A common theme in television and stage drama is the necessary choice faced by a protagonist when a crisis or tragedy occurs. Everyone is familiar with stories in which the main character experiences loss, tragedy, or failure, and is tempted to find recompense through retaliation. You’ve probably heard the dialogue line numerous times, “If you go down that path, your life will be changed forever.” Every underdog, superhero, and innocent victim has been given that advice by someone.
That dialogue line provides great drama, but it contains a sentiment that is not restricted only to dramatic stage or television performances. It is true of everyone, in every situation, that the choices one makes can change one’s life forever. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus alluded to the lasting consequences of one’s choices. Someone in the crowd asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” (Lk 13:23) I can think of several reasons never to ask a question like that one.
First, the number and backgrounds of those who will be saved is entirely of God’s choosing; none of us gets a vote, and none of us will be consulted. To wonder about who or how many people will be saved is to put oneself in the place that belongs solely to God. In a practical sense, it doesn’t matter how many will be saved because that number has no direct bearing on the way one ought to live one’s life.
Second, wondering about the salvation of others is the best possible excuse to ignore one’s own responsibilities. It is an easy thing to be deeply concerned about how other people ought to live and act; one can spend one’s entire life worrying about what others do or don’t do. Such worry is not only misplaced; it is a convenient reason never to attend to the demands of faithful religion. To wonder about who or how many people will be saved is to ignore one’s own responsibility to be faithful to God.
Third, if the question is an indirect question about one’s own salvation, the concern is misplaced. The question about how to be numbered among the saved has already been asked and answered. (Lk 18:18-23)
In a sense, Jesus responded to all these questions and more when he said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Lk 13:24) The “narrow gate” to salvation isn’t an indication that God’s mercy is available only to a few; rather, it is a metaphor representing the narrowness of the choices that lead to God.
When the rich man asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus dismissed the question as unnecessary. Jesus responded to the man, but only in the most oblique way. Jesus merely reiterated the Commandments, inferring that the Sinai Covenant was the path to eternal life. When the man protested that he wanted to do more than fulfill the demands of the Law, Jesus invited him to become a disciple.
Jesus intended to exclude no one from eternal life. In his preaching, he tried to elicit faith from all his hearers. He put no limits on who, or how many, could respond faithfully. Jesus identified the Commandments as the path to God. In his teaching, the Covenant and the Law did not exist to exclude anyone from salvation, but to direct everyone to the path that leads to a righteous life. The “narrow gate” he mentioned in today’s Gospel is not narrow in the sense of being exclusive or restrictive; rather, it is narrow in the sense that few choose it.
Living a righteous life, the sort of life that prepares one to live forever in God’s presence, consists of nothing more than following God’s will daily. Fortunately for us, God’s will is easy to learn and obey. We are commanded to worship God alone, to love one another, and to give an appropriately limited value to created things. Anyone can live this life, and no person is prevented from doing so.
The gate that admits one to God’s kingdom is, indeed, a narrow one. It is wide enough to admit only a single choice about one’s life, that is, the choice to respond in faith to God’s offer of grace and mercy. Further, it is narrow enough to exclude worry about other people’s behavior or eternal destiny.
The narrow gate that leads to the kingdom is clearly marked; it is accessible to all who will make the only appropriate choice. Jesus’ teaching about the “narrow gate” is very similar to the warning given to the characters in dramatic stories about the consequences of their choices. A faithful response to God’s will is the choice that leads through the narrow gate of righteous living. Any choice other than faith in God might well change your life forever but, perhaps, not in the way you had hoped.