Sermon: Humility Struggles Toward the Narrow Door (Luke 13:22–30 | Pentecost 14C)

Text: Luke 13:22–30

Date: September 14 & 15, 2019

Event: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C


Luke 13:22–30 (EHV)

22He went on his way from one town and village to another, teaching, and making his way to Jerusalem. 23Someone said to him, “Lord, are only a few going to be saved?”

He said to them, 24“Strive to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. 25Once the master of the house gets up and shuts the door, you will begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open for us!’ He will tell you in reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ 26Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27And he will say, ‘I don’t know where you come from. Depart from me, all you evildoers.’ 28There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown outside. 29People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. 30And note this: Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Humility Struggles Toward the Narrow Door

Humility is a tricky thing. We recognize that being humble is a good thing and that having a domineering ego that takes hold of us and dictates all of our decisions tends to go very poorly. But how often is humility seen as a sign of weakness, something that can be taken advantage of? False-humility is also a problem, making it look like you’re humble but it’s only a show. I oftentimes find myself making self-deprecating jokes, which can show that you don’t take yourself too seriously or that you recognize that not everything you think or do is universally correct, but that kind of self-deprecation can easily betray a false humility, where you make the derogatory comment about yourself just so hopefully someone can respond by telling you how great you already think you are.

Jesus in our Gospel for this morning forces us into real humility, humility that recognizes what we are by nature and what we need God to do for us. This humility, when properly applied, causes us to struggle through this life to the narrow door of eternal life with him, trusting his forgiveness to undo our grievous and innumerable faults.

At the start of our Gospel we’re told that Jesus was traveling and teaching, but all the while making his way to Jerusalem. This is not some sightseeing trip that Jesus has in mind. This is his final trip. Progress towards Jerusalem is progress towards his death. The end of his life is fast approaching; the goal of his whole arrival is at hand. He’ll go to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of all people.

But Luke records for us a conversation without much initial context. An unknown, unnamed person asks Jesus, “Lord, are only a few going to be saved?” You can almost hear the question behind this question, right? The person is almost undoubtedly thinking, “Whatever the number of people who are going to be saved is, I want to be a part of that number. How can I be a part of that group, be they many or few?”

Jesus depicts himself as a homeowner whose servants or friends are outside the home. He gets up and locks the door, but the people are still outside. They plead with him to open up. And his response is chilling, “I don’t know you or where you come from.” It’s not simply that he doesn’t know their exact origin. It’s that they’re coming from a place about which he has no knowledge. He doesn’t recognize anything about them. They are not a part of the family that should be behind this door. Those who belong are there. Those who are outside do not belong. They knew of Jesus (“We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.”) but they didn’t value him. They were around him but never with him.

The results are calamity for the people outside. They are where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, a common expression for hell. They see the people who went before them, the patriarchs and prophets, and they even see Gentiles that valued God’s Word greatly eating at that heavenly banquet while they themselves are outside in misery.

And then Jesus ends this brief section with one final barb: and note this: Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. We don’t know if the person who asked him the initial question was a Pharisee, but it would make sense if it was. If he was concerned whether only a few were going to be saved, it would make sense that he was, again, asking what he lacked to be able to earn eternal life. And here Jesus reminds that those who think themselves to be worthy of God’s love will find themselves at the bottom of humanity, and those who are humble and see their unworthiness, these are the ones that Jesus exalts.

Luke records this conversation for us not just a point of interest on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He records it because Jesus’ message to the question-asker are forever-applicable to all people, especially you and me. When thinking of eternal life, when thinking of the things that God would have us prioritize, Jesus uses that word “Strive!” to indicate this is not going to be easy. Certainly the work of our salvation was all done completely and freely by Jesus. His life and subsequent death on the cross would pay for all of our sins with no help from us. Even the faith to trust that forgiveness is a gift from God. We have nothing in that work.

So what is the striving, the struggle, the battle? The battle is putting off the sinful nature’s selfishness and ego and humbly coming to God acknowledging that we are powerless and worthless on our own and need his mercy and forgiveness.

But that conflicts with who we are by nature. We are always the heroes of the narratives of our own lives, right? Oppressed by things that hurt us, exalted by the things we wanted to do and have accomplished, justified when our opinions turn out to be the best option in hindsight. But Jesus forces us to ask the question, “Am I really the hero?” Or, to use his own words, “Am I one of the few or am I one of the many?” Humility is uncomfortable and makes entrance through the narrow door a battle because it forces us to see ourselves as we really are.

We imagine that all of our decisions are correct that our opinions are what is actually right. But Jesus forces us to see things differently. We imagine ourselves as family-focused, and yet Jesus’ law shows us all the times we have disrespected our family and put our desires ahead of theirs. We imagine ourselves as focused on Jesus, but his law reveals to us all the times that we had other priorities than being in his Word and in worship, or those times where we were physically here in church, but not mentally, those times we let his Word go in one ear and out the other without any effect on our lives. We imagine ourselves as law-abiding, but Jesus’ law shows us all the times that we’ve broken the laws placed before us because it was more convenient for us or because we didn’t agree with the politicians who made the law. We imagine ourselves as pretty good in God’s sight, but Jesus forces us to face the facts: we are not perfect, therefore we are damned.

But what is our plan to deal with this? I put off uncomfortable things all the time. I don’t want to get on the scale because I don’t want to know what it says. I don’t want to have that difficult conversation with a family member or a member of our congregation because I don’t want to deal with the headaches and the heartaches.

Is that the way we deal with Jesus, then, avoiding him because it’s difficult or likely going to make us feel bad about ourselves? Are we like the people in Jesus’ brief parable who only begin to speak with him and prioritize him once the door is locked? Do we imagine ourselves to have many years of doing whatever we want to do and then we’ll “get it together” before the end of our lives? But what if we don’t? What if we waste this life and instead of seeking after the things that God would prioritize, we assume that our ways are best and we just do whatever we want to do?

If we spurn Jesus’ forgiveness, we will be those locked outside on the wrong side of the narrow door, pleading with Jesus to open up for us. Would we have the same claim that the people in Jesus’ story did to the master of the house? “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!” Or perhaps put it a different way, “We came to church, we heard your Word, we even ate with you, at your table in the Sacrament!” When we haven’t made him the priority, when we have worshiped the false gods of our desires or worshiped ourselves as good enough to please God, Jesus has only one thing to say to us: “I don’t know where you come from. Depart from me, all you evildoers.”

Remember how Jesus started this round of teaching: “Strive to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Avoiding difficult things and embracing the easy way is a sign of weakness and immaturity. God calls us to be mature, to struggle, to wrestle with ourselves, to drown our sinful natures in the waters of our baptism, to come to Jesus as we are, wretched sinners, and plead for him to make us what we need to be. That type of humility is demoralizing because we have nothing to bring to the table. But in humility we recognize that fact and fully acknowledge that we need him to wash us, to raise us to life, to save us.

And only that crucifying of self and God’s gift of rebirth in Jesus’ death and resurrection means entrance through that narrow door. No wonder many will not enter it. It’s tough! You are not what you should be; don’t imagine that you are. But your Savior has made you what you need to be—perfect—so that heaven stands waiting for you. Don’t doubt, but cling to him for assurance of eternal life and salvation! Strive to enter through the narrow door! Amen.