The Narrow Door Teaching of Jesus

The parable of the narrow door gives us a serious look at Jesus’ values and at the things that matter most to him.  It also leave us with the impression that Jesus is very disappointed, maybe even sad:   sad that only a few will be “saved”, sad that many will not enter the door, sad that many of his people will, because of their own choices, exclude themselves from the Feast, sad that Jerusalem continues to resist his love and desire to bring it to a more inclusive kind of love. 

Jerusalem itself is an important element in many of his stories, because Jerusalem is Jesus’ objective as he moves through the towns and villages of the Judean hills.  His mission is to confront the domination system in the capital city, to challenge the complicity of the Temple priesthood in the Roman occupation, and to undo centuries of clerical privilege and abuse by claiming that all people are loved equally by God.  So now he leaves Galilee and begins an itinerant ministry in Judea, inching ever closer to the city of his destiny.

‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ We hear the same question debated in our own day. There’s an old joke about St. Peter showing newcomers around heaven. When the tour comes near a private room with the doors closed, St. Peter puts his finger to his lips. “Quiet,” he says. “Don’t disturb them. Those are the Catholics.  They think they’re the only ones here.” (You can substitute any denomination or faith tradition here, they all make the same mistake of deciding who is saved and who isn’t.) In the Catholic tradition, we have had periods of time when many believed that unbaptized babies couldn’t be saved, that heretics went immediately to hell, that anyone who challenged the Pope was damned.  We are all too familiar with this idea of who is in and who is out. 

Jesus gives an answer to this question, though it’s not a direct one: he tells a story.  “He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, “Sir, open the door for us.”

There is a narrow door at this party, through which guests are supposed to enter, but the time comes — perhaps when the banquet is ready to begin — that the host gets up and closes the door. Eventually, there is knocking and pleading from outside the door from would-be attenders who arrived late. But the host simply says, “I don’t know you. Get out of here!” So what does it mean?

Jesus tells us,”Make every effort to enter through the narrow door…”  The phrase “make every effort” or “strive” is Greek agonizomai, which originally meant “engage in an athletic contest” and then “to fight, struggle.” The English word, “agonize” is nearly synonymous here, and the idea is that entering in this fashion is not going to be easy.  It’s like getting to work on time.  We might have to run a red light and speed a little, but we simply must be there on time.

Interestingly, the guests seem to know that they don’t enter in the main doors, they go around to the side, entering through a narrower door there.  It’s not clear why we have to strain to get through the door: maybe we need to lose that 20 pounds, or maybe there’s a crowd that is also pushing and trying to squeeze past, I don’t know.  Jesus says, “Many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to”. Why can’t they get in?  At this point the door is closed by the host, an apparently deliberate act on his part.  And those who had been unable to get inside before, now bang on the door, but the host claims he doesn’t even know these people. 

That seems a bit harsh at first, but I see these people as the ones who drop names at parties, or they try to crash a wedding for a couple they don’t even know.  They try to schmooze their way in, trying to establish some kind of phony relationship and connection with the host: “We ate and drank with you, and we hung out with you when you were in town.”  But as in Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins and the Sermon on the Mount, the host is portrayed as someone who is just plain tired of posers, and wants nothing more to do with them.

The Prophet Isaiah was the first to use party language:  “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain God will … swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; God will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” (Isaiah 25:6-8a)

This banquet, as we have always insisted here at Holy Redeemer, is “for all peoples” — that is, not just Jews, but also Gentiles. Not just Catholics, but Protestants; not just Christians, but Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs and Hindus. Believers, doubters and even non-believers. Jesus makes this same point when he says: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” This is the banquet that Jesus speaks of when praising the faith of the centurion, when he tells the parable of the great banquet, and also at the Last Supper.  Finally, it is the same banquet that the Book of Revelation  calls “The Wedding Feast of the Lamb.” 

Here’s a news flash: The banquet is now.  How we behave matters.  How we build the Kingdom matters. Many people profess faith in Jesus as the Christ, but then they vote for politicians who hoard resources instead of helping the poor.  They say they want separation of faith and politics, but when something as innocent and beautiful as the construction of an Islamic Center is built near Ground Zero in Manhattan, they speak words of hate and reiterate that Christianity is the only American religion.  They neglect the issues of simple justice that surround us, fooling themselves into thinking that God will just have to take care of everything himself in Heaven, in an afterlife because there’s nothing they can do.  Nevermind that Jesus’ own words and teachings do not allow for this corruption of the Gospel.

One of the paradoxes of this banquet is that the guests are honored inside at the same time as outsiders suffer judgment and anguish.  For many Christians who believe that their special brand of belief is the only right one, there will no doubt be some uncomfortable realizations when they, arriving at the fullness of the banquet themselves, find that the very ones they denied access to sacraments, to justice, to mutual respect—in short, the ones deemed “last”, are in reality “first” in God’s estimation.  Let us, then, in humility and with purpose, choose to really follow this Christ by doing what needs to be done, that we may enter the narrow door.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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