The Mystery of the Narrow Door

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 21
August 21, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Perhaps there are some things more interesting than doors, but not many. Open doors are welcoming while closed doors are rude and foreboding. Doors represent opportunities, possibilities and challenges. Jesus says that we should "strive" to pass through the "narrow" door. Then he utters an ominous warning: Many "will try to enter and will not be able." What does he mean?

In verse 24 of today's reading, Jesus says, "Strive to enter through the narrow door." So, now we know that the dominant metaphor for the entire passage is a "door", something that can be opened and closed. Then Jesus goes further and turns the figurative door into a riddle : "For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able." Hmmm, a mysterious door through which we all should try to pass, but, although many will try to do so, few will succeed.

For the curious and adventurous, doors are fascinating and alluring things. We see a door that is closed, and we would love to open it and peek inside. This is exactly what an illusionist is hoping when he or she sets up the "magic door prank" in a local park.

First, he places a nice park bench nearby for people to sit on, and then he installs a door frame about 20-30 feet away and perpendicular to the sight line of unsuspecting onlookers on the park bench. Then, it's showtime! The prankster appears before the door, and after a moment's hesitation, opens the door and walks through it. Seconds later, the door closes and the young man has disappeared! Poof!

The observer watching this from the park bench is startled and cannot believe her eyes. She looks about as though the missing lad might be hiding in an azalea bush. Some of the curious even get up to inspect the door frame.

What they do not know is that when the door was initially opened, it stayed open for about five seconds whilst the jester ran to a nearby wall and leapt over it and then, out of sight, he used a remote-control device to close the door. It's a clever illusion.

As a metaphor, a door is a flexible and evocative image. Consider the door of opportunity or an open-door policy. A closed door might be a barrier to change, whilst a locked door might evoke either a sense of safety or the fear of being trapped. When someone slams a door in your face, you know that a relationship is over.

We might hesitate before the doors of change and transition, but we eagerly approach a welcoming door, and we love doors of choice (Monty Hall: "Is it door no. 1, no. 2 or no. 3?").

The hardest door to get through? Bathroom doors on an Embraer 120 jet or airport bathroom stalls. They open to the inside of a cubicle that's barely 18 inches wide and you have your carry-on roller bag and a man-bag or a purse, and your task is to wrestle your body and your luggage inside this stall and to do so without falling into the toilet. And this is all the more stressful because there's an urgent reason why you're visiting this stall. Very urgent reason.

So, when Jesus tells us to try the narrow door, as opposed to the wide one (as he does according to Matthew 7:13-14,1 we're curious. What would really happen if I took the wide door instead of the narrow one? What is the problem with the narrow door that few are able to get through it? Do the hinges stick? Does it need to be planed? Is someone pushing against it from the inside?

Jesus' puzzle raises many questions, and this is why we're going to attempt to solve the riddle.

How many will be saved?

The question posed by an anonymous onlooker, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" immediately tells Jesus that this man must be an accountant: he's more interested in statistics than he is in the state of his own immortal soul. Yet still, it is a question that was a hot topic among the rabbis and intellectuals of his day.

They fussed among themselves as to whether all Jews would escape the wrath of God on Judgment Day or just a few particularly clever, smart, astute, holy and blameless sects within Judaism such as their own. This jostling for position was quite typical of earnest and religious types. The Corinthian church bickered about whom truly spiritual people should follow: Apollos, Paul or others?2 The disciples had a few spats about who should get favored seating in the kingdom to come.3

The question also might be linked to the theological concept of the remnant. Yes, the Israelites were God's Chosen People, but although many were called, few were chosen and even fewer arrived. Of the thousands who left Egypt bound for the Promised Land, only two made it .4

Israel repeatedly went through cycles of disobedience-judgment-repentance-restoration-disobedience, ad nauseum . Rinse and repeat. And following the Babylonian exile, only a remnant returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, to rebuild the walls and to build homes for themselves.5

It's only natural, then, to wonder about who is going to escape the wrath of God and who isn't. What about the teeming millions of India or Africa? What about those of other faiths or those who have never heard of Jesus? For that matter, if you're a good Catholic and concur with Saint Augustine that he or she who does not have the church for a mother, does not have God for a father,6 what about your Protestant friends who are sheep without a shepherd in another fold? And speaking of Protestants, are all of them being saved, or just Episcopalians, and maybe, just maybe, a Presbyterian or two. Lutherans? No, definitely not.

Yes, this is an issue that gets our attention, but Jesus turns to the crowd and doesn't answer the question of how many or how few; rather he tells them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able." The "you" is understood: "You strive to enter ...." In other words, don't waste your time on idle gossip and useless speculation about whether so-and-so is getting into heaven. Worry about yourselves.

The keys to unlocking the riddle

So now, let's say you are worried about yourself. You ask, "Will I be saved?" First, and quickly, one must ask, "What did 'being saved' mean to Jesus and to ordinary folks in Jesus' day?" Here, one must generalize somewhat, but essentially, the religious and pious people of first-century Judaism wanted to be saved from the wrath of God and concomitantly be given a pass into God's kingdom. Give the shopkeeper, the housewife, the fishmonger, the tailor, the baker and the candlestick maker assurance on these two points, and they're happy.

But would you be happy? Maybe not. But you should be. Even though salvation may not mean the same thing to us as it did to those in the first century, we probably still want the same thing. When we're "knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door,"7 we want someone to open it, or, better yet, to be in possession of the keys that will unlock the door.

The keys to this mystery are linked to the question, "What must I do to be saved?" It's a recurrent topic in the New Testament. And the answer always involves repentance, confession and perhaps restitution (consider Zacchaeus, for example8). You might call these the keys to salvation.

But rather than wandering all over the New Testament studying the doctrine of salvation, let's return to today's reading where Jesus simply tells us to "strive," reminding us that using the keys of salvation is going to require great effort. Even the apostle Paul said that we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling.9 Salvation is work, hard work, lots of striving.

To help keep our focus on the salient points, consider the following facts revealed in this text:

Four, the door will only be open to those who know the Owner and who are known by him. Recall that part of the scandal of Jesus' birth narrative is that Joseph and Mary had to seek lodging at a common inn. Inns were not the nicest places, and they were normally filled with not the nicest people. Those with any prestige whatsoever took lodging at the homes of friends or relatives, or even the friends of friends and relatives. Imagine the horror then of someone knocking on a door, expecting admission and safe lodging, only to be told that they are completely unknown, with not even the recommendation of a friend to vouch for them.

Five, there is time for you to know the Owner today, but tomorrow may be too late. You may think you know the Master of the house, but this pseudo-familiarity may not guarantee safe entry. In fact, the Homeowner rejects you and others clamoring at the door even more completely. The ones seeking entry are now not just unknown, they are recognized as "evildoers"! For them, then, the narrow way is closed forever.

Finally, the door will be opened to many rather than just a few. This returns us to the original question about numbers. If you insist on tabulating global figures of those whom God has saved or is saving, fine. Here it is: "People will come from the east and the west, from north and the south, and will eat in the kingdom of God." In other words, to answer your question, many will be saved.

But not you.

Unless you "strive." No more mystery. It's not a riddle anymore.


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