Barbara J. Campbell, Pastor
Almost half of the 24 chapters of The Gospel According to Luke claim to record the words of Jesus. If you pick up one of those Bibles which print everything Jesus supposedly said in red letters, you will find the entire center section of Luke is red and we are well into the “red” section when we come to today’s story.
Luke has recorded conversations which were part of the common oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings. This tradition remembered Jesus telling the crowds again and again, in many different ways, about the kingdom of God. Access to that kingdom, some biblical scholars contend, was not much of an issue for Jesus. Instead of a rabbi who probably used short sayings and brief parables, in Luke’s gospel Jesus speaks in long complicated lessons, so much so, in fact, that readers can often end up lost and confused.
Nearing the end of this long section of teachings from Luke, Jesus tells two parables about small behaviors that have expansive consequences. He tells his listeners how the tiniest of seeds, the mustard seed, grows into an enormous plant that gives shelter to the birds of the air and that when a woman puts just a handful of yeast into three measures of flour that yeast leavens the whole batch! After all the ups and downs, good news/bad news themes, of his many lessons, we are assured that, in the end, even a little faith can go a long way.
Then, as a sort of synopsis of everything that Jesus has said, Luke adds a summary statement that begins with a question from the audience. Finally someone comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
Amy Jill Levine, who is one of the few Jewish Professors of New Testament studies, writes that concern over whether only a few would be saved was common in apocalyptic literature, but was not common in rabbinic literature which took a generous view of salvation. This fact and other stories of Jesus leads us to believe that Jesus would not have been very concerned over who would be saved.
Jesus Seminar scholars gave fairly high mark of validity to the initial response of Jesus in this text, which they translate as: “Struggle to get in through the narrow door; I’m telling you, many will try to get in, but won’t be able.” These scholars do not believe, however, that Jesus would have elaborated on that simple statement, as the rest of this paragraph does. They also agree that it seems highly unlikely that the Jesus we find in scripture would have talked about God as a master shutting and locking the door to the kingdom with folks left outside gnashing their teeth.
“Door” language reminds us of other sayings recorded from; including a story about knocking persistently on a neighbor’s door at midnight until the neighbor gets out of bed and agrees to give you what you need and stories in which all we have to do is knock and the door will be opened.
Listen carefully again to what Luke writes, “Someone asked Jesus, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ Jesus said to them ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for I tell you, many will try to enter and will not be able.”
What if the most authentic words of Jesus are only the first half of this phrase, “Strive to enter through the narrow door!” and the second half of the sentence is an early attempt to interpret what Jesus was trying to say.
The religious view which prevailed in the time of Jesus and still exists in many churches even today was and is that God judges and condemns human behavior; that humanity can never quite measure up to the righteousness that God demands; that we must constantly seek to appease God in order to measure up. This is theology into which one idea of a narrow door might fit, but this is not the theological understanding that Jesus reveals throughout scripture.
What do you think? What is the narrow door through which Jesus says we should strive to enter? Is there a wider door that we might also seek to enter through? Why would Jesus tell us to enter through the narrow door?
(responses: narrow door may have been for the servants, requires you aren’t carrying a lot of baggage, means we enter one by one, and is more difficult to get through.)
Perhaps the narrow door is the door that demands sacrifice and persecution for the sake of justice and compassion; a door that requires the understanding and insight which leads to God’s new and gracious community overflowing with forgiveness and inclusion and welcome. Perhaps the Church’s traditional interpretation of personal salvation leads to a different door; a door that is broad and easy to enter, but not the door that Jesus hoped we would enter through.
Next week we’re going to begin a 3-week study of Diana Butler Bass’s book Christianity After Religion. Bass talks about every religion answering the same questions, What do I believe? How should I behave? and Where do I belong? “Belief, behavior, and belonging are three intertwining strands,” she writes, “of religious faith.”
The stories we read of Jesus, of his baptism, his temptations, and all of his journey along the way to Jerusalem, are stories of how Jesus chose to answer these three questions. Jesus chose to believe that the one God, creator of the Universe, the God that Abraham found behind the stars and sun, demanded justice and compassionate, and was a God of forgiveness and grace.
Jesus chose to welcome strangers and outcasts, heal the untouchables, preach inclusion rather than exclusion, behaviors that went far beyond the prescribed religious rituals. Jesus chose to belong to a spiritual community that recognized that salvation was not merely personal and stood courageously against the corruption of some of the religious and political leaders of his time.
When some of the Pharisees come with a warning that Herod was out to kill Jesus, Jesus may have responded by calling Herod a “fox,” a metaphor for someone both “clever” and “destructive,” and saying that they should tell this fox that Jesus is going to be busy healing people for the next couple of days until he has finished his work. Jesus (or Luke) also seems to have accepted Jesus’ role as a prophet by this time, at least, saying, “I must be, stay, keep on my way for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
“I must be on my way,” does not mean that Jesus had to leave town, but that Jesus knew he had to stay on the path he had chosen; his particular path of belief and behavior and belonging.
Jesus must have felt great sorrow for humanity during his lifetime. He must have cried out for the people of Jerusalem who were not able to hear or accept the good news that he believed in. He must have wept for this city that exploited the weak and abandoned the poor in order to build their own security.
After urging the people to enter by the narrow door, Jesus must have grieved, wishing he could gather the inhabitants of Jerusalem together like a hen gathers chicks under her wings; wishing that he could convince them of a God that loves that completely; wishing he could help them one by one through that narrow door.
Jesus must have known how little the people knew of God’s love; how little they trusted in the promises of the vengeful god others worshipped. Jesus also knew how hard it would be for his human brothers and sisters to accept each other as equal in God’s sight and within their own communities. He knew we would spend so much of our time shoving our way toward the door and pushing others out of the doorway, that very few of us would be able to enter.
Knock and the door, or perhaps doors, will be opened, Jesus says. But seek to enter through the narrow door, even though this door will be difficult to enter, difficult to trust, difficult to see, difficult to step through.