Here are a few notes on Luke 13:22-30, Jesus’ teaching on “the narrow door,” which is the Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 22.
Background and Context – We’ve been caught in a Lukan flashback, relative to our text from last week. Here in chapter 13, we’re at an earlier point in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which we picked up last week in chapter 18. (The trip began in Luke 9:51). By going through “one town and village after another” and teaching all along the way, it seems that Jesus is gathering a following that is heading to Jerusalem along with him. Like, a movement. But of course, Jesus will be arriving in Jerusalem just before Passover. Passover was one of the three “pilgrimage festivals,” which people were supposed to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate. So the people following Jesus would be part of that more familiar festival traffic.
I have a hard time imagining that literally “everyone” ever made this piligrimage at once, leaving all the towns and villages in Roman Palestine ghost towns for the duration. But historically, it’s apparent that very large numbers of people did make these pilgrimages, and what we know of contemporary pilgrimages, like the hajj, might give us some idea of what that had to have been like in the ancient world.
(There is more on the pilgrimage festivals at My Jewish Learning and some numerical estimates in the Jewish Encyclopedia.)
If we have been reading along in Luke’s gospel, we will just have read some of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God, which follow an account of healing a bent woman (she is “set free from bondage” in Luke 12:16), which follows talk about the need to repent so as not to perish, illustrated with a parable of a fig tree in danger of being uprooted (Luke 12:1-9). This context might explain why the question about whether “only a few” will be saved comes up (v23).
Closer Reading – Our text is Jesus’ response to that question, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” (v23).
The short answer seems to be “yes.” Jesus tells the questioner, and whoever else is listening, to “strive” – literally, to compete, like an athlete, or Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” – to go in by way of “the narrow door,” using the Greek word that gives us our term “stenosis” (literally, narrowing), which some of us can relate to fairly intimately.
Our first impression might be of a door that’s especially narrow. But maybe it would make more sense to imagine the door narrowing because it is closing. Think of the way we try to catch an elevator going our way before it’s too late.
Because Jesus goes on to talk about “the owner of the house” (literally, the “house despot”) getting up and shutting the door. At that point, the way Jesus tells the story, it will be too late; people will not be able to enter – literally, a word that suggests that these people will not be strong enough, an echo of the athletic verb “strive” in v24, and suggesting that they would have to use force to overcome some resistance.
The reason given is that the owner doesn’t know their origin: “I don’t know where you come from.”
The people will appeal to their former acquaintance with the owner, who sounds a little bit like Jesus himself in v26: they “ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.”
That would give us the idea that they come from the same place. But the owner denies it again, in the same words, and then calls them “workers of injustice” or unrighteousness. Why? Maybe, because they had a chance to be or become something other than workers of injustice when the owner was eating and drinking and teaching, and didn’t take it? So that turning down that opportunity – which Jesus is creating by being there – is equivalent to working injustice?
(Since it is a lot more comforting to imagine that this statement only applies to the people on the literal pilgrimage in 33CE or whenever, I sort of wish this reading didn’t make me think of Matthew 25 and “when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”)
Apparently, the people who miss the open door can still see through the windows, because they can see “Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God,” and people will still come in, “from east and west, from north and south” – perhaps meant to remind us of Psalm 107:3, those gathered in, who are “the redeemed of YHWH.”
Maybe v30 sounds a hopeful note in this context; maybe being “last” (the word that gives us our words “eschaton” and “eschatology,” the study of “last things”) is not the same as being excluded entirely, even if one is not “first.”
Concluding comment – For Jesus, the time is short, so the moment is decisive. But if we think about how things really work – how little things add up, how “we are what we habitually do,” how “the jug fills drop by drop” and all that – maybe the present moment is always the decisive one.