God's (Unexpected) Guest List

July 9, 2023


The question of who will be saved has consumed many down through the ages. In typical Jesus fashion, when asked this question, he shocks his listeners, overturns popular opinion, pokes at presumptions, and flips the question on its head. Once again, Jesus takes us back to the heart of God.


God’s (Unexpected) Guest List
Lake Joseph, Sunday, July 9, 2023
Text: Luke 13:22-30
Responsive reading: Psalm 103 #719
A sermon allows the living Christ to walk among his people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The 20th century American motivational writer William Arthur Ward wrote:
“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”
Do you believe that? (If you do I’ve got some things I’d like you to imagine for me!)
William Ward was getting at the power of image. We all probably know people working towards a goal and they put
pictures on the fridge, mirror, dashboard and around the house to motivate themselves. Maybe they’re saving for a
dream home, on a weight loss or exercise regimen and they put up pictures of their ideal self or former self. Olympic
athletes use mental imagery – envisioning themselves performing each step of a maneuver perfectly.
Images are powerful! They’re formative. We know that when it comes to images of ourselves, don’t we? Or we see it in
those lost in the abyss of shame, recovering from abuse and unable to see themselves for who they really are. Negative
self-image can be debilitating and destructive.
We also see the harmful impact of negative images that we have of others — entire people groups. These are often
translated into labels. The Nazi’s called the Jews rats; Rwandan Hutu’s called Tutsi’s cockroaches, and American soldiers
called the Vietnamese Gooks, all in an effort to dehumanize them. It paves the way to excuse hate, even violence and
genocide. Psychologically it’s easier to exterminate rats, cockroaches and Gooks than other living, breathing human
beings who bear the image of God. Today we call it “othering” and it’s a good word because not only does it create
distance between us and others it somehow allows us to act other than we imagined we ever could.
Images are potent tools of the mind both positively and negatively. And the images we have of God are some of the
most powerfully formative or deformative that we hold. It matters. It impacts how see the world, others, ourselves, and
how we read scripture.
How do you picture or imagine God? It might be one of the most important questions we ask ourselves. It’s powerful
because although images are formed in the mind, they connect to our emotions. They lodge deep in our spirit.
While we may think we believe something, our images reveal what we truly believe. For example, you can hold the
belief that God is good, kind, loving, and merciful but if you live in fear of disappointing God, or of God’s punishment,
then the actual image of God you hold is less like a tender parent and more like a retributive tyrant. Image is more
powerful than belief. Image eats belief for breakfast.
In today’s passage we are going to see how an image informs our reading and understanding of a familiar text.
If you’ve spent any time in the gospels, especially the gospel of Luke, you’ll know that one of Jesus’ primary tasks was to
reorient people’s image of God. Jesus’ original audience was confident that they had God all figured out. They knew who
God liked and who God didn’t. Who He favoured and who He didn’t. Who was in and who was out. So, Jesus had his
work cut out for him. The hardest mind to change is the religious mind!
I’m excited about the text today because we get a glimpse into the heart of God. We also see the power of context. In
this passage (Luke 13:22-30) Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to his imminent death. He knows it; he expects it. His
rhetoric has intensified. Miracles are down and warnings are up. He knows that he doesn’t have much time left with his
We read: 22 Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he went, making his way towards Jerusalem. 23 ‘Master,’ somebody said to him, ‘will there be only a few that are saved?’ (Luke 13:22-23)
This is the question on everyone’s minds in Jesus’ day. It still is for many today, especially in the church. Have you ever
been in a class or training session and you have a question but you’re afraid to ask? You assume you’re the only one
who doesn’t know the answer. Then someone dares to ask it and it turns out that that was the question on everyone’s
mind? Well, this was that question. Will there be only a few? He’s looking for confirmation of the prevailing assumption.
He’s asking: How few & who? We’re going to see how Jesus turns the speculation, How few & who, to the personal
challenge, Will it be you?
Understanding Jesus answer hangs on two things: inhabiting an image and understanding the context.
First: image. It’s how he closes the whole section. It’s the beautiful lens through which to explain what has gone before
and what is yet to come.
Look at this:
34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, and stone the people sent to you! How many times did I want to collect
your children, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would have none of it! 35 Look, your house has been
abandoned. (Luke 13:34-35)
Now, this is insider language and imagery. Jerusalem was the seat of Jewish religion. It’s where the temple was.
It represented the Jewish nation much like our flag or Tim Horton’s represents Canada.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” This is an emotionally charged double address. Jesus is in deep lament — in pain – agonizing over
the fate of his people. And he uses a common barnyard scene – a hen shielding her chicks at her own peril. Hens do this.
They protect their young from ravaging fires, torrential downpours, or menacing predators. It’s what hens do if they
can’t escape. Hold this image as we unpack the text.
So, image is the first consideration when we examine Jesus’ answer. The second consideration is context.
“Master … will there be only a few that are saved?” (Verse 23)
What is this guy asking? What does he think he needs saving from? We assume, ultimate salvation — who’s going to
heaven when they die. And this is a classic example of why cultural context is key to reading Scripture. Jesus is talking
salvation from something that is imminent – there’s an urgent crisis barrelling towards them.
For this guy, like us, he’s thinking about salvation after death. Historical evidence gives us a glimpse into the first century
Jewish mindset. They were obsessed with future salvation. They believed that only a few would be saved. Non-Jews and
blemished Jews need not apply. That was their understanding — the mindset that was circulating. So, the haunting
question, How few and who? was really, Will it be me? One brave soul in the class ventured to ask what everyone else
was wondering. Am I Jewish enough? Unblemished enough? Pure enough? Righteous enough? And Jesus’ answer was a
complete departure from popular opinion (as it usually was).
It’s not that future salvation was irrelevant to Jesus but he’s been teaching about the Kingdom of God now – life as God
intends it – now. A life of wholeness, equity, enough for all, and justice now. His peace-making, enemy-loving way, not
just heaven and not exclusive of heaven. The Kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Elements of it are present now –
in-breakings, tastings — and it is yet to be fulfilled fully in the future.
So how does Jesus answer? In typical fashion: not directly and wonderfully ambiguously. He seizes the opportunity to
address both the imminent danger and God’s desire for ultimate salvation.
Struggle hard’, Jesus replied, ‘to get in by the narrow gate (entrance). Let me tell you: many will try to get in and won’t
be able to.’” (Luke 13:24)
This pushes up against some of our assumptions, doesn’t it? The word “struggle” or strive, conveys the idea of a
“concerted effort,” rigorous athletic training, straining towards a goal. It’s hard, Jesus says. The door to the Kingdom of
God (life as God intends it) – a life of peace-making, enemy-loving, self-giving – is counter-cultural. It’s small, hard to see,
not obvious or natural and requires intentionality. It means rejecting the security options of world, the tools we
naturally reach for: violence, power, control, money hoarding. Jesus’ way runs contrary to this.
This teaching is a challenge for some of us who thought that belief was the only requirement. But that doesn’t seem to
align with what Jesus is teaching here. Knowing about him and maybe believing he is who he says he is, doesn’t seem to
cut it.
Yet this is not a new concept in scripture. “Belief” in Scripture is not simply agreement with an idea, mental assent to
information, but living out of a belief. Belief is a doing word.
Belief is when our actions coincide with what our mind subscribes to. It is not enough to mentally agree with an idea.
The idea must impact how we live. That’s true repentance — changing our mind and acting accordingly. Changing
direction. Turning the other way based on new information. For example, we can believe that Jesus loves his enemies
but belief in this means loving our enemies. We can believe that Jesus loves justice but repentance means that we will
work and vote for justice. Belief births repentance. There are no contradictions here. Belief is a doing word. Belief in the
Jesus way results in struggling hard for it.
Then Jesus ups the urgency with intense imagery:
25 “
When the householder gets up and shuts the door – at that moment you will begin to stand outside and knock at the
door and say, “Master, open the door for us.” Then he will say in response, “I don’t know where you’ve come
from.” 26 Then you will begin to say, “We ate with you and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!” 27 And he will say to you, “I don’t know where you people are from. Be off with you, you wicked lot.” 28 ‘That’s where
you’ll find weeping and gnashing of teeth: when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in God’s
kingdom, and you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:25-28)
Here’s where it gets beautifully ambiguous. There is a nod to the future — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were ancestors
who were long dead. So, we know that Jesus is referencing some future time as well, though this is not a proof text for
hell. Caution needs to be taken in applying this passage directly to the question of eternal salvation.
He says: “Struggle hard.” He does not say: ‘don’t worry you’re Jewish – you have the pedigree and the prophets.’ He
does not say: ‘just believe I am who I say I am.’ Rather, he says: ‘struggle hard’ – let your feet follow your belief.
In his story, they persist:
26 “We ate with you and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!” 27 And he will say to you, “I don’t know where you
people are from. Be off with you, you wicked lot.” (Luke 13:26-27)
They appeal to association with Jesus. Remember, eating with people was a sign of inclusion and intimacy.
“You know us, Jesus. We hung out. You stopped by for a beer. I went to hear you preach that once, remember?”
They were relying on their status and knowledge of Jesus.
Here again, context is key. In Jesus’ day knowing where someone was from, knowing their ancestry was an indication of
knowing the person. Jesus is rejecting the idea that merely knowing about him is the door into the Kingdom of God.
Rather, he’s emphasizing that the Kingdom of God (life as God intends it) is not a right of way but a way of life. Being
Jewish is not the right of way. Holding right beliefs is not the right of way. Being baptized is not right of way. Knowing
scripture, attending church, are not the right of way. But the Jesus way is a way of life. You don’t just get it, you live it.
You strive for it. You struggle to bring it.
J will have none of it. He says again: “Be off with you, you wicked lot.”
Wicked lot?! Who’s he calling “wicked?” This is alarming, offensive language from Jesus. In their minds the wicked were
their enemies: the Romans, gentiles, and Samaritans. What is he saying? Their knowing Jesus hasn’t led to a changed life
or transformed character. (They still hate their enemies) Maybe you know people like that. They attend church regularly,
have a Bible verse for everything, and never cuss but their hearts are inhospitable and harsh and their attitudes don’t
resemble Jesus most of the time. In these folks’ minds, Israel was saved by being Jewish. They had the right postal code,
bloodline, belief system, and they worshiped the right deity. And Jesus is saying, ‘No!’
But here’s kicker Friends. Here’s the gut-punch that got me. Who are the people pounding on the door? Jesus’ enemies?
The Romans? Herod? Pilate? No! The ones pounding on the door weren’t the ones who opposed Jesus but those who
thought they knew him. Sit with this. Let it sink in. This is who Jesus calls wicked. And that’s the sobering detail — the
shocker. It’s not just that he doesn’t recognize them but he calls them “wicked.” This was unbelievable and offensive
language for his listeners. After all, they were God’s people. He uses the word intentionally to shock them awake. They
thought they had the answers, the scriptures, the pedigree, the rules and the moral code governing everything. They
knew who the wicked ones were: the Romans, pagans, the ‘blemished’ Jews, that demographic – those people – over
there. To be clear, Jesus is not being meanspirited. He’s turning “othering” back on them. He’s emphasizing
intentionality not limiting entry.
Can you hear the desperation in this questioner now that we have context? “Are only a few being saved?”
Are there only a few who won the divine lottery? Did I lose my ticket? Jesus is saying: “No!” While we often read this
through the lens of “very few will be saved” I don’t believe that’s what Jesus is saying here. With the image of God that
we have of a hen giving her life to guard her chicks, and the context, we know that Jesus is not limiting entry but
emphasizing intentionality. In contrast to the image of scarcity Jesus says, 29 “ People will come from East and West, from North and South, and sit down to feast in God’s kingdom. 30 And, listen to
this: some who are last will be first, and some of the first will be last.” (Luke13:29-30)
The door might be narrow, but many will come. The door might be small but lots will get through. All who want to get in
will. All who walk in the way of Jesus, all who strive, will arrive. And not who you might expect. They’ll be coming from
everywhere! Jesus is painting a picture of vast diversity; not limiting entry but emphasizing intentionality. You must
want what’s behind the door – harmony, wholeness, equity, justice, enough for all. The door Jesus is talking about
requires desire and intentionality. And what’s inside – a banquet feast – is worth striving for.
This is a familiar picture from Scripture. A banqueting table was one of the primary ways that life with God is painted. (It
works for me – food is my love language!) It makes sense in an agrarian society where you must rely on the weather,
with no refrigeration, and where the food supply is precarious. But look at this passage for a moment. It’s a promise of
the life to come.
Isaiah 25:6-7 (The Message)
But here on this mountain, Jerusalem God-of-the-Angel-Armies
will throw a feast for all the people of the world,
A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines,
a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.
And here on this mountain, God will banish
the pall of doom hanging over all peoples,
The shadow of doom darkening all nations.
Yes, he’ll banish death forever.
And God will wipe the tears from every face.
He’ll remove every sign of disgrace
From his people, wherever they are.
Yes! God says so!
What a picture that is! Jesus is not picturing a closed table for a few but an open banquet for as many as want to be
there. He has been doing that for the past three years of his ministry. He’s been setting up tasting stations of God’s
ultimate feast. Tasting stations of the Kingdom of God.
• Feeding people with no food
• Providing abundant wine for celebrating
• Eating with people excluded by the religious establishment
• Restoring dignity
• Showing people how beautiful God’s way is
• Reminding them that the door might be narrow but it’s not exclusive
He’s been reminding them that people – all kinds of people, from all over — are coming.
• They’re coming intentionally
• They’re coming with differences
• They’re coming with baggage
• They’re coming because they want to be part of this beautiful way
Many are coming. Many are finding it. Many are wanting Jesus’ way. A way of peace and wholeness and harmony and
justice and equity. And not who they expected either. The obvious order of inclusion is actually reversed – the last will
be first.
Jesus flips question from not How few & who? But, Will it be you?
Do you see what Jesus is doing? He’s challenging them to consider if they really want God’s way – the way of peace and
enemy love. He knows they don’t regardless of what they say they believe, because in a few days, they will choose the
way of the world and crucify the way of God.
The scene concludes with a sarcastic comment. After being warned that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus replies with,
“surely no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:33) This is pure sarcasm!
Jesus is saying: it’s the religious people who kill the prophets; the God followers who kill God’s messengers. It’s the
people so confident that they’re in who may be out.
“Are only a few being saved?” Jesus flips question: not “How few & who?” but “Will it be you?”
I believe this passage challenges our image of God and our beliefs about God on so many levels. We might consider
pondering the following questions:
• Does our image of God align with our beliefs about God? (A mother hen or a punitive judge?)
• Do we regard God as exclusionary or as One who has a vision and desire for all?
• Where have we individually or collectively fallen into complacency?
• Where are our actions and the way we live out of sync with our beliefs?
• In what ways do we look more like the world than like the Jesus way of life?
Peace be with you, Friends!
Rev. Robyn Elliott