Who hasn’t wondered about the curious question in Sunday’s gospel (Luke 13:22-30)? “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” (22) We shake our heads at the unbelieving world and wonder: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Now, as good Lutherans we are not theology-of-glory millennialists waiting for a pre-or-post-return-of-Christ mass conversion (once we’ve discovered the right methods of disciple making). But Jesus refuses to let us get lost in this curious question about the world. The heart of the issue is unaddressed.
But what about our congregation? We know that wherever in the world the sowing of God’s Word produces the wheat of his children that the enemy is always following close behind seeking a crop of weeds. “Lord, how many from my congregation will be with me in heaven?” Yes, good Lutherans know that a pastoral-heart assumption is that all gathered are his simul justus et peccator children – unless evident impenitence proves otherwise. But Jesus still refuses to let us get lost in this curious question about the congregation. The heart of the issue is unaddressed.
For just as it was that day in Luke 13, Jesus sends that these arrogant and merely curious questions back on the questioner. Hearts asking those questions easily make the arrogant and careless assumption so common among the Jews: “Well, of course, I belong to an in-group guaranteed a place at the heavenly feast, but what about these other people?” And since Jesus didn’t just answer him but “them” (23), we know that man was not alone in his arrogant curiosity. The heart of the malady in this text is the proud and careless assumption by any heart of being a “lock” for heaven for reasons other than repentance and faith in the world’s only Savior. And now the heart at issue is mine!
Yes, this text intends to make us shift uncomfortably in our preaching shoes. One of the unique dangers of the pastoral ministry is becoming so consumed with urging others to heed Jesus’ warning that I fail to trace that arrogant carelessness all the way back to my own heart! Paul who weeps in Sunday’s second lesson for the arrogant carelessness of the Jews recognized the danger in his own heart: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:25). He warned Timothy about the same danger: “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).
So too Sunday’s gospel begs us to push back from our desks and computer screens to check our own hearts and lives! To fail to check our hearts risks being like so many of “the first” in Israel, surrounded by so many privileges of God’s kingdom, who ended up among “the last.” To fail to check our hearts risks being among those frantically claiming to have eaten and drunk in Jesus’ presence – in fact, fed on him in his Supper! – but who end up knocking on a forever closed door! How awful to have heard Jesus teaching in our streets – to have been his very mouthpiece in our preaching and teaching – and yet to end up weeping eternally as he says to us: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know you!”
Where might we see signs that we are worrying about the hearts of others but taking our eyes off our own arrogant and careless hearts?
Might it look like the pastor, after rightly warning his people not to be drunk on wine but filled with the Spirit, who, after another very long ministry day, numbs his ministry frustrations yet again at the bottom of two…three…or more bottles of Spotted Cow? Might it look like the shepherd of souls, rightly pleading with God’s holy people not to permit even a hint of sexual immorality to remain unchallenged in their hearts, who then excuses a release of ministry pressure by inviting such immorality digitally onto his smart phone screen? Might it look like the physician of souls, rightly imploring his people that we do not live by bread alone but on every Word from our Father, who finds himself so busy and so tired that he assumes his soul must be well fed since he is so busy feeding others?
Where, my brother, in your own heart are you taking your eye off daily dying and rising with Christ in repentant faith? Are we in danger of presuming, while there is only one narrow door for those to whom we preach, that for those in the pastoral office there is some secret door to heaven through which we enter by virtue of our hard work for Jesus?
Are we thoughtlessly changing Sunday’s hymn of the day to this?
My people walk in danger all the way
I make sure the thought can never leave them
That Satan who has marked his prey is plotting to deceive them.
Their foe with hidden snares (which I see so clearly…for them) may seize them unawares
If e’er they ignore my warnings to watch and pray;
I’m glad, of course, that I’m in no such danger all the way!
The door to heaven is too narrow for my arrogant and careless heart. If I don’t learn that now, I will learn forever that all my fine pastoral service will not provide me with the strength to break open that narrow door once it is shut.
But the narrow door is still wide open. The same Savior who warns us (yes…us!) about being on the outside looking in, was at that very moment walking steadfastly to Jerusalem to complete the final it-is-finished touches on that open door’s construction. His warning means he is not content to stand idly by while we carelessly squander the riches of our spiritual inheritance. He longs for you and me to be among the countless believing host who will stream in from east and west, from north and south, to take our places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets. And while there was no special door for patriarchs, or prophets, nor is there for us as New Testament proclaimers of his truth, the narrow door has always been more than sufficiently wide for every humble, repentant heart. To every heart taught by God’s own Spirit to confess the reality that we deserve to be among “the last,” Jesus graciously smiles and says not “Away from me…” but “Of course I know you, my dear one, you’re your name is first on my list!”
So yes, it does me good to repeat each day: “I walk in danger all the way; The thought shall never leave me.” But Jesus’ gospel whispers to repentant hearts something else to repeat even more: “My walk is heav’nward all the way; Await, my soul, the morrow.”
And, funny thing, the pastor who daily rehearses those lines for his own soul will not waste his time with curious questions about the world or his congregation. Instead, while that door is still open, he zealously works while it is day to help God’s people “make every effort” as they fight the good fight. He will look for opportunities to help the people of this world to enter the fray by the gift of faith. And by that he is truly God’s privileged tool to usher more than he may ever realize to and through that narrow door into the feast!
And to think: all of that is possible because Jesus loved the pastor enough to poke at his proud heart!