21st Sunday Year C

See Commentary on Luke 13:22-30

Homily 1 - 2007

Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem – where God raised him to new life, fullness of life, beyond imagining: human life perfected, intensified, transformed. He was making his way to Jerusalem - where the political and religious leadership executed him – because they saw him, rightly, as a threat, because he took, seriously, the fact that the God of Israel was a God who loved people, and who was particularly concerned about those oppressed and excluded by the dominant political and religious cultures.

He accepted death because he trusted that God would make sense of his conviction of the non-negotiable primacy of loving, and relating to everyone with respect and justice. Drawing on his sense of God, he had been free to imagine what ultimately was beyond imagining. He refused to be limited by what most others took for granted.

He accepted death because he hoped that - by cooperating with God’s grace, and in line with God’s vision - a whole new society, a whole new creation would be born. 

He believed, he hoped, he loved. He had nothing else to bring with him –  certainly not success – just faith in God, hope in the world, and profound love for both.

To the person wanting to know about the fate of others - Will only a few be saved? Jesus said effectively: Forget about that! Are you light enough to get through the door yourself? Be careful – for the door is narrow. You have to let go of everything; you have even to die to yourself. You let go of all trace of relying on yourself and your own resources, and of doubting the ultimate resilience of the way of love. All you bring with you is faith in God, hope for the Kingdom, and love for the world.

Throughout the Church today, this Sunday is recognised as Migrant and Refugee Sunday. Around the world, there are millions of people who have had to flee from their own homes, and move over borders into foreign countries, in order simply to stay alive, or to live in ways that respect their human dignity, or, for some, to be able to practise their religion freely. A recent report of the United High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are over 9 million refugees living beyond their national borders, and about 25 million displaced within their own borders.

Of recent years, the distinction between refugees, asylum seekers and migrants has been blurred and all are now seen in a negative light by some media and politicians. 

Indeed, in much of the Western World, refugees are not called refugees any more – they are called illegals. Sadly, many who have fled homes and families have not always found freedom and respect. They have been herded into refugee camps, kept from view, forgotten, and allowed, virtually, to rot.

Why? In some cases, the countries where they have arrived are themselves too poor and unorganised to absorb them. In other cases, the countries simply do not want to absorb them, because they are frightened –frightened, often, simply that they might be expected to share their common wealth, their luxuries, and their familiar, often wasteful and destructive, standards of living.

In our modern world, the sheer number of refugees can no longer simply be ignored.

They cannot be left to rot. But any realistic response to the problem - like the allied, and ongoing, problems of world hunger and deprivation, along with political tyranny, calls for imagination – the kind of imagination that Jesus had, that in turn called for conversion, and a readiness to let go, and to travel light. Entry into the Kingdom, after all, is through a narrow door. Do we really choose to be lean enough to fit?

Homily 2 - 2010

It seems that even Jesus is on to us to lose weight, to shed the excess. It’s a narrow door we have to negotiate. These vestments I’m wearing may even more be a hindrance than a help!

What’s Jesus talking about? to some extent it’s about the need for self-discipline if we want to be saved. But what does being saved consist of? saved from what? To me, being saved means being saved from everything that inhibits my capacity for deep happiness; and I do believe that true happiness results from being loved, believing it and being freed up to love – myself.

What is it that stops my loving? that stops my believing I’m loved? It’s not others. It’s not others’ fault:  “If only they were different!” (God help me if that’s the case!) But it’s not. The problem is me. I’m full up of myself.  The only way for me to be saved is to empty out myself, to quieten down my infinite wants. We learn our wants our desires, from each other. And, unless we do something, we easily envy each other, and it is so easy to move on from that to feel hostile towards others. When we begin to know ourselves, we begin to recognise the gently simmering hostility that we feel so often towards so many.

How do we thin down? How do we get through the narrow door? I think it begins by recognising our desires for what they are, and learning to sift out the “I wants” from the “I needs”. Then, we need to self-discipline, to say “no” to the spontaneous desires, to say “no” to our own raw self-interest. If we can quieten that down, we can begin to look at each other differently. Some of the spontaneous, so often unrecognised, hostility drains away. Loving others becomes more possible; happiness seems to elude our reach less often.

We need to bring our desires under control. And that is the job of our Ego. But that’s only the start, because, as the self-discipline improves, the Ego starts to inflate. We’re pleased with ourselves. We’re proud of ourselves. But an inflated Ego will also stop us getting through that narrow door. And that is harder to deal with. Perhaps it’s a case of what Jesus said in relation to the rich young man who turned up in the Gospel a few weeks ago: For men it is impossible; but it’s not impossible for God.

How does God do it? By loving us. The catch is: we have to believe it. We have to let God love us unconditionally without in any way deserving it or trying to win God’s love. And that is the last thing the Ego wants to do – to surrender the idea that somehow I can win God’s love. I can’t, and I don’t need to. But surrendering that feeling of somehow being able to control it is scary. It doesn’t feel right. But there’s no other way.

Enter by the narrow door.

To do that, first the Ego needs to bring our desires under control, to prune them, to shed weight, to establish some self-control. But then, the Ego needs somehow to deflate - and it can’t do that itself. Self-control doesn’t work. What’s needed is to surrender control, to surrender control to God, to let God love us totally and unconditionally. To the extent that we do that, we’re on the other side of the door, and our own love expands, and with it our happiness.

Homily 3 - 2013

I remember, years ago, a parishioner telling me about his once-in-a-lifetime trip to the United States.  The highlight for him was the couple of days he spent in Disneyland.  For me Disneyland would be totally mind-numbing.  I am not sure that any of the tourist spots in the U.S. would attract me all that much.  I would be more interested in doing a course with Richard Rohr at the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico  – which prospect, for many others, I suspect, would be hopelessly boring. 

Will only a few be saved?  What does “being saved” mean? Getting to heaven?  But, depending on what it is, for some heaven might turn out to be totally boring; and as for “forever and ever” – that’s scary.  When you think about it, “eternal rest” may not be much better!  How about “infinite happiness”? 

What makes for lasting happiness? location? company? climate?  Can others make us happy?  Can we make ourselves happy?  I fear that the harder we try, the more it may evade us.  If anything, happiness is a consequence – something that follows when we do something else.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems to be saying that it means slimming down, letting go, down-sizing  – enough to fit through the narrow door.  But he does not elaborate.  I think that the key is learning to love, to love others.  I like the description of loving that I read once in a book: “All that I am, just as I am, offered to all that you are, just as you are.”  That certainly asks for slimming down.

… “All that I am just as I am” – not what I am trying to be, not what I want others to see me as.  … “offered to you”.  Why don’t I offer that me to you? because I’m scared you might not like, approve, accept me?  because I’m unwilling to give, or, more accurately, to give up certain perks, wants, desires?  “All that I am just as I am” leaves me defenceless, exposed, feeling naked.  How narrow is the door – really?  Can’t I bring along with me anything extra? any bargaining chips?  What about the efforts I have made to ‘be a good boy’? to have a case full of merits? all the praying I do?

… Offered [willingly, whole-heartedly] to you “just as you are”… no conditions, no expectations.  What if you have hurt me? Is forgiveness necessary?  Come to think of it, why don’t I forgive? Why don’t I want to forgive?  What does forgiveness require me to let go of?  Why am I ultimately scared to forgive?  How narrow is that door?

And if I manage to love you, a bit, do I also need to love others?  Are there also other things I need to let go of if I am to love my neighbour as myself? … all those people who annoy me?  my judgments? my prejudices? my generalisations? my comfort zone? my unrecognised, and disowned, racism?

I think that the depth of my happiness is a factor of the depth and the extent of my love for others.  And my love for others is a factor of how much I can slim down until there is nothing left of me except me – all of me, just as I am.

God cannot simply give me heaven.  God cannot simply reward me with heaven.  Jesus cannot simply save me.  They only make it possible – but I have to cooperate.  Only I can love.  But even that is impossible until I first let God, through, with and in Jesus, love me … really love me, all of me, just as I am.  And to do that, God so often uses others.  Ultimately, that is what Church, genuine Christian community, is essentially about.

Homily 4 - 2016

“The narrow door”. It is a clear image; but will the message depend on how we individually hear it? The context seems to suggest that the door leads somewhere, or to something; and that that somewhere or something might be salvation. But what is salvation? Here is where the clichés begin to line up - and I am not sure that they are all that helpful.

Over the last few days I have been haunted by the image of the aboriginal teenager recently beaten up and dehumanised in the juvenile detention centre in Darwin. On Thursday we were talking at lunchtime about one of the teachers at the school here in Hamilton who has the wonderful skill of calmly exercising discipline without the least trace of threat or violence. And then on Thursday night I turned on the TV news, only to be shown footage of further brutal ill-treatment of a juvenile aboriginal, this time in a Townsville detention centre. Neither of the young men was probably a little saint. For all I know, they may have been troublesome, immature adolescents, in detention perhaps because of violent behavior on their part. What troubled me more deeply was the clear immaturity, inhumanity and callous violence of the adult guards at both places. 

We can keep on seeking to lay blame. But I wonder if society as a whole is not deeply involved. In the case of the teenage aboriginal youths, I wonder if they were ever adequately fathered. I also wonder whether the same could be said about the adult youth officers. Had anyone ever really formed in the lot of them attitudes of respect, responsibility and non-violence? And if not, who had decided that they were suitable to be employed in the delicate role that was theirs? Does society see it as all too hard, and simply try to ensure that woefully inappropriate responses are kept hidden?

These musing have been stirred by Jesus’ insistence on the need to “enter by the narrow door”. Here the narrow door is the difficult and inevitably painful process of growing up and maturing. People mature by learning to love; and they learn to love by learning to let go. Jesus even called it “dying to self”. I feel wary of any emphasis on “saving my soul” at all costs. While still immature, we can hear it only as a focus on raw self-interest – which is the exact opposite of genuine maturity. Our lives are not all about ourselves. Or, put it this way, love is learning to put others’ interests before our own. After we have matured somewhat, we may even recognize that love is really all-inclusive, that in loving “our neighbor as ourselves”, the one naturally flows into the other. We see that natural connection as we learn wisdom.

Fathers need to teach their sons. While clearly loving them and allowing them space to make mistakes and to fail, they need to help them recognize that they are not the centre of the world. There is a sense in which they are not all that important, and that the world does not owe them anything. They have to be taught that they cannot have everything their way, that life can be hard; and that that is OK. It is in adversity, whatever shape it comes in, that growth occurs. Young men have to learn that it is by accepting difference, by respecting the inherent dignity of others and relating accordingly, by not concentrating simply on their own fulfillment, that they in fact become truly alive. Salvation, ultimately, is acted out rather than passively received - learning to love “in sync” with God who loves everyone and who is purely and only love. Anything else is excess baggage that hinders passage through “the narrow door”. [Somehow, girls seem to learn these things more naturally – though, even here, it is not inevitable.] 

In the meantime, let us all step into the strong current of God’s love as it sweeps us outward to embrace all creatures – and find ourselves saved in the process.

 Homily 5 - 2019

I remember a short verse that I learnt from childhood: “Every time I pass a church, I always make a visit, so that, when I’m carried in, Our Lord won’t ask, “Who is it?”” It had quite an influence on me. [Not so likely these days: You can’t always find the church doors open, and I suspect the younger generation may not even know what you’re talking about when you refer to a “visit”.] And also I wonder now if, from my child’s point of view, I was trying to keep sweet with God, unconsciously trying even to manipulate God – a bit like how children hope to get on side with Santa Claus.

I suppose, even as adults, we think in certain situations that we can expect a bit of special treatment. We priests have been notorious for it. It’s called clericalism. But it is not just priests. The ‘old-school tie’ might be a secular equivalent, or barracking for the same footy team. Just because we are Catholics, we might be tempted to hope that we will get a bit of preferential treatment with God. Not on! Irrelevant! Thank goodness!

Look at today’s Gospel, and the question: “Will there be only a few saved?” As far as God is concerned, God wants everyone to be saved – God loves everyone. “People from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast” – no preferential bookings, no corporate boxes. But who gets saved is not just up to God. It is up to us as well – necessarily so. Salvation is the lived experience of our loving relationship with God; and relationships are two-way: God loving us; we loving God. Salvation essentially calls for our whole-hearted, absolutely indispensible loving cooperation. It does not, however, depend on people consciously believing in God, or having an orthodox definition of God. The Mystery that is God can be encountered and embraced in real life in the transcendent values of Justice, Compassion, Truth, Peace-making, etc., whatever practical shapes they take.

This is what Jesus was talking about when he advised us, “Try your best to enter by the narrow door”. Travel light. All we need, really, is love on our part. And loving calls for nothing more than, firstly, genuinely trusting God and God’s love, and then entrusting ourselves wholeheartedly and enthusiastically to God. Everything else is superfluous, and even gets in the way. We can’t win special treatment. Manipulation, or bargaining, does not work with God – just love. We need to strip ourselves of the heavenly equivalent of bringing to God’s attention “We once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets”. So what?

How do we rid ourselves of the expectation of special status, or special treatment? It can work right across life, and not just with God. However people feel about the result of Cardinal Pell’s unsuccessful Appeal against his original conviction in the County Court, it must be heartening for victims of abuse in general, so many of them innocent young Catholics when they were abused, along with their families and friends, to realize that their voices have been heard and their suffering taken seriously – and that secular prestige, access to financial backing and ecclesiastical rank did not sway the outcome of the legal process.

Where to from here? Perhaps as a Church we could do well to ponder long and deeply what Jesus had in mind by recommending that we “enter by the narrow door”, whether as individual Christians or as Church community – radical change or cosmetic touch-up? He obviously meant what he said back then. And whatever our first reactions, Jesus saw it somehow as good news.