Most people assume that they will spend eternity in heaven. Some of them might be like the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers. . . . I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” This man thought he was right with God, but Jesus said he wasn’t. We ourselves might say, “I never killed anyone. I go to Mass. I donate to charitable organizations.” But is this enough to get us through the narrow gate that Jesus mentioned in Sunday’s Gospel? It’s a bit disconcerting to hear him say that many people will not be able to get through it! In other words, they will not be “saved.”
Jesus urges us to strive to enter through the narrow gate. A key word here is strive. The original Greek for this word is used for athletes (like the Olympians) who pour all their energy into excelling in their sport. We strive to gain access to heaven when we do all in our power to live the Gospel: to go the extra mile and attend a funeral, to love our enemies and forgive the driver on the cellphone who almost crashes into our car, to get up when the world is asleep and celebrate a weekday Eucharist.
In Jesus’ image, the gate is narrow. This suggests that people who are puffed up with pride (like the Pharisee) and who have big heads will not fit through. Jesus taught that people who are like children will enter the kingdom. Children are little people, humble, dependent, trusting.
Likewise, people who carry a lot of baggage won’t be able to squeeze through heaven’s gate. On earth we need to travel lightly. Accumulating a lot of possessions is useless. In the end we take nothing with us. And as St. Basil said, “The bread you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat you store in your cedar chest, belongs to the naked; the shoes moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver you hide belongs to the one in need.” (I find that divesting myself of belongings is challenging, especially if an item has sentimental value. Besides, often after giving something away, a while later I need it!)
If the gate to heaven is narrow, maybe only one person can enter at a time, as in a turnstile. According to Jesus, most people will not go this way. We can choose to follow this crowd and be like the proverbial lemmings, or we can choose to follow Christ. His Way is sometimes difficult, even painful. It’s not easy to be countercultural, to be mocked for what we believe. Moses told the Hebrews, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life.” The same decision is ours to make.
At the Last Supper, the evening before he died to make it possible for us to go to heaven, Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” For Christians, a solid, loving relationship with Jesus Christ, not just head knowledge of him, is necessary for entrance into heaven. Nurturing our friendship with Jesus will make all the difference in this world and the next. My new book Praying with Scripture: The Bible, You’ve Got Mail! can help you do this. You can get it by sending me a check for $10.00 or by ordering it from me and Amazon.
What do you do to strengthen your relationship with Jesus?