The Narrow Gate
Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Taken by itself, this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews might be interpreted as parenting advice. However, much more is at stake, and in reading this letter, context is everything. A number of things must be kept in mind. First, we are in the middle of Ordinary Time. Once again, we need to remember that the overall theme of this season is the consideration of the cost of our discipleship. The word “discipleship” comes from the same root as a word that appears frequently in today’s passage; namely, “discipline.” Second, as I have mentioned before, this letter was written to the Jewish community of Rome at a time when the Emperor of Rome, Nero, was persecuting the Christian people using them as scapegoats for the fire that had destroyed much of Rome, a fire that he himself had set.
The final, and perhaps the most important consideration with regard to context, is the family life of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. Nuclear families, such as we experience today, were not the way family groupings existed in the first century Middle Eastern culture. In this culture, sons and their wives lived in the home of their father while daughters went to live in the homes of their husbands. Young children, both boys and girls, lived in the part of the family dwelling that was set aside for the women. This area was usually at the back end of the house and opened up onto a common courtyard. The men and the boys who had reached the age of puberty lived in an area at the front of the house, close to the door or gate that led into the family compound. This area also opened up onto the common courtyard. The courtyard became the family gathering place where they ate and enjoyed one another’s company throughout the day. What we know of as the kitchen was another room which also opened up onto the courtyard.
This information is important to keep in mind as we listen to this discussion of fathers and discipline. When a son reached the age of puberty, he was sent by the women of the family to live in the area set aside for the men. While he had been living with the women, a boy would have had complete freedom and could demand anything he wanted from his mother. Moving from the compound of the women to the area for men was a difficult transition because, for the first time in his life, the boy was expected to begin acting like a man. Moving from childhood to adulthood was, therefore, a time when the father would use physical discipline to teach his son the virtues of manhood.
As I said at the outset, this community was experiencing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Like the Gospel of St. Mark, which was also addressed to the community of Rome and which includes many references to suffering, the Letter to the Hebrews was written to prepare these people for the suffering and pain which would come to the Christian community. Using the example of family life, the sacred author reminds the community that God disciplines his children just as a father would discipline his son.
The question of suffering is a question that has long been a mystery for us. There are those who question how a God who is Love can allow suffering to enter into the lives of those who have placed their faith in God. If we have been paying attention to the material that appears before this allegorical explanation, we will remember that this discussion began with a treatise on what our ancestors accomplished through their faith. The writer then turned toward the athletic metaphor for life, telling us that we should run the race with our eyes fixed on Jesus. We cannot help but come to understand that we cannot gaze upon Jesus unless we also gaze upon the cross. All disciples will encounter some kind of suffering; all disciples will undergo some kind of discipline. It is part and parcel of our vocation as Christian believers. It is the narrow gate which Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel passage.
“Suffering is the gate to heaven,” words written by St. Anna Schaefer, canonized in 2012. For Anna, one fateful day would change every bit of her life. On February 4, 1901, she had a terrible accident while working at her job. She and another employee were washing linens which was done with boiling water in a large kettle. When the stove pipe came loose, Anna climbed up and stood on the edge of the kettle to reattach the stove pipe. She slipped and fell into the boiling water, scalding her legs to the knees. She spent the rest of her life as an invalid confined to her bed. However, rather than dwelling upon her pain or suffering, she spent the rest of her life writing letters to others who were suffering and knitting clothes for the children born into poor families.
“Enter by the narrow gate,” of the cross. This is the way to the banquet of heaven, a foretaste of which we experience in the Eucharist, the living bread which sustains us.