Expecting the Discomforting Reality of Discipleship
If the readings for this Sunday make you uncomfortable, then good. You were paying attention!
There are several reasons why you might be unsettled by the selections from Sacred Scripture that are proclaimed to us on this twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time. The first reason comes from the First Reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Is 66: 18-21). The original hearers of this prophetic speech would have also been made to feel uncomfortable, and for good reason.
Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD
The chosen people of God might have been unhappy to hear about how God’s desire is for all nations to come together, that the “people of God” — a favored term of the Second Vatican Council Fathers for the whole church — extended far beyond that of the community of Israel. If one cannot be separate, apart, holy in the literally sense — then what makes one special?
Yet, this is God’s desire and plan and vision of reality: all of God’s creation, every human person is a son or daughter, and therefore a brother and sister to each other. There might be times when it is more difficult than others for us to appreciate this about individuals or groups of people that we have come to dislike for a variety of reasons, but God’s wisdom insists that this is for us to overcome and that it is not God’s intention that we be divided.
This is indeed a hard truth, just as much for us today in the United States in 2013 as it was for the Israelites thousands of years earlier. The vilification of other people in other lands, the maintenance of prejudice and racial discrimination, the perpetuation of inequality in pay and social standing for women, the continued prohibition of certain civil rights for all — these are just some of the ways in which we struggle as a nation against God’s Will for inclusivity and recognition of all people as equal in the sight of their Creator.
Perhaps the Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7, 11-13) sets you on edge. It is quite understandable that it could, for the author of this letter makes it quite clear that being a disciple of Christ requires the acceptance of difficult or challenging times. And why shouldn’t it? Didn’t Jesus, the letter’s author explains, endure the trails and demonstrate the discipline necessary to do what is right? Why should we, who call ourselves Christians and bear the name of Christ, expect anything different?
At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.
In a sense, today’s Second Reading continues where last week’s left off. Jesus warned of the inevitable division that would arise in the lives of those who would risk being the prophets God had called them to be. Today we hear something of an affirmation that there are challenges ahead, but challenges that we should indeed embrace and that will come to their peaceful, fruitful, and just end eventually. We should not be afraid.
Finally, for those who pay close attention to the readings, the Gospel could make us uncomfortable for several reasons.
First of all, Jesus seems to do something that is commonplace in my experience of human nature and something that I’m sure frustrates a whole host of other people. He doesn’t answer a straightforward question!
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
And what is Jesus’s response?
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough…
He continues with an allegory about which I’ll say something more shortly, but for now it should be noted that Jesus does not outrightly answer the question posed to him. Some people might misread his response as an answer to the question and interpret his response that “many…will attempt” and see that as an indicator that only few will enter.
Yet, this is not exactly right. Jesus is redirecting the focus of the questioner and his other hearers (including us) away from what teachers often refer to as “stupid questions.” The curious (or perhaps cunning) person who posed this question basically asks the wrong question, so Jesus proceeds to respond the answer to the right question that was never asked!
Instead of being concerned with “who is in” and “who is out” those who follow in the footprints of Christ should be concerned with rising to the challenges of discipleship we are sure to encounter throughout our lives. It is like looking at two ways to enter a location — one is wide and easy and filled with the mob of those unwilling or unable to embrace the cross of discipleship, and the other is narrow and more difficult. Jesus says that we should not focus simply on the “end” (that is, who is “in” or “out”), but instead focus our attention on the “means” (that is, doing what is right even when it is difficult)!
This is again explained in the second part of today’s Gospel when Jesus presents an allegory that can be very uncomfortable for the hearers.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
Those would-be disciples that are so concerned about “who is in” and “who is out” must realize, Jesus explains, that just because you claim to be a Christian, just because you associate with Jesus, just because you think you’re in the “in-crowd,” doesn’t mean that you’re going to make it.
Actions speak louder than words and to be part of God’s Reign is demonstrated not by who you know, but how you live.
This is why Jesus can talk about all the people from, literally, all the ends of the earth that will “recline at the table in the Kingdom of God,” while those who were so sure of themselves and did little else will not. Those who think themselves the first in the line of Christian discipleship might experience a harsh awakening that they are indeed last in word and deed, while those who were written off because they didn’t think, look, or behave a certain prescribed way according to the self-identified “firsts-in-line” will be reclining with Christ at the table.