The bucket list and the narrow gate

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Aug. 25, 2013
Isa 66:18-21; Ps 117; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

Do you have a bucket list? You know: one of those lists of things that you want to before you die, before you “kick the bucket.” I’ve heard that phrase fairly often since the movie of that same title came out several years ago. And usually the actions on those lists are things that are fun and exciting.

But let me ask you another question: Do you believe in heaven? Do you intend to go to heaven? And if you do, then why have a bucket list?

Is it because you think that heaven is boring, and this earthly life is so much more exciting? Come on, don’t be ridiculous! Who would think that heaven would be boring? Well, I did—up until one day in seminary I realized that I had been doing exactly that, unconsciously. I was reluctant to give up certain possibilities in this life because it just seemed to me that nothing as good would be present for me in heaven. And maybe you’ve thought that too. But let’s hold that idea up to the light for a moment. The infinite God of the universe—who is the source of all that is beautiful and amazing in the world, whether in the world of nature, or the cosmos, or human beings, or the arts and sciences we have made—that God is going to make a boring heaven? Really?

Or, maybe you think that it’s basically guaranteed that you will go to heaven—so you don’t think too much about what it will take to get in? Because it’s a sure thing?

Put those two things together, and you’re guaranteed to go to a boring heaven! No wonder you have a bucket list.

Well I have good news and bad news for you; or, rather, Jesus does, in today’s Gospel reading. Which would you like to hear first? Let’s start with the good news.

The good news is that heaven is real; and it will be fantastic! Here he depicts it as a great banquet, with great food and great company. All the heroes of the faith will be there: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, and all your favorite saints, all there. And people from all parts of the world and all parts of history will be there: no one will be kept out just for having been born in a certain place or time or nation. All violence and disagreement will be over; all suffering and death will be ended. And it’s a vision that is also described in terms of radiant light and color from gold and precious stones. Heaven is real; it’s fantastic; and everyone is invited!

The bad news is that not everyone will make it. To get in, you have to make it through the narrow gate. Not the wide gate with the broad road, which he speaks about in the Gospel of Matthew (7:13-14), which many enter: that way leads to destruction, to the punishment of hell. No, this is the narrow gate, and many will attempt to enter but will not be able to. And there will come the time when that door will close; and you don’t want to be locked outside it, unable to enter.

So you’re not guaranteed to go to a boring heaven; instead, heaven will be amazing, but you might not be able to make it in!

So, how do you make it through the narrow gate? What do you have to do? Jesus’ original listeners, there in the Holy Land, might have asked: Is it enough to be part of the People of God? Well, no, clearly not, since he speaks of people from all parts of the world making it into the heavenly banquet, while some of them are locked outside. Okay: is it enough to listen to Jesus’ words? “No, I do not know you.” Is it enough to share a meal with Jesus? “No, I do not know you.” Is it enough to be Catholic? To be baptized? To attend Mass every week?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Who has made it through the narrow gate? Our Lord Jesus has. As we remember every Holy Week, and every Sunday, and indeed at every Mass, he has passed through suffering and death to reach the transformed life of the resurrection. He has made it through the narrow gate; and he wants to lead us through it as well. If we stay with him every step of the way, then we will make it through the narrow gate; if we stay right beside him, then we will never be on the wrong side of the door when it closes.

And so he wants us to say yes to him, again and again.

  • When he reveals himself to us, he wants us to believe him and to trust him.
  • When he invites us to draw close to him, he wants us to do so, in prayer and the sacraments.
  • When he points out sin in our lives, he wants us to leave it behind.
  • When he shows us how he wants us to serve him and others, he wants us to follow his lead.

If we say yes to every invitation we receive from him, then we enter through the narrow gate. But if we say no—no matter how many times we may have said yes in the past—then we turn away from the gate and from the door.

And how easy it is to say no! To keep saying yes requires his grace—and our constant cooperation with that grace. Which is why he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” Strive, agonizomai in the original Greek, from which we get “agony” and “agonize”: strive, strain, sweat, compete, struggle, fight, to enter by the narrow gate. And we hear similar language in our second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews. There, we heard last week the analogy to running a race, and we were urged to rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race (Heb 12:1); and the analogy continues this week as we hear shouted from the sidelines: pump those arms! Get those knees up! Run! Push! Do it!

So what should be on your bucket list? Just one thing: to stick with Jesus every step of the way; to make it through that narrow gate; to become a saint; which is really the same thing. That makes for a great adventure in this life, and unbelievable blessing in the life to come.

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