Sunday Sermon for August 21, 2022, the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Readings: Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30
At the end of the Gospel reading today our Lord says something that is simultaneously hopeful and terrifying. He tells us that some who are first will be last and some who are last will be first. For those of us who more than resemble St. Paul’s teaching that God chooses the least, the lowborn, and those who are nothing, this statement of our Lord provides a great deal of hope. We are well aware that He could not have found anyone worse because, if there was someone worse, He would have chosen that person. However, we can reason, since He chose me for whatever He wants me to do, I must be least of the least.
At the same time, this teaching reminds us that we need to be diligent and not rest on the false assurance that because He chose me my salvation is all but guaranteed. If we were last and have, by the mercy of God, been made one of the first, then we now fall into the category of those who lose their position among the first and, instead, become one of the last. As our Lord said in a different context, our last state becomes worse than our first. If we were among the last through no fault of our own, we are not responsible for that. But if we had been chosen and raised higher, then fall by our own doing, we will be lower than when we started and we will be responsible for that low position.
Because each of us has been chosen by the Lord, He instructs us on how to safeguard our salvation. Jesus tells us to strive to enter through the narrow gate. This will require prayer and sacrifice, but it is precisely by these means that we can achieve our salvation. If we get lazy regarding our spiritual life or give ourselves over to pleasure and worldliness we are jeopardizing our souls. It is clear from the context that there is no guarantee of salvation.
The context of Jesus’ teaching provides several interesting points. First, the people call Him “Lord.” In response, the Lord says He does not know where these people are from. When they answer that they ate and drank with Him and that He taught in their streets, He tells them again that He does not know where they are from. Even worse for them, the Lord says: “Depart from me, all you evildoers!” These people gave lip service to the Lord, but they did not strive to do His will, to grow in holiness, or to show themselves worthy of their calling.
When God spoke through the Prophet Isaiah telling the people of Israel that the Lord would gather people from nations of every language it may have seemed a cause for rejoicing because these people could come to know the Lord and be saved. However, the context of this reading suggests that this addition of people from all the nations follows upon a judgment of those who were not living according to the way God had revealed to them.
In other words, we must choose God, but we must also choose to live according to our choice. Since lip service is not acceptable, one can be certain that our choice, that is, our love for God and our decision to live according to the holiness to which He calls us, will be tested and purified. It is easy to say “Lord, Lord,” but it is entirely a different reality to live the faith. Lip service can be given anytime, but living a virtuous life is only demonstrated when it is difficult.
This is why St. Paul reminds us of God’s exhortation to us as His children not to disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart. He tells us that God scourges every son He acknowledges; therefore, we are to treat our trials as discipline administered by our Father Who loves us. At the time discipline is given, St. Paul says, it seems to be a cause for pain rather than for joy, but for one schooled in discipline, “it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
We are children of God and we have been greatly blessed to be chosen by the Lord. He treats us as His children when He chastises us but, more than that, if we can accept the discipline that comes from Him, it will strengthen us and keep us faithful and make us holy. When we remember our lowly status, then we can recognize how far we need to grow before we can truly live and act as children of God and not just enjoy the title. God has chosen us, now He is forming us in conformity with our choice. Praise Him!
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.