It’s How You Said It
Text: Luke 13:22-30
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” So goes the statement that has launched a thousand arguments. And no matter which side of that statement you’ve been on, there is some truth to it. Words are indeed colored by the way we speak, the person we’re talking to, our motives, and so on. We have an example of this in our Gospel reading today. Jesus was going on His way through the towns and villages, teaching and making His way toward Jerusalem, where the cross was waiting for Him. Someone on the way asked Him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”
Now this could have been an innocent question, if asked the right way. It could have been like a parent who walks into a room to find their child drawing with crayons on a sheet of paper and asks, “What are you doing?” The only motive behind it is to get an honest answer to an honest question. But Jesus’ reply gives us a hint that maybe this question, “Will those who are saved be few?” may not have been so innocent. After all, it’s not necessarily what’s said, but how it’s said. Or rather, in this case, why it’s said. There’s a world a difference after all, between the parent who asks their child drawing on a sheet of paper, “What are you doing?” and a parent who finds their child drawing on the walls, “What are you doing?!” They’re not looking for a simple answer—there’s something else behind the question.
So here too, this question, “Will those who are saved be few?” is not an honest question. Jesus—who can see into the hearts of all who are asking Him questions; who was able to see the Pharisees’ testing motives with their questions; who knew the Sadducees’ intention to entrap Him with their inquiries—He can see what’s in the heart of the person asking this question. He answers, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will tell you, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil.’” This is not an answer given to someone who just wants to know the number of people ultimately being saved. This is the answer given to someone who assumes that they’re already on the inside track and wants to be assured that all those other people out there, the rabble, the hoi pollo—that most people won’t be worthy of being saved, like this person asking the question. The person smugly asking this question will obviously be saved, but what about all those others?
Now, if they had asked the question for a different, more innocent reason, perhaps Jesus’ answer would have been different, or, at least ordered differently. If it had been asked out of genuine care and concern for the masses, and not out of presumptuousness, looking down on all those sinners and Gentiles, then maybe Jesus would have started out by talking about people coming from east and west, north and south, the great uncountable host being brought into the promises and peace of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But alas, it seems that this question was not asked for that sincere reason. Based on Jesus’ reply, first talking about all those who assumed they were on the inside, knocking on the door and hearing that chilling response from Jesus, “Depart from me,” based on that, it appears that the question came from a place of presumption. “Of course I’m one of the few. I’m good enough. I’m the right type of person. I was born into the covenant of Abraham. My life is full of good things that prove God’s favor. But what about all those other people? Will all those people be saved, or will it just be people like me?”
There’s no hiding the fact that we have some hard words from Jesus today. “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets,” and yet Jesus says, “I don’t know you. Depart from me, workers of evil.” And then of course, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s hard to hear. It can be hard to understand. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not an important lesson.
The lesson from this is the same that St. Paul repeats later in 1 Corinthians: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” It’s one thing to be certain of your salvation. In fact, Jesus wants you to be sure of that. If you have confidence in anything at all in this life, it should be the fact that Jesus has died and risen again for you, so that now your forgiveness and eternal life is a lock. Because of Jesus, God cannot love you any more than He already does because it’s limitless. It’s one thing to know that. It’s quite another thing to be arrogant or smug about it, to think that this is yours somehow because of who you are or what you’ve done or your pedigree or where you live or anything along those lines.
It sounds absurd when it’s put that bluntly, to think that anyone could be presumptuous enough to think that they’re one of the few because of some quality they have or what they’ve done. And yet even though our minds might know that this is silly, how often do we act that way? Thinking of someone as a lost cause, even if we never say it out loud or think it with those words. “Oh, she’ll never step foot in a church. Religion isn’t really his thing.” Or acting as if something that someone has done to us is so bad that it’s unforgivable, or nearly unforgivable: “It’s too late to apologize. They’re dead to me. I just have to cut them off. The bridge is burned.” We might have the nice ways to phrase it, but in the end, it’s not what we’re saying, it’s the reason we’re saying it. We’re counting people outside the few, the few who are worthy, the few who are worth it, the few who are good, the few who are like us.
So Jesus snaps us out of it. He tells us about the servants who knock at the door and tell the master about how they ate and drank with Him, how they know Him, how they heard His teaching; but He tells them He doesn’t know them and sends them away. Now Jesus does not teach this in order to make you doubt your salvation. Rather, He says it so that you don’t fall into self-satisfaction or self-righteousness. He says it so that you don’t think of all those “many” out there as worse sinners than the “few” that you’re part of. Instead, we should see the many, the sinners, the Gentiles, the masses, the rabble, as having—or rather needing—the same opportunity to come inside to the Master.
Notice a small detail in this brief parable of Jesus. “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door…” That’s the time limit. It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses the word “risen” here. For the Master has risen from the dead. And the shutting of the door is the end: the end of our lives, the end of time, when He returns. That’s when time runs out. But up until then, until we each have to face eternity, all of us, the few, the many, the bloodline descendants of Abraham, the Gentiles who have been brought into those promises too—all of us are called by the Master to come inside before the door is shut, before the end. Then, and only then, will it be too late.
You have been called. You have been forgiven. You have been washed in Baptism. You have reclined at table in the kingdom of God with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, right here at our Communion rail. So come to Him again. You are one of the saved because of what Jesus has done. Your brothers and sisters in the faith are saved because of what Jesus has done. The great host gathered at the throne of God is saved because of what Jesus has done. It’s not because of who you are; it’s because of who Jesus is. So come, be seated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with prophets and apostles, with saints at rest and with forgiven sinners. Come and enter through the narrow door—the door that is Jesus. In the name of Jesus, our Master. Amen.