race is over and the die of judgment is cast. There will be no opportunity to repeat that race again. And only those who fought to win will receive the trophy or wreath of victory. So let us make hay while the sun shines.
The judgment of God is a reality we cannot evade; for even in life, there is no progress without a test and no promotion without a pass. The prophet Isaiah prophesied of the imminent judgment of God upon his people Israel who returned from captivity and turned away from God by living in iniquity. He prophesied of the coming of the Messiah who will gather all the nations and judge them accordingly. This prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in Christ Jesus who today re-echoed the judgment that will befall those who don’t make effort to enter by the narrow door.
These warning words of Christ today should inject in us the hunger and enthusiasm to spiritually discipline ourselves. We should always remember that ‘we do not live or die for ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.’ (Rm 14:7-8).
PRAYER FOR THE DAY
Lord Jesus, give us the strength and courage to endure the discipline of your commands. When we are weak and down, bring us up. Amen.