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Enter by the narrow gate

June 23, 2015

Matthew 7: 6, 12-14                          Tuesday 23rd June 2015

To fully appreciate today’s gospel you need to understand the significance in biblical times of pearls, the attitudes people had towards pigs and dogs, and what narrow and wide gates meant to them.

At the time of Jesus pearls were extremely valuable. Pearls were worn as prized jewels to make a person appear more beautiful and make a big impression.

And in biblical times pigs were swine – hairy, aggressive creatures. Pigs were ‘unclean’…. and the Jews also avoided all contact with dogs as they too were ‘unclean’: scavenging, dangerous creatures inhabiting the towns and villages. So perhaps a better phrase to give us a sense of what Jesus comes across if we substitute the word rats for pigs. We see rats are unclean, to be avoided at all costs.

‘Do not give what is holy to the rats’.

Holy means ‘special’. So what is this very special thing that is very valuable and not to be given to unclean animals? It is the “Truth” of God. And again, we need to realise what is meant by God’s ‘Truth‘. Whenever I hear the Bible or the Catechism refer to ‘truth’ I substitute the phrase ‘the way things should be’. Then I find it often makes things easier to understand. Today’s gospel then comes out something like: ‘Do not give what God says is the way things should be to people who have fundamentally rejected God.

Jesus paints us a picture of wild dogs and pigs to describe what happens if something beyond price is given to people who do not recognise its value. He is telling us to definitely avoid trying to present God’s message to people who have decided to reject God and to reject his messengers (i.e. His Church). This is because such people will aggressively reject the gift of God’s Truth – ruthlessly attacking it, deliberately distorting it, misrepresenting it to others and making a mockery of it. It certainly isn’t right to try and force God’s message on people if they have decided to close their eyes and ears to it.

But there is another meaning for the word ‘holy’ that means ‘sanctified’ or ‘consecrated’. The holiness of the Eucharist, for example, has, from the very first days of Church, been carefully protected to ensure that participants in the mass are not abusing the privilege or behaving improperly in the True Presence of God. Jesus says that holy sacrifices made to God are too special to be given without careful thought, they are not to be available to all and sundry, exposing what is sanctified or consecrated to casual indifference. Thus it is that the Church only gives access to the Sacraments to the baptised.

And this is connected to Jesus’ reference to entering by the narrow gate. Imagine the enormous wooden doors on some of our mediaeval churches and castles, with a smaller ordinary door built into them. In Jesus’ time cities had gates like this. During the day the big gates would be open, with all and sundry coming and going, and anyone could move to and fro, anonymous, hidden in the bustling crowd; but then at night (or if there was a danger from attack or from thieves) only the smaller, narrow gate would be open, usually with guards, so that anyone trying to get in could be challenged and checked out to protect the city.

Jesus is talking today about those who want to enter into God’s kingdom needing to ‘enter through the narrow gate’ – being amongst that minority of people who are willing to accept the restrictions on their behaviour, being entirely open and not part of an anonymous crowd, but willing to be full members of God’s family, known to the community and not hiding who they really are.

So it is that if you are not a Christian and want to have the benefits of the sacraments, as an adult, the Church doesn’t just take all comers. It expects each person to enter as an individual through the narrow gate, to make themselves known and to undergo a careful process of formation so that they can come to understand the sacredness, the special place, the mystery and the wonder of the Church and its sacraments. To protect the Church. Simply hiding anonymously in a large group of people who are attending a series of talks on the Catholic faith is not enough – there has to be a individual, personal and genuine spiritual understanding and acceptance of the holiness of the sacraments as taught in the doctrines of the Catholic Church. If there is a suggestion that a person is not ready to receive the Sacraments, baptism can be delayed until they are ready.

And if a baptised person subsequently chooses to behave in a way that scandalizes their fellow Christians, that individuals can find themselves subject to closer scrutiny, having to forego the sacraments, depending upon the seriousness of their sinfulness….. going through the narrow gate.

  • In extreme cases, bishops, priests and deacons who have the privilege of having a public ministry by virtue of the sacrament of ordination may find their ministry is limited by the Church if they persist in publicly expressing views that are understood to go against Catholic doctrine;
  • Political leaders who have the privilege of receiving the sacraments by virtue of the Sacrament of Baptism may, in very rare cases, find they are publicly excommunicated by the Church if they persist in supporting or proposing immoral laws, such as the abortion of unborn children;
  • People who have received the Sacrament of Matrimony may find that the Church denies them Holy Communion if they openly break their marriage vows.

Of course this safeguarding of the sacraments from the misguided, the mischievous and the malign is controversial, because sometimes over-zealous interpretation or application of Church law can severely affect those very people who have so much to offer and who should be embraced by the Church.

Just one brief, modern examples: the Frenchman Yves Congar was a controversial priest and theologian who promoted ecumenism in the 1930s, long before it was mainstream Catholic teaching; and at one stage in his ministry he was forbidden for two years from teaching or publishing his views on the much-debated worker-priest movement in France. Yet his understanding of what the Church should be were to bear fruit in the major reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In 1994, aged 90, Yves Congar was honoured by Pope Saint John Paul II, who made him a cardinal in recognition of his lifetime of work for the Church.

There is an ever-present danger that the Church can become over-bearing, self-righteous and pharisaical in the way chooses to apply its rules to faithful people who find themselves called to challenge the way the Church does things or who find themselves in very difficult personal situations. Here there is a need to be compassionate in our pastoral care for people. And once again, this is one of the reasons the bishops are meeting later this year to discuss the way we respond to modern family life in spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. We need to ask ourselves very carefully ‘Are we being too judgmental, demanding or harsh on those who are denied the sacraments because of difficult choices they have had to make in their lives?

What we have to remember is that as Christians we not only have a responsibility to share God’s truth and to protect the Sacraments from being treated with disdain and without proper respect, but we also need to do it in a responsible way. And is not a responsible way of sharing God’s message with the world to allow ourselves to be drawn into making fools of ourselves, tied up in knots by clever opponents, who revel in being disrespectful and mocking the Church by distorting God’s message and making us out to be pedantic, small-minded and eccentric bigots. Today, in the Gospel, Jesus warns us against making this mistake.

And for most of us it is far better to quietly and modestly get on with our lives, striving (but not always succeeding) to be just an ordinary example of a what it means to be a good Christian – entering through the narrow gate and being a sign to the world of God’s Truth – of the way God wants things to be.

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