The Parable of the Closed Door

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem—and his death—when someone asks him, “Lord, is it the case that those being saved are few?” No doubt he has heard many of Jesus’ parables, misunderstood them, and reached this pessimistic conclusion.

And he traveled on throughout cities and villages, teaching and making his journey to Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, is it the case that those being saved are few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not have the strength.

“From the time the master of the house rises and closes the door, you then begin to stand outside and to knock upon the door, saying, ‘Lord, open it for us,’ and in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank before you, and you taught in our streets.’ And, speaking to you, he will proclaim, ‘I do not know where you come from; stand away from me, all workers of injustice.’ There will be weeping and the grinding of teeth when you see Abraham and Israel and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but yourselves driven outside. And they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God. And look: ‘There are those who are last who will be first, and there are those who are first who will be last.'” (Luke 13:22-30)

At first glance the Lord appears to confirm the inquirer’s question, and this is precisely how many preachers have understood his reply, missing both the exasperation in his voice and his teaching that it will be through his death and resurrection that he will effect the salvation of the world. Robert Capon, though, suggests that Jesus is indulging in “the old rhetorical trick of setting up a straw man by confirming the worst case” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 263). “Yes,” Jesus seems to be saying, “it’s as bad as you think and worse. Hardly anyone is going to make the grade.”

But what—or perhaps more accurately who—is the narrow door? Capon offers this interpretation:

So here it is. The narrow door—the tight squeeze in front of absolutely free salvation—is faith in Jesus’ death. Jesus does not set up ten thousand tricky wickets and threaten to admit to heaven only the aces who can negotiate every one of them. Jesus has simply put, smack in the front of his Father’s house of many mansions, the one, scant doorway of his death and ours. Its forbidding narrowness lies not in the fact that it is so small it is hard to find; rather it lies in the fact that it is so repulsive it is hard to accept. Let me, in all reverence, repeat the last assertion as plainly as possible: to any­one in his right mind, the program of salvation via death, as proposed by Jesus, simply stinks on ice. It lets in the riffraff, since all they have to be is dead; and it offends the classy, since they wouldn’t even be caught dead entertaining such a proposition. Besides, in Gethsemane, Jesus himself said it was a terrible idea and he warned us over and over again that the num­ber of people who would be willing to buy it would be undamned few. He did not, however, say either that it was his heart’s desire that the number actually be few, or that he was going to sit up in his private tower cheering every time somebody turned away in disgust from such a forbidding front door. In fact, he says that he himself, hanging dead on the cross, is the front door (“I am the door,” John 10:9); and far from turning up his nose at the world’s rejection, he insists on trying forever to convert it to acceptance—“I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (John 12:32). (pp. 263-264)

Nobody was expecting and nobody wanted a dying Messiah. Recall Peter’s response to Jesus’ declaration that “that it was necessary for him to go forth into Jerusalem and to suffer many things from the elders and ruling priests and scribes, and to be put to death and to be raised on the third day.” Peter cannot abide Jesus’ prediction: “By no means shall this happen to you!” Messiahs do not get killed. Peter, I’m sure, was speaking for all of Jesus’ followers. The idea that Jesus’ mission must conclude in failure and death simply did not com­pute. It con­tradicts everything the Jews believed about the prophesied savior of Israel. The Messiah must prevail over the enemies of Israel. There could be only one rejoinder to Peter’s incom­pre­hen­sion: “Get behind me, Accuser; you are a stumbling-block for me, because you think not the things of God, but those of men” (Matt 16:21-23).

In my formatting of the Lukan pericope I have separated the “Strive to enter . . .” sentence from the “From the time the master of the house . . .” sentence. I have done so because Capon believes that in the latter Jesus begins a new thought. In other words, we have two different doors, with the first (and open) door signifying faith in the saving death of Jesus and the second (and closed) door belonging to the parable proper.

Capon conjectures that the householder (oikodespotes) has shut the door of his home because he has retired for the evening. Perhaps he has fallen asleep. Suddenly there is a knocking at the door. A group of people beg for entry, but the householder denies them. “I do not know you,” he tells them. They assure him that they are acquaintances: “We ate and drank before you, and you taught in our streets.” Again the householder denies them, accusing them of being “workers of injustice.” So why will he not open the door to them? Capon’s answer:

Accordingly, because I really do think the oikodespotes is a Christ-figure—and because I really don’t think Jesus will ever close the door of grace—I think the closing of the oikodespotes‘ door should be interpreted not as the locking out of the damned but as the closing of the door of ordinary living as a way to eternal life. Jesus our oikodespotes rises out of his three-day nap in the grave and he closes all other doors to salvation except faithful waiting in the endless sabbath of his death. He leaves us, that is, no entrance into life but the narrow door of our own nothingness and death—the Door, in fact (John 10:9), that is Jesus himself.

Please note carefully what I am saying. I am not saying there is no such thing in Scripture as God’s slamming the door on the damned: there is plenty of it, and I am not about to say that he won’t, in the end, do some­thing awfully similar. (I might, of course, make a few qualifications about the subject—I might even be accused of qualifying the hell right out of it. But yes, Virginia: if you have to know, I really do think there is a hell.) What I am saying is that this parable of the Door is not one of the places where the final disposition of the damned is being talked about. For my money, it is yet another grace parable in judgment clothing—a phenomenon we have seen much of already, and will see more of in the parable of the Great Supper. And as with all such parables, it should be interpreted as gracefully as possible; it should not be used as an excuse to preach sermons on the tight security of the eschatolog­ical slammer. (pp. 268-269)

In other words, the parable represents both a word of judgment against all who deny the dominical message of grace and the correlative summons to conversion. There is only one door that leads to salvation, and it is open to all, without qualification. All one need do is walk through it. And the last will be first and the first last.

(Go to “The Great Banquet”)

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13 Responses to The Parable of the Closed Door

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I don’t understand in Capon’s analysis where the last few lines of the section fit in: “And they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God. And look: ‘There are those who are last who will be first, and there are those who are first who will be last.”
    The people knocking on the householder’s door are claiming admission because they ate and drank with the householder and it is their streets he preached in (like Capon I can’t see how the householder can be anyone but Jesus) but they are barred as “workers of injustice”. This parable seems to be basically the same as the parable of the wedding feast – the invited are turned away and everyone else from everywhere else let in. (But not permanently – in this version the former “first” are now last, behind those who were once last, but not excluded entirely.) I am not sure I follow where the dying comes in?
    The beginning bit with the fight to get in the narrow door then fits this parable, in that there is a rapidly closing window for the “first” to get in before the door closes and “last” usurp their place.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, I confess that I find Capon’s theological exegesis of this parable a bit strained, though I appreciate his suggestion that the two doors need to be distinguished. If one believes with Capon that Jesus never shuts the door to the Kingdom, what are the best ways to interpret the parable?

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        If one takes the “door” to be the individual’s post mortem access to paradise, then the parable seems to be talking about limited atonement and sending people permanently to hell. If on the other hand, one treats it in a similar vein to the parable of the wedding guests, it’s about the kingdom in the world and the collective salvation of the nations. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem at this point to the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension when his mission goes from a local one in Israel to a cosmic one for everyone. The door that shuts is not the eternal Kingdom but the preferential restoration of Israel – the “first”, God’s chosen, who don’t join now will find themselves last in line after all the nations come in: last, crucially, does not mean “never”. This seems to be the same point as Paul makes in Romans 11 – Israel is shut out that the nations may come in, but they, too will be saved eventually also.

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  2. fily63 says:

    The majority, if not all, entered us through the wide gate….. which leads to destruction under the wrath of death… for this reason the Savior came.
    And a promise that he is able to attract everyone to him in the end

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  3. dianelos says:

    “many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not have the strength. “

    To me it seems obvious that the meaning here is “many will wish to follow Christ, but few will have the strength”.

    In the parable the “house” is obviously the Kingdom of God and the “master” of the house is Christ. Those who will not enter (those for whom the door is closed) are the “workers of injustice”, those who did *not* obey Christ’s commandments no matter how much they “ate and drank before Him or taught in the streets”. Those superficial Christians are the ones Christ “does not know where they come from”. Come to think of it, those who do not follow Christ’s way will necessarily at the vey least contribute to the injustice in the world.

    To me – and I think this comports very well with the Eastern Orthodox understanding – matters are really simple: The Kingdom is Christ’s, thus to be in the Kingdom (to be saved) is to *be* close to Christ. And to be close to Christ is to have transformed oneself into His likeness. One does this by obeying His commandments and thus following His way to come close to Him. The path of Christ is open to all, for it has been opened by Him through His incarnation and suffering among us. That is God’s free gift for us: Christ’s open path. But one still needs strength to follow it. Strength which only the love of the good and faith in its power can give us. For to love and have faith in the good, is to love and have faith in God.

    As to the original question about how many will be saved by following Christ’s path, quite evidently very few in this life. How many among us even make a real effort to repent and follow this path? How many Christ-like people walk around on the Earth today? Very few indeed. Well, all others will painfully repent in the afterlife. But even the most sinful will never be alone.

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  4. Milton Finch says:

    Looking at the verse that contains the word “strive” in Luke 13:24, in the KJV, the Greek, poo’-lay, is translated “gate”, (not door) adding further weight that we are presented with two distinct openings and, therefore, two distinct thoughts. In verse 25, the Greek word for “door” is thoo’-rah. Good stuff, Al! Enjoying immensely!

    As an aside, many and most times, what can be thought of as a horror and a bad, can, if a person is in the Lord, as you definitely are, also be known in finality as a good, as you are proving in your studies that evolve around the plausibility of the reality of Universalism. Thank you for being a pliable vessel where cracks and brokenness allow His healing Light to shine through. God’s peace to you and your bride!

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    • Milton Finch says:

      Also, the Greek word for “the” which is in front of “door” is also utilized as “another” in other areas of the New Testament.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I think you’ve got that wrong – I just checked the Greek and it’s thoo’-rah throughout.

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      • Milton Finch says:

        Check verse 24 again.

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      • Milton Finch says:

        I missed the footnote. (Looking for “head smack” emoji…)

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        • Milton Finch says:

          But I will still stick with what I originally said, seeing that poo-lay’ and the Stephens Greek text is just as well accepted as Textus Receptus. There’s a pretty large difference between poo-lay’ and thoo’-rah, so who knows!

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          • dianelos says:

            Wisdom will not come from studying individual words in scripture, but in contemplating how the whole of scripture resonates with our heart. And how it reveals the living presence of Christ in our lives. And how fruitfully the gospel message works in our actual lives.

            However one may understand “inspiration” in the context of scripture, the fact remains that the scriptural text is human made and human edited and human translated and human interpreted – and thus fallible through and through. But *we* are the direct work of God; the nature of our soul is godly we are made in the image of God no matter how much we fall. So it is in contemplating our own inbuilt love for truth and desire of goodness and in our opening up to God in prayer where God’s light will most clearly be sensed. The gospels which are the end of all scripture are merely a signpost, a door, a first step.

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