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Many of us are in for a surprise when we die, according to Jesus Christ in this Sunday’s Gospel reading (the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C). For some, it will be a rude awakening. For others, it will be a happy day.
The group that experiences the rude awakening is made up of self-righteous sinners. “Lord, open the door for us,” they will say. They know him; they expect him to let them in right away. “I do not know where you are from,” he will answer.
How could this be? These aren’t casual acquaintances. These people went to catechism class (“You taught in our streets”) and went to Mass (“We ate and drank in your company”).
So why can’t they enter? The Gospel gives us a couple of reasons. Jesus says many will attempt to enter but “will not be strong enough.” He also says they will come “after the Master has locked the door.”
This brings to mind a picture of slouching people coming up to the door later than they were supposed to arrive.
It reminds me of the hikes we used to take with our children in Sleeping Giant State Park in Connecticut. At the end of the long hike up the mountain is a castle that the kids loved to play in.
Invariably, one of the children will lag behind, and one of us would have to cajole the child up the hill. We have to tell them to “hurry up” and “be strong” and to think of the castle.
This is what the Church’s readings are saying today. The Second Reading says it directly: “Strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.”
This is what the discipline of the Lord is aiming at.
That’s good advice. It basically describes an attitude change. Instead of walking up the hill with weak knees, look lively. Instead of feeling the difficulty of the walk, think of the beauty of the destination.
In faith terms, live your faith purposefully. Accept your Father’s advice and follow it — not in a begrudging way, but with a spring in your step.
Which brings us to the other group that will be surprised by what they find when they get to heaven.
“And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see … all the prophets in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Jesus is saying that the slowpokes will watch aghast as their families enjoy the castle with others. Those others are the Gentiles — or those outside the Church — who walked with determination up the hill, following their consciences with swiftness and strength.
We hear more about them in the first reading:
“I come to gather nations of every language,” says the prophet Isaiah, speaking for God. These include people who “have never heard of my fame or seen my glory. … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the Lord.”
In the end, we will be surprised when we get to heaven if we think that it will be peopled by a particular group.
No one gets into heaven automatically, and no one is excluded automatically. The one thing all the inhabitants of heaven will have in common is simple: They did what the Father told them to do. That, and eternal bliss.