Someone in a crowd called out to Jesus, “Will only a few people be saved?” Why was this the wrong question to ask?
Gospel (Read Lk 13:22-30)
St. Luke tells us that as Jesus “passed through towns and villages, teaching as He went,” someone called out a question to Him: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” This is a curious question, isn’t it? Why would anyone be interested in knowing the number of people saved? The idea that there are those who will be saved and those who will be lost in God’s final judgment was a constant theme in the Old Testament Scriptures. Moses laid it out before all the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day… you shall live and multiply and the Lord your God shall bless you. But if your hearts turn away, and you will not hear … you shall perish” (see Deut. 30:16-18a). The wisdom literature, in particular, is full of exhortations to choose life by living righteously and to avoid the destruction that comes with foolish disobedience and wickedness (see Ps 1; Wis 5:1-16). So, interest in salvation by a Jew listening to Jesus isn’t surprising.
What is surprising, however, is the question this man asks: “Will only a few be saved?” What question should he have asked? We can get a clue from Jesus’ reply: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” The man who questioned Jesus was interested in the “few”; Jesus was interested in the “many.” Why?
Jesus continues to make His point by using a parable. He speaks of the “master of the house” who has “arisen and locked the door.” In this, He is describing Himself and the end of His time of visitation in Israel. He was with His own people, His “house,” for three years, teaching and preaching the Good News of the Kingdom and calling the Jews to believe in Him as their promised Messiah, the Son of God. He was rejected by the religious leaders and put to death, from which He “arose” and then departed, bringing to an end the opportunity for the Jews to acknowledge Him as their true King. He then describes Jews standing “outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door to us.” Jesus, the “master,” sends them away because although they had proximity to Him (“we ate and drank in Your company and you taught in our streets”), He doesn’t know who they are; they did not become His friends when He was with them. Theirs is a terrible fate. They will see “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.” Here, of course, Jesus is describing Jews who rejected Him, refusing to believe Him when He said things like, “I am the door; if any one enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). However, although some of His own people will be outside, they will see people from all four corners of the earth reclining “at table in the kingdom of God.” This is not a description of “few” but “many.” It becomes clear, then, what question the man should have asked.
How different would Jesus’ reply to this man have been if he’d asked, “Lord, how can I be saved?” By the way Jesus addresses his question about “only a few,” we can surmise that this man thought of himself as being in that small number, safe, and not needing to ask this question. Many Jews of Jesus’ day, especially the religious leaders, presumed that because they were descendants of Abraham and God’s chosen people, they were the few who would be saved. This was a dangerous way to think, as John the Baptist made clear in his preaching at the Jordan River: “But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’” (Mt 3:7-9).