Sunday reflection: Luke 13:22-30

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 13:22-30:

Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’

Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and 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.”

I’ve never been the most athletic of people. I liked to play pick-up sports as a child and teen, especially baseball and football, and I spent a few years playing in organized leagues in both. In middle and high school, I wrestled — although I didn’t have the discipline to make weight in most cases and ended up taking on heavier opponents in matches as a result. I did pretty well for someone who was interested in having fun, particularly in baseball, and for someone who wasn’t terribly interested in the discipline necessary to become competitive above the community-league level (and not terribly talented, either).

For a long time, I approached writing the same way. Although I wanted to write for a living, I didn’t practice the discipline necessary to move up to the minors, let alone the big leagues. It took me more than a decade to even try to pursue my ambitions; in the meantime, I wrote memos, handbooks, and training materials for various employers as an outlet. When my initial efforts didn’t pay off, I became discouraged and stopped writing for long periods of time. Not until blogging emerged as a self-publishing option did I finally acquire the discipline necessary to write for a living — although my initial motive was to develop the discipline for another kind of writing altogether.

Today’s readings from scripture revolve around discipline, especially Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. But what exactly is “discipline”? Paul uses the term in a punitive sense, and our Gospel reading today hints at a similar context, if not exactly the same.

Paul reminds the Hebrews that they had forgotten a key teaching about trials and faithfulness: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Reproval and scourging call to mind the more popular definitions of discipline, the kind that older generations (that’s me these days) assume that younger generations need more experience with. Paul continues with this version of the term in arguing that discipline, reproval, and scourging is necessary for salvation: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

But is discipline defined by reproval and “scourging,” by which Paul means the tribulations of life in a fallen world? Not really, and even Paul’s argument implies this when read carefully. Paul describes the negative consequences of failures of discipline, not discipline itself. The Latin origin of the word, disciplina, meant “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge” from another, a word derived from discipulus — “student, follower” — from which we get “disciple.” Only later did the word begin to reflect the consequences of not adhering to instructions and teaching and acquire the definition of punishment.

When we think about discipline in its broader sense, we begin to understand the true relationship that the Lord seeks with us. Jesus came to us to provide us the perfect discipline for salvation. His Gospel offers us the teaching, knowledge, and instruction to live a life without sin. He established His church to continue to provide that knowledge and instruction, as well as the sacraments that form our exercises of faith to keep us on track. It is not enough to merely proclaim one’s self to be a baseball player or a writer, to use my earlier examples, in order to succeed at either. One has to have a discipline for their work, a pattern of work and study that improves and fulfills those ambitions. The same is true for faith and service to the Lord.

Jesus explains this in his parable from today’s Gospel. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough,” He tells people who ask about salvation. Even those who claim at the moment to have “ate and drank in [My] company” would be turned away if they had not followed the discipline necessary to prepare themselves for that moment. It takes strength to pass through that gate — not physical strength, but spiritual strength honed toward salvation. As with anything else, that kind of strength is not developed by wishes or immature ambition, but through discipline. It takes preparation, study, practice, and making the discipline a way of life.

Failure to follow that discipline has its consequences. In wrestling, failure to follow discipline in physical conditioning becomes almost immediately obvious in a match; at a point, usually very quickly, you run out of energy and can get manipulated into almost any position by an opponent. Or, as happened in my case a couple of times, I got overmatched and despite my good conditioning I ended up getting beaten by being worn down. Eventually, without those disciplines in place, we become so overwhelmed that we simply give up. And that’s particularly easy to have happen when one first picks up discipline and still gets beaten down — by opponents, or by life. We lose heart; we lose hope; and we resign ourselves to failure.

Both Jesus and Paul prepare us for this. In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks us to see the long view of salvation — of sitting at the table of the Lord with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all of the saints that will “come from the east and the west and from the north and the south.” Victory is not impossible, especially with Christ as our Savior. Paul warns of the reprovals and scourging not to scare disciples, but to reassure them of the Father’s love during the trials and tribulations sure to come in their lives. Those are opportunities to cling to discipline rather than abandon it, and by doing so strengthen ourselves for the path of salvation.

I never played first base for the Dodgers. I never played defensive end for the Steelers. I still have not written the Great American Novel, but I am now on the right discipline for what I wanted to do with my life on earth. I never became a priest, nor will I become a deacon, but I am — imperfectly and often stumbling — on the right discipline for salvation. With the Lord’s grace I hope to weather the reprovals, trials, and tribulations needed to keep my feet on the right path and to strengthen my legs to finish the race. The first steps of being a disciple is to embrace the discipline necessary to get there.

 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.