When I was 13 I joined the Air Cadets and at 17 I joined the HMCS Griffon, the Naval Reserve. I joined both for the same reason, I wanted some place where I felt like I belonged, where I was accepted for who I was. Both the Air Cadets and Naval Reserve demanded my commitment and to accept their values and goals to remain part of both organizations. We all have a need inside us to belong, to know that we’re part of something, usually something bigger than us that gives us some kind of foundation in our life to move forward on. This is why kids have their secret groups with passwords and secret handshakes, this is why some teens are drawn into gangs. I’ve often found myself amazed that so many churches are shy about demanding this kind of commitment. I’ve also found that when I join something that demands my commitment, I value it more and work harder for it.
We are created to belong, yet so many people search for a place to belong. Many people struggle with feelings of being left out, not included, of not being seen or recognized, of always living life on the outside looking in to everyone else’s life filled with joy and happiness. This is why social media is so addicting, because people look into the lives of the people in their groups to see if they are being included and still part of the group. If they see others enjoying themselves and they didn’t know about it, they feel a sense of being left out and even cast out. They then might search for places and groups in their community to join and belong. Some reach out and gather a few people around them who are also looking for someplace to belong and they may use a need or cause to build a sense of community among each other so they might have a place where they belong.
There are even members in the church who experience this, wondering if they really belong, wondering if Jesus sees them, accepts them. This is the kind of the thinking and feeling that lies behind the question Jesus is asked about being saved, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” The expected answer to the question of how many people are going to be saved is, “Don’t worry, there might only be a few saved, but you are definitely one of the few.” After-all, this is Jerusalem, the place of the Temple and they’re the Jews, God’s people, so of course Jesus is going to reassure them that they belong, they’re part of God’s “in group.” But Jesus takes the conversation in a different direction, to a parable about narrow doors, a feast, and people outside who are weeping and gnashing their teeth and never really gives them a straight forward answer. Jesus doesn’t answer the question about how many people are going to be saved, but instead focuses on the who and how.
“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” My first thought is, ‘what is Jesus getting at here?’ then, as I tried to listen more carefully to what Jesus said, I begin to get some idea of what he’s getting at here. Jesus uses the phrase “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door,” and I took a look at the words Jesus uses here. ‘Make every effort’ in Greek is about striving, working towards, struggling, having a focus. Somehow it feels wrong to believe that my salvation depends on me making every effort to get in the narrow door, so Jesus must be pointing to something else instead.
We need to hear Jesus’ words that come before this. Jesus talks about repenting or perishing. Repenting is about changing our life in response to God’s grace and forgiveness. Jesus goes on to heal a woman on the Sabbath, which according to the religious leaders was wrong because it was considered work. Jesus is frustrated with these people and accuses them of caring more about their animals than about this woman. Then just before this story of the narrow door, Jesus tells the people that the kingdom of God is like yeast, starting small and growing in us. All these things point to the importance of relationships with God and with each other. Jesus is the one who saves us from our sins through his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus is the one who offers us new life, offers forgiveness and grace; the stuff Jesus wants us to strive for is a deeper relationship with him. As John 3:16 reminds us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s a relationship statement, believing in someone is about trust and trust comes out of relationship.
The struggle is against our own desires, our tendency to focus on ourselves instead of Jesus because our own will is so strong. This is what Jesus is getting at when he talks about those who try to enter and will not be able to. These people are looking to get in, but there’s no real effort made, nor a deep desire beforehand. They’ll have all kinds of excuses, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets,” but they never cared enough to actually build a relationship with the owner of the house. They want the benefits of belonging without the effort. I’ve had people say that Jesus is playing mean here by rejecting people, but if you’re looking to find a place where you belong, it happens when you respond to Jesus’ invitation to come follow him, to find your rest in him, to find your identity in him.
It’s like marriage or any other relationship that’s meaningful. You need to put effort into it; if it’s all about you, the relationship will never grow any deeper. It’s like any relationship, if you don’t work on it, if you don’t make an effort to build your relationship, it shows that either it isn’t really important to you, or you’re so self-centered you put all the responsibility for the relationship on the other person. The people Jesus is talking about heard the words of Jesus, but never took them to heart, never allowed Jesus’ way and words to shape their hearts and lives, their minds and souls. They listened and then quickly forgot because it wasn’t about them. So then because they felt entitled, they believe they should be let into the house where there’s a feast happening simply because they should be allowed in, even though they never bothered with having a deep and meaningful relationship with the owner. They want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace,’ where people believe that God is obligated to forgive them and offer them grace but they don’t need to make any effort on to respond to God’s grace. Jesus died, we’re forgiven and therefore never need to change.
A true relationship changes you. It changes you because you care so deeply about the other person that you focus more on them than on yourself. Jesus speaks in parables and calls us to listen, and when a rabbi calls you to listen, it’s expected that you will respond to what you hear. Listening is not passive, it’s active. As you change in order to please the other person, they change because you have shown that this relationship is important to you and you are invited into their heart, you find a person and place where you belong. At the heart of this parable, that’s what’s going on. The narrow door is a relationship with the owner of the mansion, the host of the feast, with Jesus and our Father in heaven. It’s about working towards allowing Jesus to shape our lives, our desires, our focus and our goals. Jesus doesn’t say how many or how few will be saved, he points to the way to experience belonging to the Father through having a relationship with Jesus. Yet when you listen, the feast is filled with people from all over who have worked at their relationship with the host and are now inside.
The comfort comes from knowing that Jesus reaches out to you first and never gives up reaching out to you to have a deeper relationship with you because he wants you to belong, he wants you to know that the feast is for you, that the narrow door takes you home.