21Aug 21 August. 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scriptures speak of an orderly, self-disciplined life, a topic often ignored in a permissive society. We could reflect on this theme as part of the overall scheme of divine justice in history

1st Reading: Isaiah 66:18-21

The returning Jews bring non-Jews to join in the worship of God

The Lord Says: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. From them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Put, and Lud ?” which draw the bow ?” to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.

They shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring a grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the Lord.

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13

As a father disciplines his children, so our God trains us

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children: “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.

Gospel: Luke 13:22-30

People from every nation can enter in by the “narrow door”

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’

There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”


For Kieran O’Mahony’s exegetical commentary on this Gospel passage, click here.

Very Near To Us

Responding to the beauty of a spring morning, Robert Browning wrote, “The lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn; God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” While the thought is beautiful, the poem suggests a misleading concept of God, which maybe most of us entertain from time to time . “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” How often we imagine God as “away up there, somewhere,” while the world goes its separate way, with the events of every day independent of God. If the Gospel shows God in the person of Jesus Christ intervening in human affairs, combatting the evil forces at work in mankind, at the back of our minds we suspect that the battle against evil is not going God’s way.

This kind of Deism seldom bothered his chosen people, Israel, in the Old Testament. For them God was not remote, away up there. They felt a divine presence in the events, good or evil, of everyday existence. Everything in history was somehow God’s doing. Even when the cream of the nation were exiled to Babylon and their monarchy was utterly destroyed, they continued to search for the hand of God in this tragedy. Out their shattered hopes there emerged a purer, more spiritual vision of what God meant them to be. Eventually they saw their exile as the means God used to bring salvation to the pagans. They saw their destiny as still being glorious, but now from a more spiritual perspective. As stated in Isaiah, all nations would come to worship the true God in Jerusalem. God would bring good out of the catastrophe they had endured, and this would have an effect as well on nations apart from their own.

Constantly at the back of our minds we carry on, as it were, a conversation with ourselves ?” talking to ourselves, processing our hopes and fears, making plans. Relating to God means not leaving him on the fringe of all this consciousness, but making him part of it, discussing it with him, asking his guidance, his assistance, expressing to him our gratitude. All day long he is with you, and you can walk with God, you can talk with God, you can discern his loving purpose for you in every passing moment, you can rest in his presence, even while you go about your business. Gd, however, will not posses your soul unless you sincerely want him to.

So many of us remain “unconverted Christians,” without a vision of the meaning of our lives. We remain on a material plane, like the people in the gospel who ate and drank with Jesus and heard him preaching in their streets, but with never a change in their lives. The Gospel warns that people will come from the east and west, from the north and south, and take the places at the feast in God’s kingdom meant for those who were called originally. So we go on asking God to help us to enter by that narrow door, to win the inheritance set aside for us from the beginning, and not to be found wanting but rather persevere to the end.

Not everything counts  (Entering by the narrow door)

Jesus goes walking toward Jerusalem. His journey isn’t that of a pilgrim who goes up to the Temple to fulfil his religious obligations. According to Luke, Jesus goes around the cities and villages «teaching». There’s something he needs to communicate to those people: God is a good Father who offers salvation to everyone. All are invited to receive God’s forgiveness.

His message surprises everyone. Sinners are filled with joy to hear him speak of God’s unfathomable goodness: even they can hope for salvation. In the Pharisee camp, however, they criticize his message and also his welcoming of tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners: isn’t Jesus opening up a road to the watering-down of religion and to unacceptable morals?

According to Luke, someone from the crowd interrupts Jesus, to ask him about how many people will be saved, in the end. Will they be few? many? everyone? only the just? Jesus doesn’t answer his question directly. What’s important isn’t knowing exactly how many will be saved. What’s decisive is living with a clear and responsible attitude in order to welcome salvation from that Good God. Jesus reminds them all: «Try your hardest to enter by the narrow door».

In this way Jesus undercuts the reaction of those who understand his message as an invitation to laxity. That makes fun of the Father. Salvation isn’t something one receives irresponsibly from a permissive God. It also isn’t the privilege of an elect few. It’s not enough to be children of Abraham. It isn’t sufficient to have known the Messiah.

In order to welcome God’s salvation it’s necessary to try our hardest, to keep struggling, to imitate the Father, to trust in God’s forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t lower his demands: «Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate»; «Don’t judge and you will not be judged»; «Forgive seventy times seven» as does your Father; «Seek God’s Reign and God’s justice».

In order to correctly understand the invitation to «enter by the narrow door» we need to remember Jesus’ words that we read in John’s Gospel: «I am the door; the one who enters through me, will be saved» (John 10,9). Entering by the narrow door is «following Jesus»; learning to live as he did; taking up his cross and trusting the Father who has raised him from the dead.

In this following of Jesus, not everything counts, not everything is equal; we need to respond to the Father’s love faithfully. What Jesus asks isn’t legalistic rigourism, but a radical love for God and neighbour. That’s why his call is a source of demand, but not of anxiety. Jesus Christ is a door that is always open. No one can close it, only ourselves if we close ourselves to his forgiveness. (José Antonio Pagola)


Truth and Healing

In reaction to a bad policy pursued by the king, Isaiah urged the people of Jerusalem “Do not let Hezekiah mislead you”. In the Gospel Jesus invites us to realise the hard truth that our personal decisions influence our eternal destiny. These readings could prompt a homily on dedication to the truth as a power for healing and salvation, beginning with the power of language, which affects our whole human experience of life.

The ability to speak is perhaps the most important skill we ever learn, putting us into communication with other persons. But words are a two-edged sword. Among grown-ups, words can build confidence, inspire idealism, stimulate creativity; but they can also break a reputation, undermine a project, or alienate a community. In every newspaper, TV station or social-media platform we find concrete evidence of the power of language to build up or tear down. In our own lives we have experienced for good or ill the dynamism of the living word.

Telling the truth is not merely saying what is one one’s mind, which could be subjective; it goes further and communicates life as they really is, as we have actually seen and experienced it. Truthfulness places an obligation on all to learn to embrace life as it really is, not dressed up in flights of imagination. When we communicate we talk about real people and real events; we share, as objectively as we can, our insights about life and about the things of the spirit.

The Hebrews had a deep respect for truth, not so much in the theoretic but in the practical sense. The Hebrew word emeth expressed the basic idea of truth as firm, steady, trustworthy and faithful. The person of truth was one who was reliable, and spoke with dignity and assurance. In the New Testament the Greek word aletheia also has an important place. It is the truth of Christ, the truth that saves.

We need to promote respect for truth as a deep value, needing much revival today. Telling the truth is not merely saying what one feels, since this can be subjective, but it goes deeper and first tries to see things as they really are or as they actually happened. Only such truth is worthy of communicating. Truthfulness urges us to see and experience life as it really is, and to distinguish this from those flights of imagination that also have a place in entertaining each other. People need to know whether we are communicating about real events; we need to share, as truly as we can, our insights about life and about the things of the spirit.

Lying is the opposite of truth; when it become habitual, it distorts reality, goes directly against the virtue of thinking honestly, breaks down trust and destroys integrity. Children may tell lies, often more out of fear or an inability to cope with a difficult situation than out of a deliberate intention to deceive. Truthfulness requires many qualities but especially courage and maturity, it is an adult virtue. The adult who tells lies loses in stature. It is sad to meet with grown-up people who live in a dream world and paint a false picture of themselves. This is a sickness from which a person can be healed only by re-discovering the value and the beauty of truth.

The Stick and the Carrot

A four-year-old was sulking under the table. He had been refused a second helping of ice-cream. His mother ordered him out, but the boy wouldn’t budge. She fried coaxing, but nothing doing. When finally she promised him the ice-cream, he trotted out triumphantly and they both went out to get his reward from the fridge. The visitor was left alone with the other witness of this little domestic scene, the little boy’s grandmother. While mother and son were being reunited over a dish of ice-cream in the kitchen, the old lady said to her visitor, “She isn’t fair to that boy; he doesn’t know any better. She should have punished him.” The visitor had never heard it put that way before: Punishment as a service due to a child. It underlined an important change in attitude between the two generations.

This change was confirmed by a survey once carried out on the religious attitudes among Irish university students. That boy might have been one of those questioned then. While 56% said they believed in heaven, only half that number, 28%, believed in hell. The ice-cream approach to wrongdoing won hands down. Reward as an incentive rather than punishment as a deterrent, was easily the more acceptable answer to wrongdoers. Incidently, 58% of those interviewed believed in wrongdoing, i.e. sin. Why should not reward and punishment both be acceptable responses to behaviour. This was the received wisdom, where both the stick and the carrot had a role in the formation of the people of God. While our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden as punishment for eating the forbidden fruit, the complaining followers of Moses were rewarded with manna to encourage them on their difficult way through the desert.

Political scandals involving corruption and bribery among highly-paid public figures should give us reason to reflect. It is tempting to speculate that as children they picked their mother’s purse or otherwise misbehaved, secure in the belief that they would not be caught or, at that if caught, they would go unpunished. Our present culture of impunity among the elite gets no support from today’s 2nd Reading. The author has no doubt that proportionate punishment is part of a wise Providence.

For the Lord trains the ones he loves and punishes all those that he acknowledges as his sons. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons. Has there ever been any son whose father did not train him? Of course, any punishment is most painful at the time, and far from pleasant; but later, in those on whom it has been used, it bears fruit in peace and goodness.

Saint Pius X, pope.

Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto (1835–1914), born in Treviso, Lombardy, was bishop of Rome as pope Pius X 1903-1914. Bitterly opposed to all relativist or “Modernist” theology, he purged the church of forward-thinking theologians and promoted a more devotional, devout lifestyle. His major work was to codify the church’s Canon Law, for the first time integrating all its laws into one volume. He encouraged personal holiness and simple language in teaching catechism and his introduction of early and frequent communion became the devotional hallmark of his papacy.


4 Responses

  1. Padraig McCarthy

    “Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
    Jesus said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

    Could it be that Jesus is saying: “If that’s what matters to you, then you’re making the door narrow, and you making it more difficult, not just for others, but for yourself too, to enter that narrow door. But that’s not what I want you to preoccupy yourself with. I want you to think instead of those whom you may have thought are beyond the scope of God’s mercy. If you’re a narrow door person, you’ll be in for a big surprise!”

    We need to take the reading in the context of the full gospel of Jesus. In three weeks time, on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we’ll have Luke Chapter 15, where Jesus is criticised for associating with sinners – even eating with them! In reply we have the joy of the finding of the lost sheep, and the lost coin, and the joy of welcoming back a lost son.

  2. Joe O'Leary

    Joyce makes fun of a Jesuit brooding on “the number of the elect” in Ulysses. It is a mark of theological decrepitude that some still waste their brains on this question. The warnings of Jesus can be read off from our human existence. To the pharisees he represented a scandalously broad path of salvation. The idea that he secretly knew information of otherworldly realms stems from poor Christology. Any suggestion that ” you need to make a better effort in order to be saved” tends to miss the abundance of grace, which despite the mess Augustine made of it with his predestinationism, is the essence of the Good News.

  3. Patrick Ferry

    Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it”

    I have been paying particular attention to the readings from Hebrews this last few weeks given the overwhelming influence whoever wrote this has had on the evolution of Christianity, for good or ill? — now that’s a question. However, leaving that aside just now, I was really struck by the reference to discipline in today’s 2nd reading. I wonder what would contemporary psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists make of that . Not very much, I would guess. This reminds of one of the key points the late, great Fr. Seán Fagan made in “What happened to sin”. If I remember correctly, he challenges the old argument that given so much of church teaching and doctrine has existed for hundreds of years it must be well founded, it must be right. Seán put forward the argument that much of it was formulated at a time when there was virtually no knowledge of the human sciences, anatomy, physiology, psychology etc. One example he gave us was the fact that anatomists only discovered the existence of the female ovary in 1850. Until then it was believed that the male sperm contained everything!! Was this part of the reason he later wrote about the “spiritual abuse” young people suffered in the confessional.
    Joe@2., please tell us more about the mess Augustine “made of it with his predestinationism.” When I read that I became aware of my lack of formal theological education. I was aware that he got it right as far as Atonement was concerned and in his understanding of the Real Presence but got it disasterously wrong as far as sexuality is concerned. I suppose, in the famous words of Meatloaf “Two out three ain’t bad” though he did admit to “Bat out of hell” tendencies.

  4. Joe O'Leary

    Since the predestination nightmare is a thing if the past, gently put to rest in Barth’s great 600 page discussion in Church Dogmatics II/2, I think it is more fruitful to tackle the pull-up-your-socks Pelagianism,that has made so much preaching spiritually ruinous. Here Augustine is of great help.

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