What Makes the Gate Narrow?
Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Peter Hunter contrasts the infinitely wide-open love of God and the fickleness of our wills that narrows the gate to salvation.
Lots of Christians down the centuries have made the mistake of believing that God’s salvation was a limited affair. “Very few will be saved, and most of those will be monks,” the heresiarch Pelagius was supposed to have said.
But first of all, Scripture tells us, in the first letter of St Paul to Timothy, that God wants all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Moreover, when St John records his vision of Heaven in the book of the Apocalypse, he says, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” This is hardly a limited affair.
Our first reading takes the same tack. The LORD is gathering people of all the nations on Earth. Israel had to come to accept that while the Jewish people were to have a special place in God’s plan of salvation, his will to gather people to himself was much wider than the bounds of the nation of Israel.
Part of our Gospel today, however, seems to say the opposite: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” If God wants all to be saved, if salvation is not a limited affair, why is the door narrow? Why will many be unable to enter? Perhaps it feels like God says he wants us all, but then he sets the bar impossibly high, and indeed, maybe we feel anxious that we ourselves will not find that narrow gate.
John Chrysostom asks whether there is some contradiction here. Jesus says elsewhere that his yoke is easy and his burden light. Chrysostom points the way to the resolution of these tensions when he says, “the one was said because of the nature of temptations, the other with respect to the feeling of those who overcame them.” He goes on to talk of the way that this narrow gate leads to wide-open space.
The other side of the gate, then, God’s side, is wide open. It is as wide as the love of God, which is to say that it is, in fact, infinitely wide. The gate is narrow, not from God’s side, but from ours.
What makes the gate narrow? Chrysostom tells us: temptation. St John puts it this way in his Gospel: “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” God offers us his love, calls us to the one thing that would satisfy us, love of him, and we close our hearts. The gate is narrow because of the fickleness of our wills. We are so easily called away from God’s path to other things.
It’s not that God has made a bad world. The things which attract us are desirable not because they are bad, but because they are good, but we love them too much or for the wrong reasons. We love things selfishly and short-sightedly. We close the door to the promptings of God in our hearts. We allow ourselves to be called away from the door by a million pleasures and cares of the world.
So should the Gospel make us anxious? If we are living our lives carelessly, then perhaps it should. Jesus calls us back to ourselves. We become slack when we should strive to enter. The Gospel reminds us of the offer God is making to us. It calls us every day to repent.
But it also reminds us of the infinitely wide, saving love of God, who is quick to forgive and to set us on the path to the wide-open spaces of his company. We may make the door narrow or even sometimes slam it shut by our fickle wills, but we don’t depend on our own strength, on our own ability to find the way. God wants us for himself and when we do not resist that love, he will himself lead us on the path to his wide-open pastures.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the cloister entrance into the Nativity Basilica in Bethlehem.