Pentecost 16, Luke 13:22-30
“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” This is the question addressed to Jesus in today’s text. And we can understand this question. We may wonder about it ourselves.
How many people will be saved? The compassionate part of us would like all people to be saved. This is God’s desire too, which we know from First Timothy 2:3 (“God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”). And yet, we also notice that many people don’t seem to care about being saved. Why should the joys of heaven be open to those who aren’t interested, or who show very little concern about such things?
Being saved means to exit this life at the point of our death and enter into a new life where there is no sin, no aging, no evil, and no death. Being saved means entering into the presence of God—in a “new heaven and new earth,” as Isaiah described it in our first reading today (Isaiah 66).
Jesus makes it very clear that some people will be saved and others will not. Earlier in chapter 13 he compares Godless people to fig trees who don’t bear fruit. They will be cut down by the one who planted them, for why should they continue to take up valuable space and resources? In today’s verses the comparison is to those who make it into the house and those who don’t. At some point our time to enter runs out.
The man who asks the question about how many seems to assume that few will be saved. He probably thought this because of the common view in his day that Jews would be saved and Gentiles would not. However, he may have also thought this because of other teachings by Jesus—teachings such as those in this text.
As interesting as the question is – how many will be saved? – Jesus turns us away from it. His response, as usual, is concerned about something much more personal. He wants us to think about our own salvation, whether we are ready.
Jesus tells the man, and all of us: “strive to enter by the narrow door.” What does he mean by that phrase? What is the narrow door? Surely Jesus wishes us to grapple with that question as we seek to understand his plan of salvation.
Looking at this text, and considering it also in light of other things said by Jesus, we can see that the narrow door is a difficult door to enter. Jesus says we will need to strive to enter it. That word “strive” can also be translated as “struggle.” It comes from the world of athletics, as contestants struggle with their training and their effort to win. The message here is clear: the narrow door is a difficult door.
Last weekend my family and I drove through West Virginia on the way home from our vacation in the Midwest. While we were there in the state we decided to do some hiking, which meant that we got off the big, wide interstate highways and drove on some very narrow, winding roads in order to get to the trails. Let me tell you, it is far more difficult to drive on those narrow, winding roads than it is on the highways. And yet, in one way it’s safer. When you’re on those wide, straight, interstate highways it’s much easier to crank up the radio, get lost in your thoughts, relax and ease back in the seat. Those are the roads where people don’t always pay attention, and sometimes even doze off. But when you’re on a narrow, winding road through the mountains, you are wide awake.
“Entering through the narrow door” means being awake and attentive to God’s path. Now I realize our text from Luke talks about a door and not a pathway, but the pathway language can be found in Matthew’s version of this teaching. There Jesus says: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV). Here Jesus talks directly about the difficulty. And notice too – he seems to imply that those who make it are few.
The narrow door is a difficult door. Some commentators have noted that we cannot carry a lot of baggage if we want to enter through this door. We must leave our possessions and our own ideas behind in order to fit through. Other commentators have noted that we need to be fit and trim to make it through. Not fit in body but fit in spirit. This echoes Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4: “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”
In addition to the idea of difficulty, the narrow door image also implies a very specific place. Because the door is narrow we cannot just head in the general direction and expect to find it. We must know the exact path.
When I was trying to get through the mountains of West Virginia I had to know where the passes were. I couldn’t just head east and automatically run into Virginia. There are only a few, narrow roads that make it through the mountains.
Likewise, Jesus tells us that there is one, narrow door that leads to salvation. Some people don’t know where the door is. Other people know about the door but don’t go through it. Once the Master of the House shuts the door – which He could do at any time – we cannot enter it. So there is an urgency to entering it. Even if we see signs that the door might be closing soon, the door is so narrow that we might get caught in a rush trying to make it through. It’s better to enter the door now, while there is time.
The narrow door is both difficult and specific, requiring a proper life and a proper faith. The great Church Father Cyril of Alexandria speaks to these two aspects of the door as he addresses this text. At a time when our fellow Christians in Egypt are having such great difficulties I thought it would be particularly appropriate to quote this great saint from that land. He says: “I will now address the question of why the door to life is narrow. Whoever would enter must first before everything else possess an upright and uncorrupted faith and then a spotless morality, in which there is no possibility of blame, according to the measure of human righteousness. One who has attained to this in mind and spiritual struggle will enter easily by the narrow door and run along the narrow way.”
As we think about the specific nature of this door, and placing faith in its identification, as mentioned by Cyril, we are led to hear more from Jesus on this matter. He may have been setting the stage and encouraging discovery in his conversation with the man in today’s text, but he would soon tell people very specifically about his role in the way to salvation.
In the book of John, Jesus gives a series of statements about himself that identify him as our savior. In one of these (chapter 10), Jesus says “I am the door. If anyone enters by me he will be saved.”
These words of Jesus make clear his identification as our Savior, the door to life everlasting. But of course it is his actions which speak even louder. Jesus died an innocent death on the cross to show us that our sins are paid for. And then he rose from the dead to show us that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.
Today’s text is an invitation and encouragement to walk through the door of Christ—that is, to place one’s faith in him as their savior from sin and the way to eternal life. The “striving” a person needs to do is the understanding of his message, the leaving behind of one’s old ideas of salvation and the embracing of the life to which he calls us.
For those of us who have already gone through the door and have placed our faith in Jesus, this text serves as further encouragement to stay on the narrow path. We must be careful not to fall asleep on the road, or stray to one side or the other. We must acknowledge that Jesus’ path is narrow – we will give up some freedoms to follow him. We will conform our life to God’s Word—the faith and morals he teaches, not what the world says is okay.
Like the man in today’s text, people are curious about how many will choose to follow this path, or who will make it through the door. The man in the text guessed that few would be saved. Jesus’ words in Matthew suggest that he may be right. And yet, Jesus also says in today’s text: “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” This suggests a great multitude of people who are saved, and reminds us that they come from all parts of the earth.
These words of Jesus are a quote from Psalm 107. This beautiful psalm gives thanks for those who are redeemed from trouble, listing in particular four different kinds of people who needed redemption. Some of these people were in trouble because of their own sin, some were just victims of circumstance, but each was moved to cry out to the Lord for mercy. God heard their cries of faith and saved them.
So it is with us. When we cry out to the Lord in faith He will be there to save us. His salvation will not be a life that is easy, but it will be a life that leads to heaven. In the name of Jesus our savior, amen.