by Daniel Harrell
It can be bad manners in suburban America to talk about failure and loss. America is the land of the winner. Everybody gets a trophy. Trophies used to be rare things—sterling silver cups bought from jewelry stores and engraved for truly special accomplishments. But these days, with trophies and medals mass-produced and mass-marketed, they’re given out as a given. We Americans, we need affirmation and awards, constant assurance that we really are all number one. In Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — every player gets at least one. Nationally, the soccer organization spend as much as 12 percent of its annual budgets on trophies.
We are natural born inclusivists, unwilling to hurt anyone’s feelings by leaving them out. Confrontation is avoided. Rejection does too much psychological harm. It certainly does spiritual harm. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus Christ, regarded as the Lord of Inclusivism, draws a hard line: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Ouch. In Matthew’s gospel, the narrow door is the narrow gate, “and a hard road leading to life. There are few who find it.” In John’s gospel, the narrow gate is none other than Jesus himself: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, …no one comes to the Father except through me.” Such exclusivist language gets minimized by those sensitive over ever closing the door on anyone. The Lord of All has no such scruples: To those shut out he says, “Go away from me, evildoers… to that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth… to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
If this disturbs you, and it should, you basically have three options. The first most obvious is to stop believing in Jesus. What kind of Savior fails to save everybody, leaving some to languish in fire forever? The second option is to set aside your conclusions and believe in Jesus anyway, no matter how irrational he sounds sometimes. While an honest choice, this is very difficult, profoundly humbling and hard to explain. Try to do so and you sound anti-intellectual, if not downright ridiculous.
The third option is dishonest but very popular. Convince yourself that Jesus agrees with whatever you think to be right. Call yourself a Christian while placing your own preferences above anything Jesus actually said. Sure, he said that he is the only way to God, but what he really meant was that he is only the best way. Eternal fire is just a metaphor for the bitter outcomes of being self-absorbed, the hellish anxiety and cynicism you feel when you think about nobody but yourself. Can you imagine an eternity of that? Sure, anxiety and cynicism already fill up my present. Compared to burning forever, it’s not that bad. Besides, self-absorption has its upsides. I get to drive a really nice car.
Perhaps the popularity of option three is why Jesus turns up the heat. Metaphorical or not, life outside of the kingdom of God is no life. Believing in Jesus does mean trusting he knows what’s good for us, that he gives what we need despite what we ask. His concern is for our ultimate well-being over our immediate wishes. He couches our ultimate well-being in terms of eternal life and treasure in heaven, but the door to get in is tight. You have to strive to enter. Other English translations use synonyms like, “Make every effort.” “Work hard.” Even “Struggle.” The Greek verb is “agonize.” A trophy is not automatic.
According to social scientists who study these things, all those participation trophies kids receive don’t inspire them to succeed. Instead, ceaseless affirmation inoculates kids against accepting failure and loss. Once failure happens, as it always does, these kids are so demoralized that they choose to cheat rather than risk failing again. If children know they routinely get rewarded just for being themselves, where’s the incentive to improve? Why bother trying to do right and do better if there are no consequences to staying just as you are?
Loss can be you teacher. You learn a lot when you fail. As Garrison Keillor once quipped to the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, “Failure is essential/ a form of mortality. Without failure, we have / a poor sense of reality.” Then again, as an old Gen X movie title put it, reality bites. “Strive to get through the narrow door,” Jesus said, “because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not be able to.” That’s not good news. If trying means dying, why bother? What just a few chapters prior was all about “knocking and the door would be opened,” has now become into a knock-down drag out fight in squeeze through.
Years ago I was furnishing a new apartment when a local department store ran a clearance sale on good furniture cheap. As a poor seminary student, this was a Godsend. The only catch was that the sale was a one-day event. Supplies were limited. Time’s running out. I had to get there early. When I arrived at 6:30 AM, I was first in line two hours before the doors opened. Other customers didn’t appear until closer to sale time. As the line lengthened, the competition increased. Late-arriving customers began pressing for pole position. Though an aspiring minister of the gospel, there was no way the last were going first once these doors opened up. Still, as a civilized and educated graduate student, there was no way I was going to run through a department store with a herd of crazed shoppers to fight over a dresser and side table. I had my dignity. So I thought. But when the manager, trembling, keys in hand and a frightened look on his face, finally loosed the pressing stampede through the front door, I galloped along with everybody else, going so far as to shove one pushy old lady into men’s underwear. I got my furniture too. Late-comers got nothing.
“Many will try to enter and will not be able to,” Jesus said. His discouraging word came in response to a fairly straightforward question. Someone asked, “Will only a few be saved?” Given the degree of difficulty required to squeeze through the narrow door, it only made sense that people would wonder. In typical fashion, Jesus answered a different question than the one being asked. Asked about numbers, he answered in terms of time. It’s not that the narrow door is skinny; it’s that its closing. Supplies are limited. Time’s running out. Link verse 24 and 25 together and you read, “Many will try to enter and will not be able once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door.”
This should remind you of the wise and foolish bridesmaids from Matthew’s gospel last Sunday. That parable had ten women with wedding day responsibilities. They were assigned to provide torchlight for the customary procession from the bride’s house (where the ceremony was held) to the groom’s house (for the reception). The Wedding Reception represents heaven and the bridegroom is Jesus, only he’s late for the party. When he finally appears (with intentional second coming overtones), five bridesmaids are ready. They’d packed surplus torch fuel just in case. Jesus called them wise. The other five, unprepared and irresponsible, scurry off to find a gas station, but by the time they get back it’s too late. These bridesmaids are now party crashers and nobody is letting them in. Though they knock and plead, the bridegroom informs them, “Truly I tell you, I do not know who you are.”
Unlike many of Jesus’ parables that start with some sort of disparity in play, the ten bridesmaids was an equal-opportunity parable. Each woman had the ability and capacity to do right by the bridegroom, the question is whether they will. Each was free to choose whether to help or to hurt, to care or to disregard, to shine light or leave dark. From the outset God made us moral creatures with freedom to decide—our choices affect others, affect God and affect ourselves.
This morning’s passage has another door closing with a banquet behind it. Another knock and refusal to open. Another “I don’t know who you are.” In the parables from both last week and this, surprised knockers try to knock some sense into the party host. They try to jog his memory. “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets. Remember?” But all their pounding is futile. “I do not know who you are. Get away from me, evildoers.” Five bridesmaids get locked out for being fools. Here the late-comers get excluded because they were were evil. The struggle to get through the narrow door demands the hard hoe of obedience. “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus warned, “but only those who do my Father’s will.” Not everyone gets a trophy.
Last June, an Oklahoma Little League canceled participation trophies because of a budget shortfall. A furious parent complained to a local reporter, “My children look forward to their trophy as much as playing the game.” This is the problem. Actually, the problem may be I’m bitter because I never got a trophy. But Psychologists who’ve noted increases in narcissism and entitlement among college students warn that when living rooms are filled with participation trophies, it’s part of a larger cultural message: to succeed, you just have to show up. It’s a twisted message that’s twists the gospel too. Jesus loves me just as I am, he has to. What kind of loving God would he be if he didn’t love everybody no matter what? Grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home. I’m mostly along for the ride.
Jesus’ spoke these words on his ride to Jerusalem. He knew his time was short. He also knew his audience—persecuted people deserving salvation, privileged people who presumed God would save them no matter what. Jesus often called them hypocrites, option three people: Convinced God agreed with whatever they thought to be right and would reward them for their contrived righteousness. Throughout a long and rocky relationship with the Lord, God tried to set them straight. He sent prophet after prophet after prophet to pave a straight and narrow way for his people to follow, to teach them to love as they had been loved. Supplies now limited. The time was now short. Jesus was the last of the prophets—a final chance, so to speak, to hear the word of the Lord. But they will do to him what they did to all who told them what they didn’t want to hear. By the end of this chapter, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
And because they were not willing, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets you’ve killed in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” The “you” are those who presumed God’s kingdom belonged only to them, that somehow a seat at heaven’s wedding reception was their inherited entitlement, their trophy for just showing up. While there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation, obedience is required to show you’ve received it. The word obedience derives from the verb to hear. To hear the gospel means nothing if you don’t do the gospel too. “By their fruit you will know them,” Jesus said. If you don’t act like a Christian you must not be one.
But who acts like a Christian all the time? Even if you do, the irresistible temptation is to get all proud and self-righteous about it. Sin lurks at both ends. This is why repentance always accompanies obedience. We repent of our failures, yes, but sometimes we need to repent of our successes when they go to our heads. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power and other good things in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
As a minister who’s shoved old ladies in department stores, I’ve sinned at both ends and everywhere in between. I know what is evil and wrong and do it anyway. I know my attitudes and actions hurt others, hurt God and hurt me, and still I do it. I’m a deep-dish hypocrite. I know my poison and continue to drink it. This is not good. Some will think it good—good for the preacher to admit he’s a sinner. But don’t reward me for confessing my faults. Don’t give me trophies for just showing up. I want to do better. I agonize to get through that door.
For the apostle Paul, a former Pharisee, this agony was deadly—and appropriately so. Over and over again, Paul stressed that when it came to the kingdom of God, you had to die to get in. His old self, with its arrogance, indifference, greed and resentment all had to die so that his new self with its humility and compassion and love and gratitude could rise like Jesus out of the grave. Paul can actually happen. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Since we’ve been already raised we need to keep the rhythm for that day when we get raised forever. Every day, let arrogance die and humility rise. Let indifference die and compassion arise. Let greed and lust die and generosity arise. Let resentment die and gratitude and forgiveness arise. Practice resurrection in time for that last day when you close your eyes for the last time, then on that day, death will bring no surprises. Neither will be resurrection. We will have been rehearsing for it our whole lives.
“People will come from east and west, from north and south to eat in the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. The four directions used together means “everywhere.” Scripture describes the crowd at the Lord’s wedding reception as a multitude as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sands in the sea. With so many in mind, Jesus finally gets around to answering the question. Will only a few be saved? The surprising, shocking answer, even maddening perhaps for Jesus’ audience here, was that last place people, outcasts and sinners who knew it and who agonized over it, repentant yet rejected, dying to get in but presumably locked out of God’s kingdom, they end up with first place prizes. “Some who are last will be first,” Jesus said, meaning also, I bet, that “a few” will be more than anybody can count.