The Multitude of the Few

Text: Luke 13:22-30
Date: Pentecost XIII (Proper16) + 8/22/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

It was an innocent enough question. Just religious curiosity, I suppose, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” When you look around, especially these days in our country with church attendance at, it seems, an all time low, that may be the first question that comes to mind. Now, that question was either an acknowledgment by this “someone” that this Jesus is such a person who could know the answer to it, or it was just theoretical, an hypothetical, just for the sake of discussion. Have you ever known anyone like that? The person who always seems to like to spar over religious (or political) questions but doesn’t seem like they are really interested in an answer, after all? They’re just interested in the argument. “Faith” is, after all, just a person’s personal opinion, right? But this is no meaningless issue. And Jesus won’t let such a question just drift off into the fog of religious speculation. The questioner asked about others; “those who are saved.” Jesus asks him, “But what about you? Will you be saved?” The question is for the multitudes to be answered one by one.

A second question. This question assumes that the issue is “salvation,” which begs the question, “salvation from what?” The assumption is that we agree the problem of mankind is sin and the judgment and punishment of God against sin. To be “saved” means somehow to escape that punishment and be delivered to fellowship with God. Yet how many today question even the issue of sin or whether God really will judge and punish? In utter confusion a lot of people these days think God is just going to welcome all people into heaven in the end and that there will be no judgment of anyone at all anyway; “the great surprise” some have called it[1].

Warning against all false notions about the way of salvation is the point of Jesus’ reply, saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” When the Lord says, “strive,” He means to describe a struggle. The Greek word is “agonizesthe” from which we get the word “agonize.” The real struggle is not as much the entering of the kingdom as it is resisting and rejecting all false ways of entering, and of remaining in the kingdom having once entered it. For, on the one hand, to “strive” seems to put the onus on us, on our actions or works. All false religions or systems of salvation have this in common, our following the right rules, or our doing the right things to gain God’s pleasure. In other words, salvation by works. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (paragraph 2008). The Qur’an of Islam says, “To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward” (5:9). But the “striving” Jesus refers to here seems to be more the “agony” of resisting and rejecting false teachings that contradict the pure grace and mercy of God’s action in Holy Baptism and through His Word, God producing true repentance and faith in the heart with no action or worthiness on the part of the sinner other than that of faith; only God’s love in action.

The little parable seems to be pointed at those who have some presumption that they are in the kingdom by mere association or acquaintance. “Lord, open to us…. We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” Or, in other words, we were baptized, went through confirmation or the membership class, had our names on the membership list and even went to communion…occasionally. But something was missing: true repentance and faith. I love the little comment (I think by Fred Danker) that says, “As it is narrow and one must struggle, there is no possibility to crawl through this door wearing medals or bearing trophies awarded for good works before people. Nor do people come through in groups (‘the Jews,’ ‘the Pharisees,’ [or we might add, ‘the Lutherans!’], but one by one” (cf. F. Danker, Jesus and the New Age, 160, cited in Just, Luke 9:51—24:53). Which is to say, that it is possible to go through all the right actions and yet to fall away from the faith. This Word today asks us to stop and consider the question anew, “will you be saved?” and return anew to our baptism in repentance and faith.

Repentance. Do it! Do it now! It means, first, to have sorrow over sin. What sin? Consider the Ten Commandments and your station in life. Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm? Then repentance means to turn from sin and toward the mercy of God. That mercy is the result of Jesus’ own substitutionary death on the cross for you, for your sin, and for the sin of the whole world. By His death and His triumphant resurrection from the dead He has taken away your sin, covered it in His blood, released you from God’s judgment against it; the door to the kingdom of heaven is flung wide open. You were ushered through that door by the water and the Word of your holy baptism. Through the divine gift of forgiveness faith grasps, again and again, daily, that extended hand of mercy and moves on to holy, that is, God pleasing living. Agonize. Strive to enter. God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10).

As long as you remember the Great Reversal, that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last,” you will remember to walk the way not of works but the way of daily repentance and of humble faith, faith in God’s work and gifts. These words are, first, a warning to the Jews not to presume a favored place in the kingdom. The idea that they could possibly “see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” seemed impossible. Absurd. And though there most certainly will be few who are saved, they will still be a countless multitude (Rev. 7:9) “from east and west, and from north and south,” in other words not only Jews but a lot of Gentiles too, like God originally promised to Abraham, reclining at table in the kingdom of God, “the heavenly Jerusalem…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22-24).

So where are we right now? The Master of the house has “risen” but the door is not yet shut. When you admit and confess your sin and helplessness you cannot then put on any presumption or claim of favor by God by your own deeds. Yet, when you hear, receive and believe the Lord’s absolution, “I forgive you all your sins,” you own the favor of God by His own love and Word. When you are tempted to despair of God’s love because of your neglect or weakness or sin, know this is the striving and struggle of faith to put your confidence solely and alone in God’s promise in your holy baptism. When you are at table in the kingdom receiving from Jesus His body and blood given and shed for you, believe that His forgiveness, His life, His love is given to you and that you are one of that multitude He has drawn to Himself.

O that we the throng of the ransomed may swell,
To whom He hath granted remission.
God graciously make us in heaven to dwell,
And save us from endless perdition.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!

(Original stanza 4 of “A Multitude Comes,” LSB 510. The Lutheran Hymnary, Augsburg 1913 and 1935, #239)

[1] An important former professor at Valparaiso University (now departed) whom I choose to leave unnamed.