Twenty First Sunday of the Year
Jesus rarely gives straight answers to questions posed to him. Today is no exception. Though the question, ‘Will only a few people be saved?’ seems straightforward, the question seems to be about personal inclusion in the final headcount rather than as a concern for others. Jesus' reply to the question flips the focus back on the questioner. Jesus is asking, "Are you seeking my way of life or prestigious status?" Those who seek rank will find it, and find it shallow. Those who follow Jesus down his road and through his gate will find that they are the least made first, the lowly who will shine with God's own glory.
Isaiah imagines nations traveling together as one humanity to God. Isaiah says that God will come to unite all peoples from all corners of the world. Those captives, those refugees or ‘fugitives’ as Isaiah calls them are agents of the God whose special care is for refugees, slaves and the marginalised. We worship this God when we put their needs first.
Isaiah is implying that creating even greater distances among one another still occurs. This is something to reflect on as we approach Migrant and Refugee Sunday next month. In Australia, and many other countries, we are powered by myths of generosity, compassion, and a strong sense of the ‘fair go’. There is also a strong sense of entitlement. Israel believed that God was its special patron boasting of God’s special care which left other nations outside God’s embrace.
For Isaiah, being chosen was not an exclusive privilege. It was an inclusive responsibility. It was less about ‘specialness’ and more to do with ‘responsibility’ for others. This seems so much behind the treatment of the Palestine people for over 70 years. God’s love and concern is always for the liberation of all people. Then there are those who live in a different universe where the priorities of God become their priorities which they extend to others particularly people who are most marginalised, very vulnerable and highly traumatised. Today’s readings underscore God’s universal concern as Pope Francis pointed out in 2019, ‘……the presence of migrants and refugees – and of vulnerable people in general – is an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society. That is why it is not just about migrants. When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow; in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well-regarded nowadays.’
The Gospel focuses on striving to enter God’s Reign. Striving will not result in the relationship that we are invited to. A sign of God's salvation [liberation] is that ‘people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and sit at table in God's reign.’ This can cause resentment. However could strangers and society's marginalised enter the narrow door first?
The great surprise is when we might say, ‘We once ate and drank in your company, you taught in our streets,’ and the response is, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ As Israel is not above other nations in God’s eyes, nor are Jesus’ followers. Drinking and eating with Jesus does not mean special status in God’s eyes. The only ‘superiors’ are called ‘the least’ or ‘the last.’ They are ‘first’ in God’s eyes. The sign of being chosen is connected with the acceptance of others into lives - not by separating ourselves. The late Bishop Joe Grech once said, ‘Those who build walls will end up being prisoners of the walls they build.’
The ‘narrow gate’ is about changing our lives, refocusing, serious shifts in priorities as to what and whom we call important. These changes are the flame of love ignited in our hearts by God. It is by going through this narrow gate that our work for peace, justice, and reconciliation takes place. Pope Francis reminds us that is not just about the other, but also about us. Our welcome affects all of us and helps shape the kind of society we want to be and the kind of people we want to be. Our closed hearts for some years in this country and elsewhere do not hurt just the other but also cause a moral injury to ourselves. It is not something we often do not realise.
Those entering God’s Reign identify with Jesus. Reflecting the heart of God who is with us and always with us, we show love, share, touch, care and serve unlike those claiming to be Jesus’ dining and drinking companions. They had their hallelujahs, sacraments, scriptures, voices of people, prayer, but learnt nothing and remained narrow-minded, holding on to their false securities, pretensions, selfishness, or fears that represent a shrunken world. Their right to be at the Table come through an invitation to all not by their striving. God’s Reign is open to all especially those who are shut out from their 'guest lists' – like the unwashed and unwanted. It is another instance of the great reversal. God’s reign will not be shackled by self-centred human criteria. Rather than relying on mateship with Jesus, we need to be 'conscious Christians' people who bring forth peace, justice and fullness of life; people of heart with the capacity for great compassion and solidarity with the oppressed. Clearly, we cannot save ourselves and whenever we strive to be perfect or focus on sin and forgiveness, we remain the center of our attention. The passage through Jesus' narrow gate takes us beyond self-concern into another realm of knowing we are loved and are so free to love any and everyone else.
Who are the first and the last? We know who they are: the excluded and marginalised for economic, social, religious, cultural, and political reasons; more and more, those who do not count because they are not seen to be productive. There are voices from the margins - powerless in worldly terms, pushed beyond our imaginations – that speak prophetically to us today. They are our First Peoples and our Last Peoples and the emerging people from the Pacific as well as people living with all kinds of mental and physical disabilities, people living on our streets and the unemployed – people abandoned by their governments, the churches, and the world community. These voices from the edges can open us to a new future - a future that is humanitarian, compassionate and generous. Our contact with people who are different can bring out the best or the worst whether with refugees and asylum seekers or the First Nations People who have over 60,000 years of wisdom to share. Those who come to our shores have much to share with us culturally, socially, spirituality and physically. We have demonised them, refused to listen with heart to their stories. And it is the silence that reinforces the demonisation and the inhumane treatment of these people. Anywhere but here!!
The ’narrow gate’ is about promoting a ‘globalisation of compassion’ to counter what Pope Francis calls a ‘globalisation of indifference’ where we live in a ‘……culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are ………… illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalisation of indifference. ……..We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.’
Jesus invites us into an inverted or up-side down world. Here, we are loved by a God who pursues us and welcomes us into a relationship distinguished by generosity, service, and mercy. It’s a relationship defined by a ‘love’ which by its nature takes us out of ourselves. We see that when we care for one who is sick. We see that when we raise our children. We see that in families. It is about solidarity, not individualism. It’s about community, not aloneness. It’s about sharing, not taking. It’s about service, not self-satisfaction.
Grant, O God,
that your holy and life-giving Spirit
may so move every human heart
and especially the hearts of the people of this land,
that barriers which divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear and hatreds cease;
that our divisions being healed
we may live in justice and peace.
Through Jesus Christ, Amen.