Someone said to him, Sir, will there be only a few saved?
In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus on his way to Jerusalem has been sounding various dark warnings: Alas for you... I tell you, this generation will have to answer for every prophet’s blood (11:50); The Master will come on a day he does not expect and cut him off (12:46); Unless you repent you will all perish as they did (13:3&5); Cut down this unfruitful tree; why should it take up the ground? (13:7).
We rightly think of St. Luke as the Gospel writer who puts most emphasis on the compassion, the human tenderness, the mercy of Jesus. St. Luke is the one who alone gives us the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the story of the repentant thief; who records the dying words of Jesus, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (23:34). From the beginning Jesus has been announced as the Saviour, the Messiah (cf. e.g. 2:11): God’s appointed Herald of mercy and life and salvation, not just for Israel but for the whole human race. Nevertheless, with the other Gospel writers, Luke does not hesitate to warn that not all receive this salvation. To use St. Paul’s language in Romans, on the one side, there is glory and honour and peace; on the other side, there is retribution, trouble and distress (cf. Rm 2:7-10). The choice is stark, and terrible. So this man in the crowd, presumably in some trepidation and alarm, asks Jesus: Will there be only a few saved?
Very typically, Jesus here side-steps the direct question. He has no intention of satisfying our curiosity about the hidden mysteries of God’s will. Instead he tells us what to do. ἀγωνιζεσθε he says. Strive, fight, battle, make a great effort, focus your energy, be single minded in your determination! Be sure that there is only one way to life, and it’s narrow, and difficult! The original audience of Jesus would easily imagine here the little postern gate in a walled City. The heavily laden merchants could not enter that without leaving their wealth behind. The crowds pouring in through the main gates would not even notice it. In St. Matthew’s Gospel the saying of Jesus here is expanded: The gate is wide and the way easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many (7:13).
The discourse of Jesus according to St. Luke becomes harsher yet. From the idea of a narrow door he passes to that of a closed door. Lord, open to us! they cry, just as the five foolish virgins did in the parable (Mt 25:12). The answer they receive is enough to freeze the blood. I do not know where you come from. Get away from me, you workers of iniquity! (Lk 13:27; Ps 6:8). Then, he says, there will be weeping and grinding of teeth...
I suppose that these sayings of Jesus have always been hard for people to hear, but surely especially so nowadays. At least here in the secular West, we have largely lost our sense of personal responsibility. Certainly in general we have lost our sense of sin. We are the inheritors of the easy optimism of the 1960's, so we find it hard to accept the reality of human wickedness. We want everything to be given us as a free hand-out, and have no appetite for devoting hard effort to the work of our own salvation. All the more, then, do we modern people need to listen very carefully to what Jesus says. And what does he say? Surely above all: Do not presume on your salvation! Strive to attain it, as if everything depended on your own effort, even while knowing that all is a free gift of God. Realise that in this business the stakes are very high indeed. Be aware that you personally could land up among those who are counted as last, and ultimately are cast out.
It seems to me that a major feature of modern Christianity, pretty well across the denominations, is a presumption of universal salvation. Scripture and Tradition stand massively against that idea. We have multiple sayings of the Lord and of his Apostles which explicitly deny it. But it’s comfortable and consoling. It goes well too with the idea that everything is relative, and life-style choices should be completely free, and every exclusion must be rejected. The trouble is, if everyone will be saved anyway, there would seem to be no real need to evangelise. We would struggle also to explain why anyone should bother to be especially virtuous, or even particularly moral. The asceticism of the Saints seems then merely a matter of embarrassment. As for the Church: without any urgent mission of salvation, she must morph into one more philanthropic society, dedicated to making this world a better place. What Jesus says in the parable of the sower can surely then be applied to our times: These people have heard the Word of God, but the devil has come and carried it away from their hearts, in case they should believe, and be saved (Lk 8:12).
Today’s Gospel though does not end on a negative note. We are left with an image of people of every description taking their place at the heavenly Feast. And we are reminded that if there are those now first who will be last, it’s also true that the last will be first. In the light of Christ, then, we need despair of the salvation of no one. The serial abortionist, the hopeless drug addict, the Jihadi warrior, the depressed person with suicidal thoughts: they can all be saved. And we can and should strive for their salvation, just as we strive for our own. St. Thérèse of Lisieux did that. With St. Paul she was ready to offer her life, and all the effort of her prayer, so that those who seem outside the possibility of salvation might be brought in. And this for her was simply a response to the love of Jesus for sinners, among whom she considered herself the chief. Thérèse loved Jesus with total generosity, on her own behalf, on their behalf, on our behalf. And Jesus responded by releasing a flood of graces, a shower of rose petals, at her intercession. May St. Thérèse then pray for us, for all whom we love, for all for whom we pray: that all may come to know and love Jesus Christ our Lord, and so enter into life.