August 25, 2019 • 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 66: 18–21
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:5–7, 11–13
Gospel: Luke 13:22–30
“Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
I suppose the sub-title to today’s readings could be Never Presume. This is directly opposite to the Once-Saved-Always-Saved notion of theology as well as the more complex idea of being predestined never to fall. Catholic theology teaches that our salvation, which is a gift and which is freely offered to us, can also be tossed away, ignored, and left to gather dust. We see a few surprises to this end in the readings this week.
The first reading, from the prophecy of Isaiah, probably came as a shock to the Jews who heard it, because they presumed that theirs alone was the chosen nation of God, and that it would always be so. But Isaiah foresaw a time when “all nations and tongues” would be gathered about God to see his glory, and from them some would go to lands abroad to proclaim his glory, and further to this idea, and the greatest shock of all for the Jews, God would “also take some of them as priests and Levites.” Even among the Jews, only one family, the family of Aaron, could ever legitimately serve in the Temple, so to hear that the hated Gentiles would be taken as priests and Levites must have come as a severe shock. It appeared that the Jews would lose their favoured status. I would think that even today this passage is probably explained away in some fashion.
Yet what happened? The Jewish Temple with all of its rites of worship and sacrifice was destroyed and has remained so for the better part of 2000 years. Their presumption proved false, and their role as a light to the nations was removed from them. God walked among them, speaking of these things, predicting that the Temple would be destroyed, but they would not hear him. Peter, who received a vision on a rooftop, knew that the time had come to preach even to the Gentiles, and God gifted them, too, with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10). The message of God spread throughout the world very quickly indeed in those first hundred years of the Church and has gone throughout the world, with Rome (now the area called Vatican City) being the foundation city from its very earliest days. From Rome, we have seen 266 pontiffs who have shepherded the Church through the centuries.
Our second reading and our Gospel reiterate this theme of not presuming. The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches us that presumption is a sin and that it is quite the opposite of hope.
Presumption is here considered as a vice opposed to the theological virtue of hope. It may also be regarded as a product of pride. It may be defined as the condition of a soul which, because of a badly regulated reliance on God’s mercy and power, hopes for salvation without doing anything to deserve it, or for pardon of his sins without repenting of them. Presumption is said to offend against hope by excess, as despair by defect. It will be obvious, however, to one who ponders what is meant by hope, that this statement is not exact. There is only a certain analogy which justifies it. As a matter of fact, we could not hope too much, assuming that it is really the supernatural habit which is in question.
Suarez (De spe, disp. 2a, sect. 3, n. 2) enumerates five ways in which one may be guilty of presumption, as follows:
- by hoping to obtain by one’s natural powers, unaided, what is definitely supernatural, viz. eternal bliss or the recovery of God’s friendship after grievous sin (this would involve a Pelagian frame of mind);
- a person might look to have his sins forgiven without adequate penance (this, likewise, if it were based on a seriously entertained conviction, would seem to carry with it the taint of heresy);
- a man might expect some special assistance from Almighty God for the perpetration of crime (this would be blasphemous as well as presumptuous);
- one might aspire to certain extraordinary supernatural excellencies, but without any conformity to the determinations of God’s providence. Thus one might aspire to equal in blessedness the Mother of God;
- finally, there is the transgression of those who, whilst they continue to lead a life of sin, are as confident of a happy issue as if they had not lost their baptismal innocence.
The root-malice of presumption is that it denies the supernatural order, as in the first instance, or travesties the conception of the Divine attributes, as in the others. Theologians draw a sharp distinction between the attitude of one who goes on in a vicious career, precisely because he counts upon pardon, and one whose persistence in wrongdoing is accompanied, but not motivated, by the hope of forgiveness. The first they impeach as presumption of a very heinous kind; the other is not such specifically. In practice it happens for the most part that the expectation of ultimate reconciliation with God is not the cause, but only the occasion, of a person’s continuing in sinful indulgence. Thus the particular guilt of presumption is not contracted.
How do we see the possibility of presumption in our second reading? It speaks of the Father disciplining and chastising us because he loves us and accepts us as his own. But the words of the text do not guarantee that we will get through the discipline and come out whole on the other side. We are asked to endure it, which allows for the fact that we may not end up enduring it at all. It says that discipline trains us and makes us fruitful, but that also allows that we might not accept or be successful with the training. We might “flunk out of the course” so to speak. We are told that we must pick ourselves up and make our paths straight again, alluding to the theme of the race found in other Scriptures, so that the lameness in us which God is trying to heal will not end up being made worse. The whole passage speaks of great love and grace on God’s part as he tries to coax us more and more into his image, but it also speaks of endurance and great effort on our part as we submit and put our best foot forward during this life of training. There is absolutely no thought in this Scripture of “once saved always saved,” nor of any sort of predestination. If either of those things were true, no effort would be required on our part.
And now we come to the Gospel, that familiar passage which speaks of entering by the narrow door. The Didache Bible says that:
Christ invites everyone to be a part of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, salvation is no longer a birthright or privilege of the Chosen People alone. In spite of the long history of the Jewish people with the Scriptures and prophets, many Gentiles who embraced the message of repentance wholeheartedly will enter the kingdom ahead of some of them. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the first ones to follow Christ were members of the Chosen People.
Again we see that the presumption of the Jews was incorrect. Even the Apostles had a difficult time, at first, with Peter’s rooftop vision, in which God spoke to him, saying that no food is unclean any more. This effectively removed the kosher food laws, but it also then allowed for the Gentiles, who did not have these laws, to be part of the Church! The kosher laws separated the Chosen People from the surrounding nations, but the removal of them allowed for the Church to be united as one.
So salvation is now for all, but still Christ emphasizes in this passage that all will not be saved. We are to enter through the narrow door. Because he was speaking to the Jews as he taught and preached throughout the area, he was telling them that being Jewish wasn’t enough. (Of course, many examples throughout the Old Testament proclaimed the same thing, and we read about the Jewish people repeatedly being disciplined by God for their sinful ways.) He tells them that, at some point, the door will be shut, and they, too, will be shut out from the Kingdom of God.
Twice they are rebuffed with the phrase: I do not know where you are from. Although they know Jesus, they have not acknowledged him, but rather denied him; now it is their turn to be denied (Luke 12:8–9): Depart from me, all you evildoers! These words echo those of the psalmist — Away from me, all who do evil! (Psalm 6:9). Now it is too late to knock (Luke 11:10). The evildoers have missed their chance to repent (13:1–9). – Gadenz, Pablo T., The Gospel of Luke (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) (pp. 258–259). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In a broader sense, of course, these words also apply to all of us who, through our baptism, are members of the Body of Christ. The Church has, from the beginning, never guaranteed a person’s salvation for the simple reason that every person has a free will. Salvation is a grace and a free gift, but what we do with it is our choice alone. The Didache Bible says of the narrow door that “the path to salvation is open and the invitation is clear, but following Christ requires self-renunciation, a life of deep prayer, and an unconditional love for everyone.” The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture says that, “One must strive or struggle to [enter through the narrow door]. Using the same Greek verb, Paul writes, ‘Fight the good fight of the faith’ (1 Timothy 6:12 NRSV). Many are not able or strong enough. Despite God’s universal saving will (1 Tim 2:4), salvation should not be taken for granted!” The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible says, “Salvation depends first on God’s grace, then on our cooperation and obedience (Ephesians 2:8–10; Philippians 2:12–13). Jesus here stresses the difficulties of the spiritual life, where few will enter God’s glory while the door remains open.”
This, of course, is what Scripture has always taught! St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians that each of them should “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.” There is no instant salvation or predestined eternal bliss in that instruction. This is no easy thing. I laughed when I was watching an old clip from one of Mother Angelica’s shows. Somebody asked her how to avoid purgatory. She said in her inimitable style, “Darling, that is an easy thing! To avoid purgatory you must do one thing. You must do the will of God every moment of every day.” And I thought to myself, “Ah Mother, but how often do I forget God most moments of the day, because I am busy doing what I am doing, with no thought of Him at all. So how can I do his will, when I am not even thinking about Him?” And as Shakespeare said, “There’s the rub.”
How indeed! We must constantly collect our thoughts towards God and away from the world. We must always ask his grace upon our every action. We must always ask for his forgiveness because so often we don’t even realize that we have sinned. We must put on our old Protestant bracelets and remind ourselves to ask, “What would Jesus do?” And even if we figure that out, we then have to ask for the strength and courage to actually do it.
Much mercy is needed and much grace, but our God is equal to it. He will give it to us if we ask. The sacraments of the Church are there for the taking, but will we avail ourselves of them? And will we remember God from moment to moment?