Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): Perhaps the most horrifying scenario imaginable is to stand outside knocking on a locked door only to hear the Lord respond, “I do not know where you are from.” Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord assures us: “I come to gather nations of every language.” But some resist that invitation. In order to join God's gathering, we must “enter through the narrow gate” – that is, we must say yes to the relationship that Christ wants to have with us. The Letter to the Hebrews says that “God treats you as sons.” When we change and conform our life to our calling to be God's children, then those who are last will be first. We will recline with them at table in the Kingdom of God.
(This weekend's Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Isaiah 66:18-21 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Thus says the LORD: I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: In considering this passage, a review of the times when the writer – or writers – of Isaiah lived will be helpful. (Whether “writer” is singular or plural depends on whether “Second Isaiah” – chapters 40-66 – were written by disciples of the namesake Judean prophet of the eighth century B.C.)
Isaiah had witnessed the opening phases of the political collapse of the wayward children of Israel in Assyria's conquest of the idolatrous Northern Kingdom and serious but miraculously unsuccessful siege of the Southern Kingdom and Jerusalem. He (or his later followers) also had viewed the bitter decades of exile (in Assyria for the north, in Babylon for the south) and the eventual joy of the Jews' restoration to the Holy Land. The Book of Isaiah is packed with foretellings of the nature of the coming Messiah – He who would be Immanuel, “God with us,” and the Suffering Servant who died to save His people not from political oppression but from spiritual slavery to sin.
But would the Messiah's definition of His people be confined to Israel? In these verses, we see a vital if secondary purpose to Israel's exile. Yes, God had allowed the Chosen People to suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness to Him by trying to make their own way in the ancient Middle East (right down to adopting other gods for various reasons). But even when God moved the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great to permit the Jews to go home, did all of them return? Hardly. From that day to this, there have been Jewish communities throughout the known world – the communities of the Diaspora (dispersion). Through them, regardless of whether they had sprung from northern or southern Israelite roots, people whose ancestors had forgotten the one true God were reintroduced to Him and His laws.
When we ponder this reading, we should recall the journeys of the apostles, especially St. Paul, across and beyond the Roman world. At almost every stop, Paul encountered a Jewish synagogue and found Gentiles open to hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul's Jewish and Gentile converts are prime examples of how God's “fugitives to the nations” (recall that Paul himself was born outside Palestine) brought believers to the new Jerusalem, the spiritual capital where Christ reigns forever at the right hand of the Father. And Gentile Christians have indeed supplied numerous clergy (“priests and Levites”) to the Church that Jesus founded!
Once again, we see how God makes good out of evil and how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New.
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews.
Brothers and sisters: Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?
"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor lose courage when you are punished by him.
For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives."
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Readers likely are familiar with the allegation that Christianity isn't relevant to modern people. The charge points to plentiful yet alleged evidence that God is not love but is in fact a violent, vengeful God who punishes whenever He is crossed. Add to that the legion of negative witnesses from Christians who fail or refuse to live the Gospel, and it's no wonder that so many have abandoned faith.
This is a very Protestant complaint, though one will often hear it today from Catholics. It stems from the medieval conception, preserved by Martin Luther and his followers even today, of God as the angry Judge who has to be placated by Christ's sacrifice. One has to admit: If God is the angry Judge, wouldn't many of us be inclined to go our own way, as so many have?
But the writer of Hebrews is speaking to us as much as to his Jewish Christian hearers. He speaks not of punishment but of discipline. True, critics likely see little difference between the two because both are unpleasant. But the Church offers them an image of God quite different from the angry Judge: the image we see in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Was the rebellious younger son in that parable smart to leave his father's loving household? Of course not. Would the father have been within his rights to punish the son? In the society of 2,000 years ago, yes. But what did the father do?
He let the son go. He gave him the inheritance he demanded, then waited for the son to squander it all as the father almost certainly knew he would. Only in this way might the son come to his senses. Only in this way might the father have the chance to joyfully welcome him home and restore him to his love.
Was this punishment? No, it was discipline. God does not will that bad things happen to us; He wants us to love Him always and remain within His loving embrace! Sure, plenty of evil nonetheless exists. Why is that? It comes from all the people who, like the younger son, choose to go their own way and put themselves first at the expense of others. Can it then be any wonder that bad things happen to people? But sometimes parents have to leave the rebellious children to learn the hard lessons for themselves. And they have to watch at the heads of their driveways, ready for their children to come home.
God is no different. He permits hard lessons to discipline us. Unlike we imperfect parents, though, He always welcomes us home. May we all put away the image of God as the angry Judge. May we also trust Him before we insist on learning things the hard way. But even if we wander away, we can trust Him, like the father of the Prodigal Son, to forgive us and say to us, “You were lost, but you are found.”
Gospel: Luke 13:22-30
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
Jesus went on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them, "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, `Lord, open to us.' He will answer you, `I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, `I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!' There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: The people of Israel never fully understood why they were – and why their descendants remain – God's “chosen people.” Moses offered them the correct perspective when he commanded them to describe their father Abraham as a “wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). Israel's “father in faith” came from the same Mesopotamian stock as the Assyrians and Babylonians who eventually conquered and exiled Abraham's “great nation.” God chose Abraham for his unusual faith, but Abraham's background was not at all special within the Fertile Crescent of western Asia. Israel received pride of place among God's people – the entirety of humanity, past, present and future – because Abraham had been chosen. Jesus, in His humanity, would be one of them and preach the Good News to them first. But neither Israel nor any Israelite was entitled to God's free gift of salvation.
Jesus' questioner here inquired from this mistaken sense of entitlement. The Lord at first seems to agree in speaking of the “narrow gate” – but the rest of this passage takes a turn unexpected by His hearers. It's the turn anticipated in this weekend's first reading: People not of the earthly Israel would be among those entering the gate. And some among the Israelites would not seek entrance until it was too late. Christ's “narrow gate” is wide enough for everyone who receives God's free gift of faith, walks with Him on life's journey, gets back up after every fall seeking God's promised forgiveness and mercy and endures every temptation and suffering along the way. The gate is narrow only for the legions of people who refuse the journey, even though God gives them everything to reach and pass through the gate.
Israel was chosen because God knew fallen humanity would need a story in which we could see ourselves. Its history in the Old Testament, and the Church's history during and after the New Testament, testifies to our triumphs and failures of faith, the amazing blessings He bestows when we walk with Him and the sad futility of our lives when our rebellious natures assert themselves and we try to “go it alone.” No human being deserves the free gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation that the Father gives us through His Son's life, death and resurrection. But when we recognize that we are truly “last” and keep our eyes focused on Him in faith, we will see that the narrow gate indeed is wide enough for us – that we who were last will be first.
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be