22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” [i]
We have been looking at some of Jesus’ parables of grace, examples of God’s one-way love for the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. We heard Jesus’ first grace story parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go off in search of one lost sheep – a completely upside-down action contrary to the rules of successful sheep ranching. We learned that Jesus seeks the lost and only the lost; he raises the dead and only the dead. We examined his parable of the Mugged Man left for dead outside the gates of Jerusalem. We learned that the main character in the parable is the mugged man and that the “moral” of the story is leaning to identify with Christ in his death. It’s not about being a Good Sam; it’s about with whom we identify. Do we identify with ourselves and our plans for life management, or do we identify with Messiah stripped, beaten and left for dead outside the city?
Now, we come to a grace parable that’s also a judgment parable. Judgment becomes an increasingly prominent theme as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem. Luke mentioned in 9:31 Jesus’ “exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” In 9:51, he wrote, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up[or, “received”], he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Now, in 13:22 he frames this parable by reminding us Jesus is, “journeying toward Jerusalem.”[ii]Following this parables, in verse 33, Jesus again asserts his will to go and die in Jerusalem. “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.”[iii]That tells us the Narrow Door parable, like all the grace parables, is shot through with the theme of Jesus’ death.
Luke begins this section with the Parable of the patient vinedresser, emphasizing the themes of grace and judgment. Then we see Jesus healing a crippled woman on the sabbath – in a synagogue no less. The local authorities were not amused that Jesus openly violated their traditions. Proving himself Lord of the Sabbath, he openly shames them by pointing out the hypocrisy of their rules. The chapter then moves to the parable of the Mustard Seed and the parable of the Yeast, both of which emphasize littleness, death and resurrection as kingdom themes.
The parable of the Patient Vinedresser, or the non-performing fig tree (the fig tree being an Old Testament symbol for Israel), emphasizes God’s patience as he awaits Israel’s repentance and entrance into Messiah Jesus’ kingdom. It’s tinged with the threat the non-performing tree will be cut down and burned. The rulers’ objection to a sabbath healing demonstrates their refusal to repent even in the face of Messianic miracles. So, Jesus tells his listeners that the kingdom starts out little like a tiny seed or a grain of yeast. The threat of judgment in the fig tree parable, followed by the hostility of the synagogue’s leaders, combined with comparing the kingdom to miniscule seeds and grains of yeast makes some of Jesus’ listeners wonder about the eventual size of his saving kingdom. Will only a few make it in?
Luke writes, in verse 23, “And someone said to him, ‘“Lord, will those who are saved be few?’”[iv]According to a widely-held Jewish opinion, endorsed by the rabbis, Israel as a whole would be saved.[v]Considering the harsh-sounding warnings of judgment and Jesus’ unswerving emphasis on the law as a measure of sin rather than a means of salvation, we can understand the questioner’s concern. It’s also not a stretch for us to imagine Jesus is exasperated since his main point has been completely missed. He was, after all, preaching a message of salvation that made eternal life available to absolutely everybody who heard it – and for free at that. All anyone had to do was die to their own bookkeeping. Christ would do the rest.
The problem was that his hearers, even his most dedicated disciples, had no concept of the salvation Jesus was offering. Not one person in his audience was in any way prepared to understand the idea of a Messiah who would win by dying. So, it’s not at all surprising that Jesus’ parabolic hints of his death and resurrection – not to mention his literal predictions of the same events – went completely unheard. Jesus’ listeners fasten on to the notes they can hear: judgment and condemnation. But they skip the death and resurrection by which grace exclusively works. Consequently, this mysterious kingdom sounds darned hard to enter.
Jesus could have answered quite simply, “Heck no! Those who are saved will be so many John here won’t be able to count them when he’s caught up into heaven about 60 years from now.” Instead, he gives no direct answer. He deliberately perpetuates their confusion by giving his answer in the ham-fistedly judgmental imagery of the Narrow Door. It is a prime example of Jesus positively encouraging misunderstanding so that “hearing they do not understand; and seeing they do no perceive” (Isa. 6:8; Matt. 13:14). Jesus speaks to the entire crowd of followers. He answers in the plural, “Y’all strive to enter the narrow door. For many, I tell y’all, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
Now, the only thing his questioner could possibly have heard Jesus say is, “You bet there’s going to be darn few who enter; and, if you’re smart, you’ll get busy right now racking up as many assets as you can in your ledger book. Maybe you’ll be able to squeeze your way through the door!” I think we all hear Jesus saying that sometimes. In Matthew 7:13 he said:
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.[vi]
Occasionally as a child, when I wasn’t performing up to expectations, my mother or father would tell me to strive to enter the narrow door. They believed firmly in salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, by faith alone. But none of us ever really shake that idea that we have to look inward for our assurance of salvation and make sure we were all striving enough. Maybe you’ve heard your share of well-intentioned believers telling you to look inward and strive as well. That’s how all of us naturally want to hear Jesus in this parable. We want to rip him out of his context and apply his statement to our lives as believers. There is no small number of preachers who apply the text exactly that way, completely missing Jesus’ use of irony.
So, exactly what IS the narrow door? “The narrow door – the tight squeeze in front of absolutely free salvation – is faith in Jesus’ death.”[vii]Jesus doesn’t set up an American Ninja obstacle course and threaten to admit only the winners.
Jesus has simply put, smack in the front of his Father’s house of many mansions, the one, scant doorway way of his death and ours. Its forbidding narrowness lies not in the fact that it is so small it is hard to find; rather it lies in the fact that it is so repulsive it is hard to accept.[viii]
To any natural man, lacking the ministry of the Holy Spirit to perceive the things of God, Jesus’ program of salvation through death is downright goofy. It lets in all the wrong sort of people, since all they have to do is be dead. It completely offends the winners, since they would be caught dead considering such a ludicrous proposition. But it is Jesus himself who says, in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”[ix]It is Jesus himself who is the door, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”[x]
Now do you see how that demolished the idea of “narrowness” as exclusivity, something available only spiritual ninjas with the fastest course times? The drawing of all God’s people to himself comes through the narrow door of death. You may ignore it, run from it, protest the stupidity of it – all in the name of what you call “life.” But if you ever slip up in your frantic struggle to earn your way– if once you simply drop dead to bookkeeping – well, then the suction will draw you through the narrow door and home you will go. Not because you deserve to, mind you; only because that’s the way the universe is built. Redeeming death lies under all of history. It was the Lamb Slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8) who said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”.[xi]
Salvation is hard; and, salvation is easy. The hardest thing about it is its easiness. It uses such cheap, low-down methods that only the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead will ever be able to grasp it. That is exactly what Jesus says at the end of his introduction (Luke 13:24) to the parable of the Narrow Door: “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (will not have the strength for it). This is no door to be pried open by those who live strong. It draws in the lost, and only the lost. It sucks in the dead, and only the dead.
Jesus moves from the gracious offer made in the narrowness of death to the “act now” part of his message. He says, “25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’”[xii] Luke uses the same word here translated as “master of the house” in 14:15-24 to describe the party-giver in the parable of the Great Supper who goes to heroic lengths to fill his house with guests. Matthew applies that word in numerous places: to the instructed disciple who brings new and old treasures out for display; to the lord of the vineyard, the gracious Christ-figure in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16); 16); and to the figure of God the Father in the parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants (Matt. 21:33-44) – that is, to the vineyard owner whose son was killed for the sake of the vineyard. The householder, or master of the house, is a gracious Christ figure.
But here, Jesus pictures him as having a time-limit on his offer of grace. The story pictures the master of the house in the late evening. Perhaps he’s dozing off following the 10 o’clock newscast. Just as he gets up and turns out the lights, locks the door, and heads off to bed he’s interrupted by banging on the front door. A mob of people who claim to be his friends want to invite themselves in. Their request for admittance is based solely upon their concerns, their convenience, their wants – in short, their lives. But the master’s door only admits the dead into a place of resurrected living.
The mob is indignant at his snub. “But we’ve done lunch with you! We’ve had drinks with you at the club! We’ve even attended some of your fabulous lectures!” This crowd simply doesn’t fit in with the housemaster’s plans. “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’”[xiii]How astonishing is this rejection to the “in crowd” demanding to honor the householder with their presence. How dare anyone reject the opportunity to hang out with them? But to the housemaster, these self-absorbed folks with their idiotic lives and selfish preoccupations might as well be from another planet. They haven’t the dimmest idea of how the housemaster choses to operate. Jesus isn’t simply locking out the damned; he’s closing the door to ordinary living in the right-side-up world. Ordinary living has no place in his house. No one can live their way into salvation. Only nothingness and death can pass through the narrow door into the new and truly abundant resurrection life. “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[xiv]
If that is true for the shocked and offended insiders left outside the narrow door, then how much more true ought that to be for us who are already drawn inside the house of Christ’s kingdom? You cannot be drawn through the narrow door and expect to live a perfectly normal, right-side-up life centered on your wants, your concerns, your convenience, your plans, or even your hurts and offenses. See Step One: It’s all about Jesus! In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, we get over our cheap selves and go on about the business of serving our neighbor in the name of Christ.
Remember, Jesus’ words have a context; and his context is not 21st-century American Evangelical Gentiles, but 1st-century Palestinian Jews who presume they are insiders simply by virtue of their Jewishness. As far as his listeners are concerned, they are the ultimate insiders – expert at the skilled living that certifies their admission to the great party to come. The gracious housemaster is not telling them they are unwelcome because of their Jewishness, their culture, their history. He’s telling them ANYONE is welcome, so long as they drop dead first.
Jesus says that those who are knocking at the door of ordinary, plausible, right-handed living – all of them, mind you, “good” people trying to live decently – are nothing but workers of iniquity, that is, of the unrighteousness that springs from unfaith. Good living is no more capable of justifying us than bad living is of condemning us. Only faith in Jesus dead and risen has anything to do with the case.[xv]
Jesus explains the parable: “28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.”[xvi]The excluded aren’t sad for the way they treated Messiah, the great house manager. They are weeping over themselves. They are livid and teeth-gnashing over the rejection of their status and their well-managed, right-side-up lives in which they refused to identify with the man beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead on the roadside outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Their Jewishness doesn’t save them; but neither does it damn them since the patriarchs and prophets are all inside the house, pressed together at the open bar with spilling-over plates from the sumptuous buffet, laughing and celebrating and toasting the housemaster’s gracious hospitality. Jesus drives that home by citing specific examples of faith – of blind, even stupid, obedience to the God who works by raising the dead. He holds up Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets and he says that they will be the ones who are in the kingdom, while all the types who are trying to climb their way into the eternal social register will be out in the cold.
To finally (but still indirectly) answer the question of whether or not Messiah will have a tiny kingdom, Jesus tells them, “29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” [xvii]His house is full to overflowing because his kingdom is catholic, universal. Messiah’s grace extends to every corner of the globe, to every compass point, to people of every tribe and tongue and nation and culture and color.
Jesus says all who identify with his deadness and resurrection will sit down at supper. Having just completed Revelation, we recognize this as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. That imagery suggests not a trickle of guests who, after heroic efforts and agonizing moral striving, will find their way to some poorly-attended and lame house party, but a flood of billions upon billions who – free, for nothing – will be drawn by the love of Jesus into the ultimate wedding blowout. True enough, they will be drawn through strait gates and narrow ways; but they will be drawn by the Narrow Door himself, and they will be drawn inexorably. All they need is the Spirit-wrought willingness to be last – and lost and least and little and dead – for by his grace upon their deaths, they will be first in the resurrection of the dead.[xviii]
[vii]Capon. Kindle Locations 3361-3362.
[xi]Capon, Kindle Locations 3377-3378.
[xv]Capon. Kindle Locations 3463-3465.
[xviii]Capon. Kindle Locations 3470-3473.