Commentary on the Readings
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 25, 2019 – Year C
All are welcomed, but don’t be late
“Enlarge the space for your tent, stretch out your hangings, lengthen your ropes and strengthen your stakes, for you will spread out to the right and to the left” (Is 54:2-3). This is the prophet’s invitation to Jerusalem enclosed within a gripping circle of walls. The time of narrow nationalism is over; new, limitless horizons are wide open. The city must prepare to welcome all people who will come to her because all, not just Israel, are heirs of the blessings promised to Abraham.
The image used by the prophet is delightful; it makes us almost visibly contemplate the whole humanity on the way to the hill on which Jerusalem is located. There the Lord has prepared “a feast of rich food and choice wines, fine wine strained” (Is 25:6).
With another image of the city, the author of Revelation describes, in the last pages of his book, the happy conclusion of the troubled history of humankind. Jerusalem is “surrounded by a large, high wall with twelve gates. Three gates face the east; three gates face the north; three gates face the south and three face the west” (Rev 21:12-13). The picture is different, but the message is the same: wherever they arrive, every man will see the gates wide open ready to receive him.
But the path to the banquet of the kingdom of God is not an easy walk. The road that leads there is narrow and the door—Jesus says—is constricted and hard to find. This statement does not contradict the optimistic and joyful message of the prophets who proclaim the universal salvation. He warns against the illusion of being on the right track when one is instead getting lost along the paths that move away from the goal. Yes, all will arrive but it would be better not to get there at the end of the banquet.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
All the peoples of the earth will praise you, Lord.”
We are fine with one who thinks like us, approves our habits, adapts to our customs, observes our laws. Foreigners make us afraid because they get out of our schemes. In the African tribe among whom I lived, for example, I heard a curious expression. When they see a black and a white together they say: “Mutxu ni mukunya,” that is, look there a man and a white. One is definitely a man because he knows and respects the traditions, the other… is a white man.
Even the Israelites were convinced that they were the only “men.” They considered themselves righteous, faithful to God and had established strict laws to prevent the relationships, friendships, marriages with foreigners who did not know the Lord, and served idols (Dt 7:1-8).
The events of the story are charged to gradually crush these preconceptions. During the exile in Babylon, the Israelites began to reflect and have been forced to admit that, if they had been so sorely tried by God, it meant that they were not that much right.
In exile, they have personally known the much-reviled foreigners. It was not a surprise: they were very different from what they imagined! They were good people, nice, generous, hospitable. They led an exemplary family life not less than theirs and had a very high morale. Well… there were among the pagans best people as the Israelites themselves.
The idea that the Lord is not only Israel’s God but of all people peeps in during this time. He loves everyone, regardless of race or tribe. They start speaking of a future kingdom of happiness and peace. It is compared to a great banquet which serves excellent and refined wines, rich food and tender meat. This party will not be reserved for the Israelites, the hall will be open to all peoples (Is 25:6).
Today’s reading carries the message of a prophet who lived in this time of renewal of ideas. It begins with the words of God: I will topple all barriers that divide the people, now I am going to gather the nations of every tongue and they will witness my glory (v. 18). Then he announces something unheard of: the foreigners will be so devoted to my name I will choose them, in preference of the Jews themselves, and will send them as missionaries, to bring my salvation to the nations of the world (v. 19).
Finally—here is the most outrageous promise!: Then I will choose even among the pagans priests and Levites (v. 21).
We have noted in past Sundays that the recipients of this letter were afflicted Christians. They could not find an explanation and make sense of their tribulations. To give them a little light, the author refers to an example of petty pedagogy.
If a teacher has also his son among the students, he does not grant him any privileges. He expects that he commits himself like everyone else. If he notices that someone is lazy and indolent he calls him. But if his son behaves incorrectly, he rebukes him. The correction and also the chastisement are more severe because he loves him most. That is why God subjects believers to so many trials: to make them better (vv. 5-7). The trials are the sign that he does not consider them strangers, but children. Certainly, at the moment, they are not happy with the hardness of his father, but, once grown, they will thank him for the education received (vv. 11-12).
In Matthew’s Gospel we find often on the lips of Jesus harsh words against the wicked: he speaks of hell fire, threatens to separate the sheep from the goats, and six times, he announces to sinners that weeping and gnashing of teeth await them.
Luke presents a Jesus who is more understanding, forgiving and always ready to side with the poor, the desperate, who has had a hard life. He always presents him so… except in today’s passage where, strangely, threats and condemnations appear. There is a narrow gate through which it is almost impossible to pass: it is even closed and who is in is in, who’s out is out. Latecomers are badly rejected: it’s too late!—cries the owner—get out of here! Away from me! I do not know you! There will be weeping and gnash of teeth!
Whoever got involved and fascinated by subjects dear to Luke—the joy, celebration, optimism, mercy of God—remains appalled. He would never have expected a similar behavior from Jesus. One who loved tax collectors and sinners and willingly accepted their invitations to dinner now slams the door in the faces of his friends. The unyielding Jesus in this parable does not seem to be the same that suggested inviting to the banquet “the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Lk 14:13) from whom we cannot expect punctuality or that they will immediately find the door. He does not resemble the doctor who came to heal the sick, nor the shepherd who becomes so tender in front of the lost sheep, or the friend who gets up at night to give bread. He has feelings other than the father of the prodigal son. His advice is even strange “strive to enter through the narrow gate!”: It seems an invitation to be concerned only for one’s own salvation.
Those who elbowed his way and managed to grab a seat in the banquet hall seems to be disinterested of those left out. It is not hard to guess what drove Luke to include in the Gospel these harsh words. In his communities laxity, fatigue, the presumption of being right with God, arrogance, the belief that good intentions are sufficient and that salvation can be obtained cheaply have infiltrated.
Luke realizes that the risk of being excluded from the kingdom looms on many Christians and he feels compelled to refute the false optimism that has spread. He uses images related to culture, environment, and age. We must keep this in mind or else we can misunderstand the meaning and consider them information about what will happen at the end of the world. The details are dramatic, the language is impressive, but the preachers of that time expressed themselves that way when they wanted to shake their listeners.
Let us grasp the real meaning of what is said. One day someone asks Jesus: “Is it true that a few people will be saved?” (v. 23). Some rabbis taught that all the people of Israel would take part in the banquet of the kingdom. But others said: No, those who are lost are more numerous compared to those who are saved like a river is to a drop of water. The prevailing opinion was: “This century the Most High has created a multitude, but the future for a small number. Many are created, but few will be saved.”
Jesus takes no position on the subject: the question is badly posed and in this case whatever answer is incorrect and misleading. If he answers “yes”, he creates a false security, if he answers “no” he causes discouragement. So he refuses to be the apocalyptic visionary. He did not come to reveal secret numbers and dates, as some dreamers of today rave. He prefers to change the subject. He does not enter into speculation about the end of the world and the eternal salvation. He insists on making clear how one enters the kingdom of God, that is, how one becomes and maintains today to be his disciple.
The first condition is: “Do your best to enter by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).
That someone is not able to enter amazes. Clearly, he does not lack the good will, but he misses the way. The reference is to the Pharisee who leads an impeccable and exemplary life, fast twice a week, not a thief or adulterer, yet he does not enter.
To pass through a narrow door—we know—there is only one way: writhe, twitch, in short… make oneself small. Who is great and fat does not pass; he can try in every way, straight or sideways, he will not make it! Here’s what he wants to make it clear on Jesus: one cannot be a disciple unless he gives up to be great, if he does not make himself small and servant of all.
Here it is the fault of the Pharisee: the presumption, the trust placed in their sanctity, in their good works. He spares no energy, does everything to please God—Paul also recognizes it (Rom 10:3)—but he’s too big.
Little is the one who knows of not meriting anything, one who, looking at himself, feels fragile and lost, and one who cannot but appeal to the mercy of God… only he can pass.
Anyone who does not take the inner disposition of the small, whatever religious practice he performs—prayers, catechesis, preaching, devotions, even miracles (Mt 7:22)—does not enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus continues his speech, develops his call to struggle to take part in the banquet through a parable that introduces another requirement: one must hurry, there is no time to lose (vv. 25-30).
A man offers a free banquet to which anyone can take part, it is enough—as we have seen—to be sufficiently small and not to show up with claims. But be careful: at some point the door is blocked.
The master is clearly God who, as promised by the prophets (Is 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14), organizes the banquet of the kingdom.
The scene now splits. We have a first group of people who remained outside, claim to enter shouting their reasons. They say: “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets” (v. 26). But the host does not open and drives them away, calling them: “workers of evil” (v. 27).
Who are they? Let’s identify them: they knew Jesus well; they have listened to him, ate the bread with him. Consequently, they are not the pagans; they are members of the Christian community. They are those who have their names written in the records of baptisms, read the Gospel and participated in the Eucharistic banquet. They believe they have what it takes to get into the party, instead, they are being turned away because the knowledge of the gospel message is not enough; it is necessary to adhere to it. One who does not make this choice on time is a worker of evil.
The severe sentence is given to lukewarm Christians who are only physically part of the community, celebrate empty liturgies which are reduced to external rites that do not transform life.
This condemnation is not intended as a conclusive rejection, not an exclusion from eternal salvation. Such an interpretation is shallow and dangerous because it contradicts the Gospel message.
The words of Jesus are for the present, belonging here and now to the kingdom of God. They are a pressing invitation to urgently reconsider one’s spiritual life because many cultivate illusions of being disciples, but in reality, they are not at all. These people, if they are not immediately aware, will end in tears (when they realize that they have failed) and gnash of teeth (a sign of anger of those who understand, too late, of having done wrong).
We come now to the second group, made up of those inside. Seated at the table are the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets, finally, a great multitude, coming from east and west, from north and south. It does not say that all these people knew Jesus and walked beside him. Perhaps many do not even know he existed. What is certain is that, if they are able to enter, it means that they have passed through the narrow gate; the others are left outside (vv. 28-30).
Let’s go back a few pages. Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel says that one day, among the disciples, a discussion arose to know who was the greatest. Then Jesus took a child and stood him by his side and said, “The least among you all, is the one who is the greatest!” (Lk 9:46-48). Who does not strive to become small cannot take part in the banquets of the kingdom?
Jesus did not want to scare with the threat of hell. His condemnation is directed against tepid, inconsistent, hypocritical life led today by many who consider themselves his disciples. Yet even in the face of his disturbing words, there are Christians who do not allow themselves to be touched by doubt that one day he will tell them: “I know you not.”
Luke—maybe a little reluctant, because it is not in his style—has introduced this text in his Gospel. Unlike Matthew who concludes in a gloomy and threatening way, “the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness; there they will wail and grind their teeth” (Mt 8:12). Luke closes the parable with the festive scene, the banquet and a significant saying: “Some who are among the last, will be first, and some who are among the first, will be last” (v. 30).
In the end, therefore, all will be welcomed, although—unfortunately for them—the last will have lost the opportunity to enjoy from the beginning the joys of the feast of the kingdom of God.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.