The narrow gate, irony, and The Usual Suspects: Sunday reflection

Source: Hot Air

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 13:22–30:

Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” 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. 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. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Consider yourself a fan of irony? In this sense, I mean “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.” We humans seem to have a love-hate relationship with irony, which is itself a bit … ironic. We love it in fiction and in historical tales, clearly. When the strong get shown to ultimately be weak, and especially when the weak are revealed to have superior strength, it appeals to our sense of justice and more to that to a sense of fighting against a status quo that can daunt us.

Hollywood keeps rediscovering irony as a classic mechanism to capture audiences’ imaginations, of late in “twist endings.” One of the best of these efforts was the film The Usual Suspects, which had layers of irony built into it (spoiler alert!). The weakest character in the gang and the man through whose eyes we see the tale unfold turns out to be almost all-powerful and the author of everything that took place. And that leaves us with the irony of grasping that we may not even know what really did take place, once we realize how unreliable the narrator turned out to be. We may have been entirely led astray — but even so, the film’s ride makes that incredibly entertaining.

Needless to say, that kind of irony in real life is usually a lot less amusing. We like to know what’s coming; most of us do not care for surprises in life, especially those that reveal that our understanding is off of reality by 180 degrees. No one finds unreliable narrators in life amusing, although they certainly can be bemusing for a time, to our great detriment. The irony of finding ourselves in exactly the opposite position we have assumed leaves us frightened and worried, not laughing, no matter whether a result of our own misreading or from having been led astray.

In other words, when it comes to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” we want to be in the latter half of that equation. And most of us probably figure we’re there already.

That’s precisely the situation that Jesus faces in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ mission was aimed at the people of Judea, the remnant of the Israelites that still maintained a community in Jerusalem, but whose ancestors rebelled against the Lord’s intentions for the Kingdom of God on Earth. Our first reading in Isaiah 66:18-21 recalls the Lord’s plans for Jerusalem and the Israelites as its priests and prophets:

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them; from them I will send fugitives to the nations: to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the LORD in clean vessels. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

The Lord’s plan for Israel was for it to become a beacon of His Word, where the adherence to the Word would itself make Israel so great that all of the nations would come to Jerusalem to learn the path to salvation. Instead, Israel continually chose the path of temporal power over the Lord’s work, which led to its division and then its downfall. Even in the midst of the Babylonian siege, long after the northern kingdom had been crushed by the Assyrians, the Judeans rejected defeat as a possibility, relying on the fact that the Lord had chosen them to be first. Jeremiah’s prophecies went unheeded and it took seventy years for the Judeans to come back to Jerusalem to rebuild.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns His disciples and followers that the Lord’s plan for salvation will be fulfilled — if not with their full cooperation, than using their defiance instead. Rather than rebuild Jerusalem for yet another attempt to get the Judeans to conform to the will of God, Jesus will launch the church that will bring a new “Jerusalem” to the nations.

In this context, Jesus’ teaching that the first will become last amounts to a real warning for the people around Jerusalem. It is not sufficient for salvation, Jesus instructs, to recline at table at the present in Jerusalem. Jerusalem as the disciples knew it would end within 40 years of this teaching anyway, and the Church would go out into the world out of necessity as well as out of conviction. To succeed, the disciples and apostles of Christ would need to model His teachings and demonstrate the power of the coming New Jerusalem in eternal life.

Paul writes to the Hebrews in our second reading how the discipline of the “narrow gate” to salvation demonstrates the Father’s love for us:

You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”

Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? 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.

Jesus makes clear that those who work for the Kingdom through repentance of sin and proclaiming of the Word will be first, or at least not last. That effort would require a rejection of the false narratives of temporal power and the Original Sin of equating ourselves to God, the path that keeps leading to our destruction. The Lord would make sure that His Word would get out to all of his children, yet another ironic reversal that no doubt didn’t get received well at the time Jesus delivered it.

If nothing else, this reminds us that Jesus is our most reliable Narrator, the One through whom truth gets told. Why follow another narrator at all, even those who want us to believe that we are God’s equal and material power is what matters most? That narrator goes by many names … and who knows? Maybe one of them is Keyser Sozë. And that’s the kind of irony that no one needs or wants.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Meal at Simon’s” by Philippe de Champaigne, 1656. On display at the Nantes Museum of Arts. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.