Holiness Found in Struggle
by Rev. Stephen G. Oetjen
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?" He answered them, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, 'Lord, open the door for us.' He will say to you in reply, 'I do not know where you are from.' And you will say, 'We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.' Then he will say to you, 'I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!' And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
"Lord, will only a few people be saved?" In today's Gospel, Our Lord responds to this question, but he does so without indulging the inquirer's curiosity about precise numbers. Such curiosity wuld be helpful neither to that man nor to us. Instead, Our Lord answers the question with a command; "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough." It's a command directed to all those following Christ who might want to ask the question, "Will only a few be saved?" He answers, "Strive" (You all, who are listening to me, you strive). Jesus doesn't want to indulge our curiosity about others. He instead redirects our focus to the task before us.
And what is that task before us? What does it mean to strive to enter the narrow gate? It means that salvation does not come easily or automatically. We don't just accidentally "drift" into heaven through complacency or lukewarmness. The word Jesus uses for "strive" here is the Greek word from which comes our English word "agony." It means that there is a struggle that requires exertion. There is a good fight to be fought. There is something worth fighting for.
Elsewhere, Jesus says that "the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone enters it violently" (Lk 16: 16 cf. Mt 11:12). The life of the Christian is one of spiritual combat. And the battle is more internal than external. St. Josemaria Escriva once described it as "a war each of us makes on himself." We do battle against our pride, our selfish desires, our envy, our superficiality, and all that is contrary to the love of God. "Turning your back on this conflict, no matter what the excuse," says St. Josemaria, "means surrendering before you have begun to fight."
For some, hearing this Gospel passage only exacerbates a sense of dreadful anxiety. Rightly understood, however, the passage is profoundly reassuring. We all struggle. And this Gospel affirms that's the way it's supposed to be. Don't be discouraged by the fact that you struggle. If you are struggling, it means you haven't thrown in the towel. You haven't refused to fight the good fight for the kingdom. Your struggling is evidence that you are in the fight. There's a big difference between struggling with sin and simply indulging it and being comfortable with it. It is in this struggle that we learn how to rely on God and we are made more Christ-like.
Once more, consider the words of St. Josemaria Escriva on the matter: "Let's not deceive ourselves: in our life we will find vigor and victory and depression and defeat. This has always been true of the earthly pilgrimage of Christians, even of those we venerate on the altars. Don't you remember Peter, Augustine, Francis? I have never liked biographies of saints that naively - but also with a lack of sound doctrine - present their deeds as if they had been confirmed in grace from birth. No. The true life stories of Christian heroes resemble our own experience: they fought and won: they fought and lost. And then, repentant, they returned to the fray."
Your struggling means you don't stay down when you fall; you don't let yourself get comfortable in sin and continually drift away. Rather, you repent and begin again. You struggle against sin and strive to be faithful to Christ. As the Lord told St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). The fact that Our Lord tells us to "strive to enter the narrow gate" means that it is supposed to be difficult, just like anything else worth fighting for. Even our weakness can encourage us to press on with all the more confidence in the power of God.