‘Sir, will there be only a few saved?’ So starts this Sunday’s Gospel. This question has been repeated and pondered by theologians ever since.
The late Cardinal Dulles provides a good rundown of the historical debate. In a nutshell, many saints, mystics and theologians lament that most of us are bound for Hell. And many other saints, mystics and theologians speculate that God is so irresistibly attractive that even the most evil people eventually repent and Hell’s population is negligible.
Given all the ink spilled contemplating the question, you’d think Our Lord could have replied more directly. ‘Will only a few be saved?’ demands a single world answer. Yes or no. But our Lord is not so obliging:
Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed. (Lk 13:24)
In other words: “That’s not a good question. Here’s the answer to the question you should have asked — ie: ‘how are we saved?'”
I think I can see why our Lord replied this way. Pondering the populations of Hell and Heaven isn’t much better than spiritual naval-gazing. As soon as we are focused on the number of the elect, we have lost our focus on the task at hand:
getting souls to Heaven. sharing in Christ’s redemptive mission.* It’s the sort of self-reference which Cardinal Bergoglio warned against in the speech he delivered before he was duly elected pope:
When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick . . .
When the Church is inadvertently self-referential, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness . . .
Put simply, there are two images of the Church: the evangelising Church who comes out of herself, the Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidente proclamans; and the worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself.
Of course the future pope was referring to the Church at large. But often enough, what is true of the Church at large is also true of each us, personally and individually. So, to be an authentic Christian — to be apostolic — we must “hear the word of God with reverence and proclaim it in faith.”
In view of the Sunday Gospel, what does it mean, to “enter by the narrow door?” Elsewhere, our Lord insists:
I am the door. Anyone who enters through me will be saved. (Jn 10:9.)
To be saved, we must conform to Jesus Christ. That might sound self-referential, but it is — paradoxically — the very opposite. To conform ourselves to Christ, we must love as our Lord loves — madly, indiscriminately, forgetting ourselves.
Loving like Christ is costly. Hence, ‘many try and do not succeed.’ It requires us to embrace the cross, which is the only place such love can lead us. If we dare to love like Jesus, we will be hurt like Jesus.
Loving this way — living this way — is the very antithesis of self-reference.
This is something I’ve got to work on this. Please God, my lifetime is time enough!
* Revised. (See comments.)