A list of colleges with the highest rejection rates was published in a recent report. The colleges which made the list are the "usual suspects"- MIT, the Ivy League schools, and so forth. The most competitive schools rejected 90% of those who applied to get in, and of that 90%, many were highly qualified students with impressive records. Rightly or wrongly, the pressure felt by some to get into these schools is very great, and the whole application process can create great anxiety for them. And the majority who are rejected sometimes experience profound disappointment, even depression.
At first reading, Jesus’ words in today’s gospel might lead us to believe that trying to get into heaven is a lot like trying to get into Harvard. When Jesus was asked if only a few would be saved, our Lord described heaven’s door as being narrow, and spoke of the wailing and grinding of teeth on the part of those "cast out." It’s not a very pleasant image, and one that could easily cause us stress and anxiety, as we fear being counted amongst the seemingly vast majority who will find heaven’s door firmly locked.
If getting into heaven really is like trying to get into the Ivy League, we might wonder what kind of god we’re dealing with. What god would condemn most of his creation to eternal destruction? What god would send his only son to suffer and die for just a tiny, select few? We might be able to obey this god out of fear. But such a god would be very difficult to love, and offer our thanks and praise. And hope would be hard to come by, because there would be little to hope for, if most of us were going to be consigned to hell.
However, in order to truly understand Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, we need to appreciate just who it was he was speaking with. The person who asked the question, "Will those who are saved be few?" was Jewish. He was asking Jesus if only Jewish people would be saved, something many people believed. In response, Jesus spoke of people from every nation- from the east and west and north and south- being welcomed into the kingdom of God. Here, our Lord echoed Isaiah’s beautiful vision in today’s first reading, in which a multitude of "brothers and sisters" from all nations would come to worship the Lord in Jerusalem.
At the same time, Jesus told his questioner to "strive to enter through the narrow gate." He said this not because God wishes to restrict heaven to a handful of people, but because Jesus’ questioner assumed that his salvation was assured, just because he was Jewish. In effect, he was taking salvation for granted. But aren’t we sometimes tempted to do exactly the same thing? It’s easy to think that, because God is so good and merciful and loving, we can take our salvation for granted. That’s why Jesus’ words to strive to enter through the narrow gate are intended for us as well.
Our Lord knows that whenever we take his salvation for granted, we’ll take him for granted. And when we take Jesus for granted, our love for him first turns lukewarm, and then it turns cold. Because we don’t really love people we take for granted. Jesus doesn’t want us to take him for granted, because he loves us too much. In the gospel, he spoke of people dining with him in his kingdom. Sharing a meal together was deeply significant in Jesus’ culture. It was an expression of friendship and intimacy. For Jesus to describe heaven as a meal, then, is a way of saying that in heaven we will be his intimate friends. Jesus wants this intimacy and friendship with us to begin now. Deep down, this is what we want as well. Because God made us that way. Because God loves us so much.
Today’s gospel should challenge us to take a good look at our relationship with Jesus. Is Jesus for us an intimate friend? Or is he something less? Consider the people in the gospel who found themselves excluded from the heavenly banquet. It’s not that Jesus was a stranger to them. They’d all seen him before. Some had heard him teach, and others had actually been at meals with him. But Jesus said that he didn’t really know them. They hadn’t made the effort to get to know him well. Their relationship with Jesus was superficial. He wasn’t an intimate friend; he was simply a passing acquaintance.
Is Jesus a passing acquaintance to us? Think of it this way: If we don’t see a passing acquaintance for a long time, it’s no big deal. We may be happy to see them whenever we do. We’ll wave, chat, exchange a few pleasantries, maybe even express a wish to get together some time. But their absence doesn’t really impact our lives.
What impact does Jesus have on our lives right now? Or to put it another way, how would Jesus’ absence impact our lives? The eternal absence of Jesus is one way we might think of hell, just as heaven is to eternally enjoy Jesus’ friendship. And like heaven, hell is something we can begin to experience even now, whenever we allow Jesus to slip away to the corner of our lives and become simply a casual acquaintance or, heaven forbid, something even less.
Jesus wants our relationship with him to be our top priority. He wants to be our friend, not a passing acquaintance. But the choice is ours, isn’t it? Jesus’ hand is always extended to us in friendship. We can wave politely from a distance, or we can take his hand firmly in ours and walk by his side as we journey through life, enjoying a taste of the heavenly banquet while we strive to enter through that narrow gate, not taking our salvation for granted, but knowing that the arms of God’s mercy, are always open wide.