Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Those of you who follow me on Instagram know that I was away on vacation this week with my priest fraternity group. It was good to be with my brother priests to share with each other about what the Lord is doing in our lives and in our various ministries. But we also had time for some adventures.
A couple of days last week we did some hiking in the mountains. On this one occasion we were hiking up Georgia’s second highest mountain, Rabun Bald. At times, the climb was pretty steep and the pathway up somewhat narrow. We had to take our time and be careful where we stepped, otherwise we risked twisting an ankle, in the very least, or, worse, falling down the cliff. And I, for one, didn’t want to have to explain to Bishop Noonan how one of his priests fell off a mountain. In the end, we all made it up to the top and the reward was totally worth it. The view was beautiful! We were as high as the clouds and could see for miles. It was breathtaking.
On the way home on Friday, I was reflecting back on that hike and thinking about today’s readings. That experience from this week reminded me of our journey of faith, of how the Lord invites us to walk down the sometimes narrow path of Christian discipleship. There will be times when that journey will include going up what seem like steep mountains. At times, the journey will level off or have a decline. There will be moments when we have to watch our steps or else risk falling down. There may even be times when we do fall and are forced to stand back up and start a portion of the journey over again. We may even want to give up at times. But we have to persevere. We have to keep following the path that the Lord has laid in front of us because that is the only way for us to gain the reward of that beautiful mountaintop view…it is the only way for us to gain the reward of being invited to the banquet of heaven.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem and preaching the Good News, teaching the Jews and Gentiles alike about the Kingdom of God. He is asked a question by someone who has likely heard Him preaching and is looking for a deeper understanding of His teachings. It’s a question that even His apostles will eventually ask Him. Basically, the person is asking who can be saved?
Underneath that question is a sort of misunderstanding of a fundamental aspect of the salvation offered by Christ. Many of the Jewish people during the time of Jesus thought that salvation was determined solely by external factors – things like race or ritual. In fact, many believed that only Jews could actually enter into communion with God. To them, a non-Jewish person was seen as a sort of second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God. That is something that we have seen time and again in Scripture. Even in the Acts of the Apostles the followers of Jesus debate whether someone needed to convert to Judaism prior to becoming Christians. So many mistakenly believed that someone not only needed to be of the Jewish race to win God’s favor, but that they also had to follow even the most minute details of the Law of Moses and practice many of the rituals that had flowed out of that Law. Jesus came to turn that belief totally on its head.
Jesus uses this question as an opportunity to explain what truly matters when it comes to the idea of salvation. He explains that people from every corner of the earth will be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is an echoing of what the Prophet Isaiah speaks in our First Reading. Race had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Jesus also debunks the idea that following the ritual practices of Judaism in their entirety was necessary for salvation. In fact, He even goes so far as to say that many of those who practiced those rituals to the last detail would be excluded from God’s Kingdom. Those exterior rituals aren’t what really matters either. So what does?!
What matters is the heart. What matters is what’s going on inside the person. It’s about relationship. Salvation isn’t primarily contingent upon external appearances; instead, it’s about friendship with Jesus, and that’s rooted in our hearts. Do we truly know the Lord? Do we give Him our whole hearts?
The people in His parable who were excluded from the heavenly banquet complained that the Lord had actually taught in their streets. They were claiming to have known Him. They had heard His teaching; they had listened to His words of preaching; they had encountered Him in the streets, seen the many miracles that He performed, heard of His mighty deeds. And yet, they would not be saved. Because, as the Lord tells them, He does not know where they are from. They are strangers to Him because they never opened their hearts to Him.
That same possibility exists for each of us. When we get to the other side of life, when we see the Lord face to face after we pass from this world into the next, what will Jesus say to us? Will He look at us and say: “I do not know you”? Or will He call us by our names and say to us: “I’m so glad that you’re finally here. I’ve been waiting for you”?
The words that Jesus spoke to the individual who posed this question are the same words that He speaks to us today: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In other words, we must be in relationship with Him. He wants us to listen to His words, incorporating them into our hearts, allowing them to change us and lead us to deeper conversion. He wants us to experience the fullness of His love and allow that love to lead us to a deeper understanding of how we are called to live our lives. He wants us to go out and live the commandments, loving God and neighbor, evangelizing the world, and spreading the message of the Gospel even when it is difficult…especially when it is difficult.
It is so easy for us to fall into the trap of doing what the culture tells us is acceptable. It is easy for us to do what all of our friends are doing, to follow the crowd. It’s hard to stand up for what our faith teaches. It’s a challenge to live the Gospel values in a world that is leading us further and further away from God. But the words of the Lord today are very clear. If we don’t follow His teachings, if we don’t listen to His words, if we aren’t in relationship with Him, we risk missing out on the reward of the heavenly banquet. If we don’t stay on the narrow path up the mountain, we’ll miss that spectacular mountaintop view…we’ll miss seeing the face of God and being in everlasting communion with Him.
Today, let’s make sure that we’re staying focused on what truly matters. As we come forward to receive the Lord in Communion, let’s invite Him into our hearts in a new way. May we ask for the courage to follow His teachings, allowing them to change us. That is the only way forward; that is the only way to Heaven. The Lord is telling us to strive to enter through the narrow gate. Let’s recommit ourselves to that today.