A couple of weeks ago at the High Court in Glasgow a man received a life sentence and was jailed for a minimum of 27 years. The convicted man was a taxi-driver who’d travelled 200 miles from Bradford to kill a shopkeeper he had known only from seeing videos on the Internet. The murdered man’s ‘crime’? His interpretation of Islam was different from that of his killer’s. Somehow we’ve got used to hearing similar news from other countries where sectarian divisions seem to be part and parcel of everyday life. But something like this happening in the United Kingdom? It’s worth remembering, though, that our civilised country of Scotland has also had its fair share of persecution and violence driven by sectarian division. There are those among us who remember the time not so long ago when being a Catholic or of Irish heritage guaranteed difficulty in finding employment or promotion. The ugly racism that seemingly was buried deep, with a wooden stake driven through its heart, has woken up in the wake of the EU referendum.
The question asked of Jesus in today’s gospel is an interesting one: ‘will there be only a few saved?’ This question reflects the dilemma that lies at the core of religious and social division. When we think about it a bit more, this question is about who is worthy of being saved; and therefore it’s a matter of dividing human beings into those who are worthy and those who are not. Such quantification underlies every division, whether it be political, religious or social; and it creates – even if unintentionally – a group of people who deem themselves predestined to lord it over the inferior ones. It’s kind of paradoxical that the main world religions claim to promote peace, love and respect, but in practical terms many of their followers reserve those values solely for their fellow believers. In the gospel it’s quite likely that the question was driven by a deeply-ingrained Jewish belief that the Jews were the Chosen People – chosen by God – and that the nation was therefore superior to every other. This kind of strong belief in one’s group’s own superiority is a common thread running through all religious, but also political and social, groups.
Jesus’ reply seems to sidestep the question: ‘try your best to enter by the narrow door because many will try to enter and will not succeed.’ Then he uses a vivid picture of those left outside despite their claims to have every right to enter: ‘we once ate and drank in your company, you taught in our streets.’ His answer to these claims is uncomfortably simple: ‘away from me, all you wicked men!’ The final bit of Jesus’ reply is another vivid picture of the Gentiles sitting at God’s table with the Jewish patriarchs. That must have been a vision that was truly appalling, even deeply upsetting, to Jesus’ Jewish audience. In his reply, Jesus rejects the idea that simply belonging to a particular group of people makes them more worthy or deserving of anything from God. The invitation to try your best to enter by the narrow door is a call to make efforts to follow God’s path.
Unfortunately, many religious leaders as well as believers mix up the narrow door with the narrow mind. They believe that a strict and rigid set of rules, rites and ceremonies is designed and handed down by God, and these are the only way to salvation. Be it Christianity, Islam or any other religion this way of thinking presents a vision of God who is grumpy, mean and petty-minded. It’s a god that would allow many human beings to perish eternally just because they were unfortunate enough to miss out on participating in that particular religion or even in a sect within it. That’s a god I cannot believe in and cannot follow.
Today’s gospel is a lesson in discovering that my worthiness comes from my personal qualities rather than random belonging. The colour of my skin, my birthplace, my nationality – these are things for which I can take neither the credit nor the blame. They make me neither superior nor inferior to anyone. They are accidental qualities; but the only qualities that matter are those that I have produced as a result of my efforts. And they are worthy as long as they lead me to respect others in their diversity.