The Gospel for August 21st, 2016: “The Narrow Door; Salvation and Rejection”
Reflection: There is Hope in Our Common Striving
In my reflection on last Sunday’s gospel, I cited C.S. Lewis’s rather famous observation from The Problem of Pain that the door to Hell is locked from the inside. In other words, the damned choose to be there by rejecting Jesus’s offer of salvation. Today’s gospel allows us to revisit this notion and explore the risk of Hell further. The reality of Hell, which Jesus is quite clear about in this gospel, is unpleasant. And yet we must think about it as we consider our commitment to a Christian life. I believe most of us, if we are being honest (in the way that Jesus is being honest in this gospel), do an occasional, or possibly frequent, cost-benefit analysis when it comes to sin. We feel the urge to sin and think how much risk can there really be? Am I really on the path to Hell?
The follower’s question in the passage provides an interesting angle for inquiry on this issue: “Lord, will only a few people be saved” (23)?
Jesus’s answer is sobering: “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (24).
Is that answer a cause for cynicism? Is it a reason for the weaker among us to give up or for the faithful to despair at the loss of friends and family? It is difficult to remain hopeful at times when confronted with a narrow door for all of humanity.
In Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell, Hans Urs Von Balthasar delves deeply into scripture and tradition in search of a more optimistic answer. He acknowledges Jesus’s both/and position on this question (to borrow a phrase from Bishop Barron). On the one hand, Jesus speaks unequivocally about sinners going to Hell in multiple New Testament passages, like the one for today’s reading. And yet Von Balthasar notices that these passages are spoken by a “pre-Easter Jesus” (location 241 in Kindle Edition) describing what was at the time present reality. He contrasts these references to post-Easter passages, especially those found in the Pauline letters, that remind Christians Jesus came to save all. For example in Timothy 2, where Paul states, “God our savior… desires all men to be saved and all men to come to the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all” (4-5). There is hope for all in these words, which is why as a Church we pray for all of humanity.
Von Balthasar, in the end, dares to be hopeful, and his insight into this problem gives me hope as well. In the last chapter titled, “The Obligation to Hope for All,” he proposes the notion that the possibility of Hell for our brothers and sisters is one of the ways God keeps our own focus on willing the good of others. It is not enough to concern ourselves with our own personal salvation and be satisfied that others may fall short of Heaven. Such a selfish attitude ensures that we remain too bloated with sin to pass through the narrow door. However, when we start to concern ourselves with the eternal good of our kindred from all walks of life, we finally are capable of the selfless love that joins us with our Creator and that Jesus brought as fire to purify the world with his death on the cross. His victory, the resurrection, is our cause for hope. We are capable of loving others unselfishly in our efforts to follow Jesus. This is why the first word of Jesus’s answer, “strive,” may be the most important. If each of us strives daily—while still falling short daily– to love others as Jesus has loved us, together as a gathered Church in Jesus, we will accomplish the salvation that is beyond us otherwise. We are obligated to will the good of others as God does. In this He will know and perfect us in His love for Heaven. So hope remains a distinct and critical virtue in our striving toward Jesus, our savior. While we should fear eternity without Him in Hell, we need to stop worrying about our own salvation and concern ourselves with helping Jesus bring all sinners to Him. How beautifully ironic that the only way to fit through the narrow door is in the company of the rest of humanity.