When Isaiah proclaimed that remarkable prophecy we just heard in our first reading, the Jews of his time must have been shocked. From the time of Abraham they’d seen themselves as God’s Chosen People…and indeed they were. But for what purpose were they chosen?
Because of their unique status, they saw salvation as something only a few would experience, namely them. God’s heavenly banquet would be for a select few. Then they hear Isaiah, a prophet claiming to speak for God Himself, telling them something very different.
Isaiah describes a holy gathering where people of every nation of the world enter God’s house. All are invited by God; all are brought into His presence; all worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and to all of them He reveals His glory. Not only that, but speaking for God Himself, Isaiah says, “Some of these I will take as priests and Levites.”
And so, here in the depths of this Old Testament prophecy, we find Jesus Christ present; for it is Jesus who will make a new priesthood, derived not from genealogy, but from faith. It will be a priesthood that ministers to the Gentiles, that takes the Word of God to the world, a priesthood founded by Christ Himself and made present through the apostles. Isaiah is preparing God’s people to accept the truth of salvation, that God desires it for all, Jew and Gentile – a desire later fulfilled by Jesus when He instructs the apostles to announce the Good News:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always…” [Mt 28:19-20]
Yes, this is the new heaven and new earth that Isaiah speaks about later in this same prophecy. And how it must have shaken those who heard it, who no doubt asked, if only to themselves, “Is salvation really for all these people?”
Hundreds of years later, this same question is posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel passage: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” [Lk 13:23]
Why did this unnamed person ask it? Is he simply asking, “Hey, Jesus, what are the odds I’ll win this salvation lottery of yours?” Or maybe, as a Jew he thought he had an inside track on salvation: he knew the Law, obeyed the rules, did all he was supposed to do as a sign of his justification. When you think of it this way, you can almost hear the complacency in the question, can’t you? Or maybe he was complacent because he knew Jesus…that as a disciple he thought he had an inside track...had walked by Jesus’ side as He taught in the streets...had shared meals with Him. Wouldn’t this be enough?
Whatever his reasons, I’m sure he was surprised when he didn’t get a simple Yes or No answer. It was really the wrong question. How many will be saved isn’t the important thing. The important question, the one you and I should really be concerned about is: “How can we be saved?” And this is the question Jesus answers.
Thankfully, God’s ways are so very different from ours. His judgment and His mercy are perfect But they are so different that we always question.
Some years ago, at a vigil service for a parishioner, his wife spoke to me about him. “He rarely went to Mass,” she said. “He fought in two wars, and encountered unspeakable things. He saw a lot of death, some of it he caused himself. I think he spent a lifetime trying unsuccessfully to come to grips with it all. I know he hadn’t gone to confession in years.” And then she asked me, “How will God judge him?”
It’s really the same question, isn’t it: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” It’s seems to be a question we never cease asking.
About a dozen years ago, I worked for a high-tech firm in New England. One morning a young co-worker, knowing I was deacon, asked if she could speak with me privately. She began to talk about her older brother. He was her hero, a bright, talented, seemingly happy young man who could do no wrong in her eyes. He had a good job with a major public relations firm, and even talked about starting his own business one day soon. He seemed to be doing so well.
And then for reasons she simply could not understand he turned to hard drugs. He became addicted. Within months he had lost his job and had even been arrested in some drug buying sting operation. Then tragically, the week before, he died of an overdose, which they suspect was intentional.
“He was always so good, so kind, so helpful to everyone,” she said. And then she asked, “Will Mark spend eternity in hell?” Once again we hear it: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
How I answered isn’t important. How Jesus answered is. For He took this simple question and used it to teach us about salvation.
Yes, the door is narrow and we can’t pin our hopes on the mere fact that we’re paid-up church-going people. And those words “depart from me” [Lk 13:27] are a stark and chilling reminder that the stakes are high. But God in His mercy calls us…again, and again, and again. Only He knows what’s in the human heart. And we can’t ignore what we heard in today’s 2nd reading from Hebrews: “…do not disdain the discipline of the Lord…for whom He disciplines, He loves” [Heb 12:5-6]. It’s no coincidence that the word discipline has its origins in the word disciple.
We don’t fully understand this mystery of salvation, a salvation not limited by law, ritual, or our own expectations of who will or won’t be saved. Salvation is a gift from a God whose love is so expansive it includes the entire human family. Our God respects our freedom, takes our decisions seriously, and accepts the consequences of our decisions, even when we choose to reject Him. And this same loving God, whose heart overflows with mercy and forgiveness, always offers His us His healing grace. But we must still do our part.
But we mustn’t be too quick to condemn ourselves, and we certainly shouldn’t condemn others. When we’re conscious of and upset about the things we’re getting wrong, we can count ourselves among the 'last' of Luke's Gospel and that’s when we have a chance. That’s when we’re more likely to accept help, help from others, and God’s help and forgiveness.
You and I are far from perfect but when the time comes I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in God’s presence…and perhaps also surprised by the others we’ll meet there, just as they’ll be surprised to see us.
We might well encounter that man, plagued by his memories of all those battlefields, who spent a life wrestling with his conscience and with God. Or the young man who in his last moments might well have turned to His Savior in repentance and thankfulness for the offer of salvation.
Yes, brothers and sisters, the stakes are high, and the last thing we want to hear from God is, “Depart from me” [Lk 13:27]. How much better to hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come, share your master’s joy” [Mt 25:23].