2004—Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time—C Listen again to some of the words you have just heard.
Nations of every language, brothers and sisters from all the nations, fame and glory, discipline, no pain no gain, strengthen hands and knees, make straight paths for your feet, strive, strong enough, some who are last will be first, some who are first will be last.
Does that sound like something that has been going on for the past weeks?
I can't hear today's reading today without thinking of what's happening in the Olympics these past weeks. From Isaiah we are given the image of peoples of all nations streaming towards Jerusalem, to the Holy Mountain. From the Olympics we have been given the image of athletes of many nations streaming toward Athens. (another holy mountain, Olympus) And though they are gathered for a "competition", there always seems to be a wonderful spirit of celebration and cooperation. The Olympics at its best reminds us of our shared human inheritance; No matter what race, color, creed, nation, we are all "created in the image and likeness of God". Our humanity binds us together as one. It really is a beautiful image of the human race.
Now of course not everyone is invited to the Olympics. The "narrow gate" through which the athletes must go is that of athletic excellence. Training, discipline, focus on being the best in your field in the world makes this an exclusive experience. In principle all are welcome. In fact only the "cr╦me de la cr╦me" of the athletes in the world can compete. The Olympics is all about performance, proving that you are the best.
Jesus uses this image of the 'narrow gate" when he answers the question "are there few who will be saved". You could get the impression from this text that "salvation" is reserved for those who "work for it", as if salvation is something that is gained by self-discipline, hard work, spiritual training and rigors. In other words "salvation is a reward for high performance". Only the spiritual elite will be welcomed into the kingdom. If we score in the 9's than we have a chance. If we fall off the pommel horse, if there is a terrible flaw in our performance, then our chances for the Gold are at risk. And even if we summon up the courage and the skill for a comeback and get a perfect score in the high bars, does our performance guarantee us a place in the kingdom?
I suppose what I am suggesting is that "salvation" is not about performance. It is about gift. It is about God's invitation to the table to saints and sinners alike. Is there somewhere in the gospel text a sense of 'we deserve to get in" because we are "religious, holy, righteous". The criterion for all people may be a genuine humility before the face of God that says, "I am not worthy to receive you or be received, speak the word and my soul will be healed". It doesn't seem to matter who you are, but "how you are" that makes a difference.
Thank God for events like the Olympics that remind us of all that we share together as a human race. Thank God for scriptures like today that remind us that "salvation" is not a race to be won but a gift to be received.