21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 25, 2013

This Sunday’s Gospel reading reminded me of an old joke about two friends who were avid golfers. They made a pact with one another that, whoever died first would return to earth to let the other one know whether there was golf in heaven. Eventually, one died, and true to his word, appeared in ghostly form to his friend. He said, “I have some good news and some bad news. First, the good news is that there is golf in heaven.” The living friend asked, “What could be bad news in light of that?” The ghostly friend replied, “You have a tee time tomorrow at 7:00 a.m.”

There is both good news and bad news in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. The passage starts with a question that is as pertinent today as it was when someone in the crowd asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” (Luke 13:23) One of the central issues in all religions is the question of salvation. Who will be saved? How does one gain salvation? Every religion, and every religious leader, has their own response to such questions. Jesus responded by saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Luke 13:24)

Jesus anticipated that some people would think that he was being unfairly exclusionary. He tried to explain that, while faith can be a very comforting thing, it is also a very demanding thing. There is both good news and bad news about faith (just like golf). The bad news about faith, according to Jesus, is that occasional contact, or casual familiarity, is not sufficient to be called a life-long relationship.

Jesus considered salvation to be an arduous task, something not guaranteed to anyone, something not awarded based on commonly accepted criteria. He said that many who claimed to be among his friends would be denied entrance into God’s Kingdom. Jesus used a common cultural image to describe how difficult it is to attain salvation.

In Jesus’ culture sharing a meal with someone had profound significance and lasting consequences. Think, for a moment, of the people with whom you share meals. They are people well known to you, mostly relatives and close friends. It is unusual for us to share a meal with strangers. In Jesus’ culture, sharing a meal formed a life-long bond between table guests. Those who “ate and drank” (Luke 13:26), with Jesus appropriately considered themselves to be part of his distinctive group of disciples. Yet, he said about them, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” (Luke 13:27)

For Jesus, occasional contact, or casual familiarity, did not suffice to be called faith. Faith was a much more serious and profound relationship. This very demanding aspect of faith is part of what has been described by theologians and scripture scholars as “the scandal of particularity.” “The scandal of particularity” is the paradox that arises in our minds when we consider that the Scriptures say both that God is all-loving and that God is very demanding.

Today’s first reading provides an excellent example of this “scandal of particularity.” In the passage from Isaiah, God said, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” (Isa 66:18) This part of Isaiah has numerous similar prophecies about a new offer of salvation from God that would be addressed to all, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Yet, this universal offer of salvation was the result of God’s earlier wrath that sent the Israelites into exile in Babylon. The previous infidelity of the Chosen became the instrument by which God called all people to fidelity, as long as they expressed that fidelity in Temple worship in Jerusalem.

The “scandal of particularity” is that all are eligible to embrace a very demanding and specific faith in an unique God. The One, True God will welcome all who embrace this particular offer. For this reason Jesus said, “there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:28) The offer of faith is universal, but faith is not generic.

This is where many people today go astray. We live in a culture that standardizes everything. Standardization is very convenient for things like weights and measurements, laws and justice, plumbing and vending machines. A pound or an inch is the same everywhere. A STOP sign means the same thing in every state. The hot water spigot is on the left, and the cold is on the right; this prevents you from burning your hands. If some vending machines accepted dollars, but others accepted donuts, your wallet and pockets would often be a sugary mess.

There are, however, appropriate limits to the convenience of standardization. No two people are alike. No marriage is contracted by generic persons; each marriage is unique. No decent parents would designate their children by numbers instead of names. Individuals are distinctive, not standard. Relationships are unique, not generic. Faith is not a general attachment to a vague spiritual notion; it is an unique relationship between an individual and the One, True God. The “narrow door” that Jesus mentions is the unique and specific commitment of exclusive fidelity to God.

“Fidelity” in one’s relationship to God means precisely the same thing as “fidelity” means in one’s relationship to one’s spouse. Marriage is an exclusive relationship. When one chooses a spouse, one chooses a particular person, not a generic idea. When one exchanges marriage vows with a spouse, those vows are specific promises that form a life-long and unbreakable commitment. So, too, it is with faith. Faith is no casual affiliation; it is not expressed adequately by occasional contact.

Jesus demands more from us than an occasional thought or a periodic request for help. Being Catholic is more than receiving an occasional sacrament or offering a prayer from time to time. It is more than having been associated long ago with a parish; it is more than familiarity with a few Catholic ideas.

Being Catholic is a lifetime’s worth of daily practice. There is a substantial difference between playing the occasional round of golf and being a regular on the PGA tour. Being a Catholic means being a regular on the tour rather than an occasional duffer on the course. The difference between the two is obvious, even to those who do not play.

Jesus says that there is no room in the company of his disciples for amateurs; only pros have adequate faith. Discipleship is the result of daily prayer, weekly Mass attendance, consistently upright moral behavior and uncompromising commitment to Jesus as savior. The “scandal of particularity” is is seen reflected in the scandal of the Cross. Jesus didn’t simply communicate God’s kindest regards to us; Jesus communicated to us the fullness of God’s self-emptying love. The only appropriate response to Jesus’ complete commitment to us in his death is our undying loyalty to him every day of our lives.

Jesus has both good news and bad news for us. The good news is that everyone who is a daily disciple gets inducted into the Master’s club; the bad news is that amateurs will be eliminated from play by their own lack of skill.