(For the Doctrinal Homily Outline for this Sunday, click here.)
What does it mean to do the will of God?
We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
On our part, what does it take for that petition to come about?
To do the will of God means to love God above all and to love your neighbor as yourself. It means to obey the Ten Commandments as Christ has taught us.
To use the word’s of Christ’s parable, to do the will of God means to enter the kingdom of God through the narrow gate. It takes strength to enter the kingdom of God in this way. Why?
Instead of doing whatever seems right to you—whatever your instincts, impulses, emotions, appetites, passions, whims, feelings demand you do—you only do what God wants you to do.
When you begin to do God’s will rather than your own ever-changing will, you will likely suffer some as your old self rebels.
Let’s take a simple example.
Gossip is saying negative things about someone behind his back to another person. Why do we gossip? It gives us a kind of pleasure to criticize someone and it creates a kind of bond with the person with whom we gossip. But we know gossip cannot be God’s will, since it unjustly destroys another person’s good name without a serious reason. It also does not create a real relationship between us and our fellow gossiper because we will likely gossip about each other with others if the occasion arises.
But now that you are wanting to do the will of God, a chance arises when you can gossip but decide not to. You have to give up the pleasure that running down one person to another gives you. Giving up that enjoyment is a little death. It is the narrow gate in the parable. It is a spiritual discipline that the author of Hebrews talks about. Yet by doing this, you grow in the virtue of justice, since it is unjust to gossip, and temperance because you control yourself, and prudence, because you have made a sound judgment.
You have denied yourself. Self-denial seems like physical training, and it is, but it is also always a mental training. The soul—the mind and the will—exercises control over the body, and the body complains to the soul, which feels it!
This self-denial is how we take up our own cross. Our Lord said, “he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). St. Paul explains: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:25-27).
This is what all “fasting and abstinence” and spiritual struggle is.
The Church calls this effort ascesis, a struggle of our soul over our animal nature. It is not that our animal nature is bad, since God has made our bodies, too. It is that our desire for pleasure and for the avoidance of pain, our ever-changing emotions, and our powerful passions, pull us in all kinds of directions.
As soon as we set out to do the will of God (to “enter by the narrow gate”), we have to begin to subordinate our lower appetites to the dictates of right reason and to the law of God. This is done both to avoid sin and to express love for God and neighbor.
If we actually do this, we begin to overcome vices and build virtues just as in the example of gossip.
The author of Hebrews reminds the early Jewish Christians that the difficulties they are enduring have a purpose.
God treats his children the way a good father treats the son he loves. That father disciplines his son when he goes wrong.
Everyone who takes his Christian faith seriously will experience afflictions.
These trials should be seen as training or discipline to heal and strengthen us.
While being experienced, God’s discipline seems a cause of pain, not joy. But after being endured, this discipline will be a source of joy. This is so due to “righteousness”: having done what is right and being more able to do what is right.
We cannot accomplish this without grace, which God gives us abundantly in the Sacraments. But unless we make the effort, this growth cannot occur. Thus, being “strong enough” to enter through the narrow gate of salvation means making the effort with the help of God’s grace.
Ascesis is all about “mastery of the will over its acts” and “freedom of heart” (CCC 1734, 2043).
Now I think we can understand the parable of the narrow gate.
Our Lord is making his way to Jerusalem, where he will accomplish our salvation.
Somebody asks him what looks like a simple question, “Will only a few be saved?”
Salvation is pictured as a “place,” the kingdom of God. To get in you must enter through a “narrow gate.” Inside, many are reclining at table, taking part in a meal, resting and eating and drinking wine.
The Lord, the master of the house, has arisen from the feast, gone outside to the “narrow” gate of his property, and locked it because it is night. Outside are people who have not been “strong enough” to enter through the narrow gate. They are knocking and asking to be admitted. The master refuses them entry saying he does not know where they are from. They say, we are your countrymen. He replies again that he does not know who they are and that they are evildoers who must depart. Those people who are rejected are very upset and wail and grind their teeth.
Christ comments that people just like his questioner will be deeply upset if they are not saved. They will see all their Jewish ancestors admitted to the kingdom of God but they themselves will be cast out. They will also see many Gentiles from the four corners of the earth admitted to the feast of the kingdom of God.
A question for us is, What will exclude us from the feast of the kingdom of God?
The answer our Lord gives is evildoing. Those who are not admitted are “evildoers.” It does not matter if you are a Jew who actually heard Jesus preaching two thousand years ago or a Christian who goes to church every day. Salvation comes from Christ, but if you are an evildoer you don’t know Christ and he doesn’t know you.
Yet there will be people from every nation and race and time who will achieve salvation and be admitted to the feast of the kingdom of God. Many of these will have higher places of honor than Christ’s immediate hearers.
God will help us overcome our evildoing through his fatherly discipline. We must just begin to do God’s will and obey the commandments as Christ and the Church teaches them. That obedience costs us something but it also brings us joy even now as we achieve self-mastery and nearness to Christ. That obedience will make us doers of good, not evildoers, and will admit us into the feast of the kingdom of Heaven.