Presumption and the Narrow Gate

21st Sunday of the Year  (C)

Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.  Luke 13:24

One of the livelier discussions I still recall from my seminary days, long ago, was whether or not Judas was damned.  One of our professors had made the quite accurate statement in class one day that the Church had never stated that any human person was surely in Hell, not even Judas. He argued that the Church, which can and does make such infallible judgments that certain persons are in Heaven, the canonization of saints, had no similar mandate or power granted to her for making such an infallible judgment about anyone being damned in Hell.

While all this may be true, our discussion on Judas did not hinge on the Church’s infallible power of judgment, but on the words of Christ in scripture, where Jesus says that it would have been better had the one who was about to betray him had never been born and on the fact that Judas is clearly designated by Jesus as the Son of perdition in John 17:12.  Many saints have understood these words as a fearsome judgment on Judas even if the Church herself has never spoken definitively on the matter.

As Christians, we certainly must have the mind and heart of Jesus, and since He died for all of mankind, including Judas, and Hitler, and Stalin, and Mao, and every other evil genius in history, surely we must leave open the possibility that somehow these men repented of their evil before their judgment by God. Moreover, since Jesus loved all human persons without exception enough to die for salvation of each and every one, then surely, if we would be Christians, we must, like Jesus, have the Charity to desire their salvation, which means to desire that they may have repented before death, no matter how unlikely that might seem to us.

However, while all this is true, it is quite another thing to assert as some do today  that even Judas was saved  because the love and mercy of God will not allow anyone, no matter how evil their lives, to be eternally lost, that in the end all will in fact be saved. That was the erroneous opinion of Origen and some of his followers in the 3rd Century that has been condemned by the Church numerous times. It was a dangerously false opinion then, and it is still dangerously false today. The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, and in many other places leave us no room for such a misunderstanding of the Christian virtues of faith and hope.  It is one thing to believe that all man can be saved by the grace of the redemption, that Jesus died for the salvation of all mankind, and quite another to jump to the conclusion that all mankind will be saved.  It is one thing to desire the salvation of all, since Jesus died for all, and quite another to suggest or assert that all in fact will be saved, regardless of how they live their lives in this world, and apparently with no desire to repent of their evil while they were dying.

We find no support from Jesus for any such notion of universal salvation, regardless of persons’ beliefs or moral actions.  Jesus certainly teaches us that God is infinitely merciful, but He never taught us that God saves the unrepentant sinner.  Such a notion is a true contradiction of God’s justice, and ultimately denies God’s truthfulness. To suggest that a person will be saved without repentance for sin, is to deny that sin is truly destructive of the person as such and of his or her supernatural life. Sin becomes something purely extrinsic to man’s being, a kind of legalistic reality, an extrinsic legal relationship that can simply be forgiven without any change in the being of the person, no true repentance of the free will.

The truth is that for God to forgive the person who is unrepentant would be to totally deny any significance to the freedom of the human person in the process of salvation. This was the error of Luther and other Protestant reformers. They had a false notion of the relation between faith, freedom and man’s salvation. They also had a false understanding of the real nature of sin as a wound in our being and the real nature of Grace as an inner transformation of the sinner which requires man’s free cooperation.

The only things that will exclude man from Heaven are a refusal of the gift of faith or the presence of grave sin in the human will. Mortal sin, properly understood, is actually a form of death, the exclusion of God’s supernatural Life from the soul.  The person living in such a state of grave sin is a dead man in relation to God, for the life of God is totally absent from that person’s soul. Moreover, God alone can restore that person to Life in the supernatural order, which is what God’s forgiveness really means, that is, being raised from the dead. But God cannot do this without the person’s willingness to live that supernatural life, a willingness that manifests itself by the act of sincere repentance.  This willingness to live the Life of God as God lives it is absolutely contradicted by a deliberate unwillingness to reject a mode of life contrary to the Will of God.  Thus being unrepentant for grave sin is truly spiritual suicide, because it is human freedom refusing to allow God to forgive the sin which is an act of raising the person from spiritual death to Eternal Life.

The idea that all are saved in the end also seems to directly contradict the statement in today’s Gospel, and likewise in Matthew Chapter 7, that there will be souls who will arrive at their judgment unrepentant.  In today’s Gospel from Luke, the people ask Jesus if only few will be saved, which seems to imply that his difficult teaching seems likely to exclude the many. What does Jesus answer?  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus simply warns that one must “strive to enter through the narrow gate” which surely means that no one can get to Heaven without a great effort.  He also directly states that many will not be strong enough to get through that gate, and be excluded from the Kingdom, which still seems to avoid the question whether only a few will be saved. On the other hand, Matthew’s Gospel is more detailed as to the full meaning of this narrow gate with reference to salvation:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Mt. 7:13-14)

What, then, is this narrow way and narrow gate referring to if not the struggle required of our freedom to make our way to Heaven?  In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus contrasts this narrow way/gate which leads to Heaven and requires much effort with the broad and easy way/gate that leads to Hell. He says few take the difficult path to Heaven, while many take the broad and easy way to Hell. While this does not absolutely settle the question as to whether only a very few will be saved, it certainly seems to exclude the idea of universal salvation and indicates that many will not be saved.

So what concretely is this broad gate and easy way that leads to Hell? Surely this indicates the way people take when they declare that it does not matter how you live, just so you are kind towards your neighbor.  The broad way means one chooses to live as if God ignores the violation of the commandments and does not really require repentance for sin – in spite of the fact that the call to repentance is at the heart of Jesus’ preaching from beginning to end – and one takes false comfort by focusing exclusively on the mercy of God.  This broad and easy way has a name, and it is the way of presumption, which is the counterfeit of the virtue of Hope, which can only be real if based upon the narrow way.

The narrow gate and way, on the other hand, is the way of the commandments, and the way of repentance for one’s sins, and this way is never easy for us sinners.  That is why Jesus calls it narrow or difficult, because it’s not easy in our wounded human nature to obey all God’s commandments, and with our human pride, it’s not easy for us to admit that we are living in sin and in need of repentance.  How often do we hear people say today, what does it matter what the Church says on this or that moral issue; I say there is nothing wrong with that!   Many said the same thing to Jesus directly, for the way of repentance was narrow then and it is narrow today.

Jesus anticipated the sin of presumption, or false hope. In Mathew’s Gospel, immediately after speaking of the narrow gate and way, in the very next verse, Jesus warns us to “beware of false prophets” which may well mean in this context false prophets who reject the necessity of choosing the narrow way, the false prophets of presumption. Likewise, in today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus goes on to speak about people arriving at the judgment presuming they are saved, only to be rejected by Him. The real issue here is not whether most people think they will be saved, but whether they will be saved in fact, and thus whether their hope is real Hope or just presumption. True Christian Hope in salvation is based upon two things: first of all, the mercy of God and His faithfulness to his promises to forgive us and to reward our fidelity to Him by giving us Eternal Life by uniting us to His Infinite goodness. But, secondly, Hope is authentic and realistic only if it is also based upon our free determination to do whatever God requires of us in order to enter Eternal Life through the narrow gate so as to participate in his infinite being and goodness. That cooperation requires our conscious and free efforts to obey his commandments and to live Godly lives as Jesus teaches us.

The sin of presumption leaves out the second part, and one simply assumes that one can live any way one chooses in this world, according to one’s own interpretation of right and wrong, and that God will simply respect our sincerity and his mercy will forgive all, even if we refuse to recognize our sins and repent.  Sincerity is certainly one thing God looks at, but a person can be sincerely wrong and responsible for that wrong in spite of the sincerity.  Only God knows when sincerity excuses wrong doing, because only God knows what has caused us to be sincerely wrong, our free will, or something that blinded us to the truth.

What a truly frightening thing it is, or should be, to hear Jesus say  that people will arrive at their judgment filled with false hope, perfectly confident that they are saved, and they will be told by Jesus that He does not recognize them as his followers, since they never really followed his teaching, but simply their own will.  Notice that some will try to claim membership in the kingdom not by their fidelity to his teaching on the commandments, but simply because He taught in their streets, and ate with them.  The Sermon on the Mount suggests that this eating and drinking make have overtones of the Eucharist, as if simply receiving the Lord in this Holy Meal will give us a claim on heaven, regardless of one’s refusal to live by his law, or refusal to repent of our sins.  In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus says that even if we work miracles in his Name, and preach the Gospel, it will do us no good unless we keep the commandments and repents of one’s failure to do so. Then in that passage from Matthew, Jesus sums it all up when he says that the one who will inherit his Father’s kingdom is not the one who cries “Lord, Lord,” but only the one who keeps His commandments. In another place he simply says – if you love me keep my commandments. If one fails to do that, nothing else will bring salvation, not miracles, not preaching, not having known him historically or eaten with him or even all the good works you may have performed. All this matters only if one keeps his commandments and repent for one’s sins when one fails to keep them.

God powerfully wills our salvation, no question about that, for the death of His Son for our salvation proves it. And if we are sincerely trying to live by his commandments, and our sincerity is proven by our repentance when we fail, then we will have a genuine Hope for our personal salvation.  But there always remains the danger of presumption on our part, that we will start thinking that we can somehow take the broad, easy way of living, any way we choose to live, and that God will not care; rather than taking the narrow way of living by the commandments of Christ and His Church, and repenting for our failure to do so when that occurs. That is never easy.   We do not like to confess that we have failed; it’s easier to simply deny that the commandment is a valid commandment. But that is in fact the broad way of presumption, a way applauded by the world, and not the narrow way that Jesus indicates and which the world ridicules.

Interestingly, Jesus never reveals how many will be saved nor whether a majority or minority will be save in the end,  but He simply informs us that while many people try to take the broad way in this world, we must choose the narrow.  The final outcome is known only to God, for conversion always remains a possibility, and we are not to judge these matters before the appointed time, when Jesus alone will bring about that final judgment.  The bottom line is this: if we have true Christian Hope, we will not give up on God and will continue to struggle. And if we have true Charity, we will not give up on anyone else during our time in this world.  Hope is a necessary virtue for our salvation, and so is the Charity by which we desire the salvation of all, just as Jesus did.  But Hope is authentic only if it is realistic, based upon our willingness to do God’s will, and then trust in his reward and his mercy.  Charity is realistic only if we are willing to work and pray for the salvation of all.


Categories: Homilies

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Littlemore Tracts

R. M. A. Pilon

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