How Wide is the Saviour’s Catchment?

Luke 13: 23-30

And [this was how he continued to teach as] he travelled through all the towns and villages making his way [up] to Jerusalem. This was [also] when someone [in the crowd] asked him:
“Will there be only a small minority saved?”
And his answer to them [it being a question of interest to many] was this:
“You should be struggling to enter by the narrow gate – because there are many striving to get in but are unable to do so.
“Ever since the master of the house has stirred himself to close the entrance, there you have been banging away with your, “Lord, Lord, open up to us!” And he will say, “I don’t know you, do I? Where did you come from?” And then you will say to him: “But we have eaten with you and have been drinking with you. You have been teaching us in your streets. And he will say to you [again], “I know you not nor do I know where you come from. Get away from me you workers of injustice.”
“And that will be the occasion for weeping and gnashing of teeth, the time when you shall see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but yourselves forcibly ejected.
“And they [the prophets] will come from east and west, from north and south, and take their places in the Kingdom of God. And take careful note: those who are [now] in the last place will be first [having top billing], while those who are first [to hear] will be last [with a place at the end of the queue].”

Here was another question put to Jesus from among the crowds that flocked to hear him, which they did so often with such great delight. It seems that the questioner was motivated by a genuine desire of one who knew Israel to be the especially blessed people of the Lord. The question naturally arises:

Are we who experience God’s blessings to consider these in an exclusive way? Are we experiencing what the rest of God’s creation is going to miss?
So will “all the rest” eventually experience what we have received?

Jesus’ answer reminds us of one of his self-definitions reported by the Apostle John:

I am the door of the sheepfold; all others coming before me are thieves and robbers (John 10:7-8).

Here then the answer Jesus gives seems to suggest:

Put all your energy into entering at the front door … many want to gain entry, but do not succeed in doing so.

At first the imagery used seems to lead away from an answer to the question. (We read on with our questions to see where our reading leads us). Is Jesus saying that the many are not succeeding because they are trying to force entry through a back door? He takes for granted that those who are not gaining entry are not truly striving, are not acting righteously. He seems to be saying that gaining entry by another route – other than the front door – is not to enter truly. And so any anxiety one has about one’s standing in the House of the Lord should arise not from how many gain entry, or from comparing oneself with others, but by being fully focused upon making a right and true entry. There follows a strong warning:

You specially elect folk have for generations been banging away on the presumption that the Owner of the House you are presuming to enter, is privileged to have you there banging away on his door! But if you have not been concerned about making a true and righteous entry, to what purpose is your banging? Do you think the Lord is obliged to open the door of His House to you?

Jesus provides his questioner, and anyone else who is listening, with an account of the historical conversation that has taken place between these people blessed of the Lord Almighty, with the Master of the House they are now so keen to enter.

This then is Jesus’ answer to the question put to him.

Will only a small minority be saved?

The emphasis is not so much upon the number as the difficulty of maintaining a focus of true and right front-door entry. Yes, only a few, it seems, make it through that way, through the straight gate, the front door. And it is not that they are squeezed in by some external moshpitted fate. Jesus answers the question by reframing it to emphasise the responsibility of those who receive right standing before the Lord;  they are called into the Lord’s service to remain open to the Lord’s merciful dealings with all people everywhere, dealings of mercy but also dealings of judgment. Jesus turns the questioner away from a line of questions that is nothing but a diversion. He is reminded of the importance of right and just entry into the Kingdom of God.

When the House Owner shuts the front door, of which you have not availed yourself, you will be startled but you should not be surprised. He has come to shut the door in response to your presumptuous banging. “Do I know you? Where are you from? You are certainly not members of my household!”

Jesus continues by documenting Israel’s retort to the House Owner’s lack of recognition:

“But you have been with us in our streets, Lord. That is where you have taught and that is also where you have eaten with us and joined us in drinking.”

And so it would seem that the purpose of the Home Owner’s time in their streets was to issue an invitation to them to become full members of his Household. They have been so concerned that his presence with them has augmented their status in the eyes of the world that they have actually turned a deaf ear to his invitation. They have not responded by entering his house by the front door. Instead of viewing themselves as privileged, they respond to him as if he is the privileged one; after all he has been in their midst, walking their streets. With their banging on his door, it is now, presumably, his turn to repay their favour. His summary dismissal of them ends the conversation – there is nothing more to be said to this agitating self-selecting moshpit.

Jesus then adds his prophetic description of the subsequent anguish of those who, trying to get in by a back-door, by a side route, are simply left with their weeping and the gnashing of their teeth. It is a bitterness born of a failure to reckon with God’s intimate mercy to them.

The picture drawn of a coming together from the North, the South, the East, the West – it is nothing less than a massive tsunami of people, a tidal wave coming to the feast being thrown by the Lord God Almighty. His invitation will be joyfully received by the nations. And then there is also this warning:

And you, you who have lived your life trying to assert that the Almighty was privileged to invite you, are ejected, left out, shown the door!
The Kingdom of God is here for you, you who have tasted of its first fruits, in order that those furthest away, the one’s on the end of the queue, might indeed come and be received, taking their place at the top of the table, a place of honour undeserved, bestowed upon them by the Lord.
Those furthest away will become those who become intimately close, and will now be on the inside. By contrast those closest who are forever agitating to keep their front-row seats, will find themselves on the outside, furthest away!

It should be noted that Luke in his investigations has here uncovered the teaching of Jesus that is presupposed by Paul’s attitude to the preaching of the Good News (Romans 9-11). Paul’s desire is to make his fellow Jews jealous, by the mercy displayed by the Gentiles incorporated into the Vine of the Lord, a mercy displayed by the community of whom Israel’s Messiah is the King.

28th. December 2016

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