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.