Proper 16 • Luke 13:22–30 • August 21, 2016
By Jeffrey Thormodson
This focus of this text is about the baptized, to “those who are being saved”; verse 23 uses a present participle that identifies the hearer for whom salvation has already come. An individual in the crowd is curious, or speculating about the salvation of others and asks, “Lord will those who are saved be few?” Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Speculative questions about whether others will be saved avoid the uncomfortable questions about one’s own spiritual life. Jesus directs the hearer inward, towards a personal assessment as a baptized child of God. “Am I putting my faith into practice?” “Does my faith actually influence my daily life?” “Do I care about my neighbor?” “Am I striving to enter through the narrow door?” Jesus uses an imperative, “Strive [and struggle continuously] to enter through the narrow door.” Jesus uses strong language here, taken from the ancient athletic contests where athletes push themselves in training, exerting themselves towards the goal. In this same way, Jesus’s words address the baptized who are already saved, calling them to take seriously the gift received, and to earnestly engage the task of sanctification.
Throughout the sermon, the sola gratia needs to be emphasized. Christians are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Jesus fully accomplished salvation through his death and resurrection on the cross. Jesus is speaking about what happens after one is justified, the basis upon how daily life is lived. Melanchthon put it this way, “Love and good works must also follow faith” because “God has commanded them in order to exercise our faith” (AC IV. 74, 189).
The malady is a mindset that God loves and accepts us just the way we are, and therefore, we don’t have to live a holy, good life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase “cheap grace” that one takes sin for granted and ignores any spiritual concern for holy living. It should be remembered that holy living and good works are not limited to the hearers’ vertical relationship with God, although that is primary. “Strive to enter the narrow door” includes striving on the horizontal realm, that is, being concerned about the salvation and welfare of our neighbor.
“Don’t wait, or it might be too late” summarizes Jesus’s warning in verses 25–29. The master does not recognize those not striving, even though they “ate and drank” in his presence. This is emphasized when the master states he doesn’t even know where they came from. The Jews in the crowd felt that they were God’s chosen people who “ate and drank” in his presence and listened to Jesus speak (v. 26), yet they were rejected (v. 27). Baptism is not a modern indulgence, a guaranteed reservation at heaven’s banquet table that gives license for one to ignore God and his commands during earthly life. Recall Melanchthon’s words above.
The final verse (30) punctuates these warnings, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Too often, this phrase is understood to describe a continuum of believers, where both the first and the last will be at the eschatological banquet. On the contrary, Jesus’s words are a warning that some of those who are first may not even have a place at the table (v. 28). When working on this section of scripture, Martin Luther commended: “It is to frighten the greatest saints”¹ But there is gospel here, for “some of the last shall be first.” The salvation we receive comes from who we are in Christ, not upon what we have done. This is good news for all who are striving to live out their faith towards the narrow door.
¹ R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946), 755.