Regardless of who is doing the wishing here, the point is the same. The things Jesus is saying are upsetting to certain people in power. I imagine that this is the reason that the “Parable of the Narrow Door” (vv 22-29) never occurs in our lectionary. It’s a threatening story that suggests that one’s identity as one of God’s Chosen People might not be enough to get one into God’s kingdom. As much as that irks us Lutheran Christians today, it would have really insulted the Jewish Pharisees or the Jewish tetrarch Herod. This Jesus is bad news to the folks in power, so they decide to have him eliminated.
The Romans (and their puppet king Herod) don’t want any messiahs stirring up revolt against the Empire, and the different religious elites can’t have this rogue rabbi calling their religious authority. So, in order to reinforce their own authority and unite people in common cause behind them, they turn Jesus into a scapegoat. They will use fear, anger, hatred, bigotry to stir up the public in their favor. The Pharisees, Sadducees, the high priests and the Romans—groups that normally can’t stand each other find—themselves united in common cause in their quest to kill Jesus.
Contrast these strange bedfellows to the second wish in our text: Jesus cries “How often have I desired to gather your children together.” The first wish brings people together, but not everyone. When people unite against scapegoats, the scapegoats are, of course, left out; and once they have been destroyed or run off, the false unity quickly comes apart as people’s old squabbles and division resurface. We see this happen after wars end or when political power shifts. In order for this kind of unity to be maintained, those in power must always find another scapegoat—somebody else to exclude and vilify to unite the masses once again under the specter of fear and hatred.
Jesus, however, longs to gather all of Jerusalem’s children together. In what seems a stark contrast to his talk about some people being unable to enter the narrow door, Jesus voices his deep wish that all God’s people—not just the Jews—might be united under God’s reign. This unity does not require a victim, a scapegoat to distract and terrorize people into submission; rather, it is achieved through the slow and patient transformation of people’s hearts, so that they might outgrow their differences instead of burying them.
This brings us to the third wish in our text today. In spite of Jesus’ desire to gather Jerusalem’s children, they “were not willing.” Why on earth would anybody not be willing to be huddled under God’s wing, you might wonder? Well, in addition to the downy breast and the sheltering warmth, there are a lot of other chicks under there, some of whom we might not think deserve the privilege. In Jesus’ parable, some are left out on the street, but they see many others coming in from the north and south, the east and west. Gentiles, heathens, pagans—people unfit to enter the presence of their God. Sometimes, when we see the kind of people Jesus wants us to snuggle up with, we find we’d rather wait outside in the cold than share the warmth with the likes of them. Perhaps it was not the owner of the house who made the door so narrow…
Paul writes about this in his letter to the Philippians. “Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ,” he writes. Now, writing as he is to people within the Christian community, we can only conclude that these enemies are also within the Christian community--friends of Jesus who, as Luke would say “ate and drank with him and saw him teach in their streets;” friends of Jesus who are nevertheless enemies of the cross of Christ, because “their god is the belly, their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” These are people who are letting their own ideas about God and their own wishes for themselves in the way of Jesus’ wish for all people to be gathered together under the loving care of God.
This is why Paul encourages his Philippian friends to join him in imitating Christ. Paul reminds us earlier in Philippians that Jesus did not regard his own equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and was obedient—even to the point of death on a cross. By imitating him, we may learn to put God’s plan for the wholeness of all creation ahead of our own desire to be admired or vindicated or correct. By imitating him, we help bring Jesus’ wish that much closer to fulfillment.
This is not because only God can be in charge, but because it is in our imitation of Christ that God’s reign is accomplished. We Lutherans can get uneasy talking about what is required from us; salvation is a free gift, not contingent upon any work of ours. And yet, it is through our imitation of Christ by loving and serving each other that God’s reign actually begins to come to life, saving us from the evils of greed, selfishness, oppression, racism, and poverty. Jesus’ words sometimes sting because he reminds us that though the gift is free, it is not cheap.
As unlikely as it seems, God has promised us that in spite of our human desires muddling things up, Jesus’ desire for unity and fullness will win out in the end. Abram experienced the assurance of God’s promise in the midst of a deep and terrifying darkness and a sobering reminder of his own mortality, and so do we. It is in the terrifying darkness of the death that we share with Christ through baptism that we find our assurance of God’s faithfulness.
How do we know this? All we need do is open our eyes and see. Today, as every Sunday, we will join together in singing the words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Just as he said, as we sing them, we see Jesus again, coming to us incarnate in bread and wine. As we eat his flesh and drink his blood, he enters into us and transforms us. As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” He enters into us and slowly, patiently transforms the body of our humiliation—all the sin, ugliness and discord of our broken human condition—until it is conformed to the resurrected, living body of his glory, full of newness.
We are ourselves proof of God’s faithfulness: the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram. Between that and the risen Christ who meets and transforms us at the table, we find a hope to which we can cling for the promise of God’s eternal reign.