Readings: Romans 8:26-30; Psalm 13; Luke 13:22-30
The readings present us with a number of puzzles. The first one is between the first reading and the gospel. Paul teaches us that even if we do not know how to pray as we ought the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. God who knows everything in our hearts hears the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit, pleas that are according to the will of God. The gospel by contrast presents us with a picture of God refusing to open the door to some of those who come knocking: 'I do not know where you come from', he says.
This is doubly confusing for it not only sets up this contrast between the two readings today but it seems to contradict what Jesus taught earlier in the gospel, in particular 'knock and the door will be opened to you'. It must mean that what is being asked for when the door remains closed is not according to the will of God, it is not an interpretation by the Spirit of the desires of the human heart. So what is wrong with it? What enters in to deflect this prayer and make it powerless? Is it another example of the prayer of the Pharisee that we heard about last Sunday, a praying which is only 'to himself' and not to God?
It must be that there is something wrong with the question, 'will those who are saved be few'. Like the Pharisee praying in the Temple, the questioner has his eye on other people. He does not ask 'will I be saved' which seems to be the only relevant question in this regard. A particular kind of interest in the question of salvation is a distraction from the main business of following Jesus. To make it a speculative question, one for the theological armchair, is indecent when it is an urgent question, a real question, about the well-being of human beings, now and in the world to come. For the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar this question is not only indecent, it is contrary to the supreme law of charity. Charity, loving all men and women as Christ loves them, obliges us to hope for the salvation of them all, their eternal well-being. If I want to ask this kind of question it should only be in relation to my salvation that I should ask it.
Balthasar learned this, of course, from the gospels. So in today's passage Jesus turns the question back on the questioner: 'will you be saved?' Do you know the way to the door? Do you know how to live so that when you arrive at the door you will be recognised as a member of the household? So we must not presume - a presumption implied in the original question, it seems. Worry about your own salvation, and what is needed now, if you are to prepare for it.
There is much about doors in the New Testament, the door that will open when we knock and today's door that will remain closed when we knock. In John's gospel Jesus describes himself as the door, the way by which the sheep enter and leave the sheepfold. In the Book of Revelation he is the one who comes knocking on our door and it is up to us to open: 'behold I stand at the door and knock'.
Once again Jesus presents a paradox: 'some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last'. If we want to play a certain game, and enter into the mathematics of salvation, then we are, once again, standing alongside the Pharisee in the Temple measuring his performance against that of the Publican. Which of them is first and which last? Instead let us travel with Jesus towards Jerusalem where these puzzles, paradoxes and questions find their mysterious resolution. The Cross of the Lord, the tree of life, is also the key that unlocks the mystery of the divine love and mercy. This is how the door is opened, by him sacrificing himself for all who are unworthy to enter. Through him they are redeemed and made children of God by the Spirit, and so they can turn up at the door and be recognised as part of the household, sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father, adopted as brothers and sisters of the Lord by the gift of the same Spirit. We will not then arrive confident and presumptuous, comparing ourselves with others, and wondering about their salvation. We will arrive speechless and hesitant, not knowing how to pray as we ought, overwhelmed by the gift we are receiving, the infinite mercy of God. The Spirit will then bear witness with our spirit that we are indeed children of God, no longer servants and slaves but sons and daughters, no longer outsiders but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of heaven.
The Magnificat antiphon for 20 December gives us another related image. Jesus is the Key of David, the one who comes to lead the captive from prison, to free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Through the work of Christ, all human beings - this is our hope - are made able to take a place at the feast in the kingdom of God.