once a month I answer the doorbell to a pair of God�s hucksters. Eager-looking
Jehovah's Witnesses or well-scrubbed Mormons try to convince me that only
a few in number will be saved and that their church represents those
blessed few. Unfortunately, for them, they don't have a clue as to who it
is who answers the door. At first I used to relish these uninvited visits.
I enjoyed confronting their smugness with all the biblical, historical,
and theological ammunition I could muster. Of course, nothing was
accomplished in these battles at the doorstep. They walked away with smug
determination. I closed my door with smug satisfaction. Maybe I've begun
to mellow, but recently I simply tell God's peddlers, "Thank you and
have a nice day."
In Luke 13:22-30, the person who tapped Jesus on the shoulder was also smug when he asked, "Lord, are they few in number who are to be saved?" He represents those in our Lord's time who believed they were saved simply because they belonged to the "in" group.
Jesus refuses to get caught up in such a silly argument. He doesn't even give a straight answer. Instead, he throws them a curve ball, "Try to come in through the narrow door .... Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last."
When Luke wrote this gospel, Jerusalem and the temple had already been destroyed. But Luke wasn't telling his listeners that the smug fellow in the story represented just those who refused to accept the Messiah. The "you" of Jesus' answer is not singular but plural. In other words, Jesus is speaking to the Christians of Luke's time as well. He's telling them, "Just because you are a Christian, part of the �in� group, doesn't mean you should gloat over what happened to Jerusalem." Jesus tells them not to rest on their laurels and act so smugly. Smugness is an evil not just reserved to creepy characters in the Bible nor to today's polyester prophets.
Smugness abounds in the so-called "heroes" of our day. It seems that whenever big stars, politicians, TV preachers, are caught in the act of a crime, they seem to show more concern for legal technicalities than for ethical principles.
The most they are willing to admit is, "Mistakes were made--loosely translated, "I was caught."
What has caused this modern smugness to descend upon our land? What makes our heroes think they are above the law and do not owe us an apology? What makes them think that they belong to some privileged "in group" with its own rules of conduct? Did it begin when Richard Nixon claimed, "I am not a crook" and substituted "Mea culpa, mea culpa" with the now popular line, "Mistakes were made"? Is it the result of the 700,000 lawyers in America�one for every 350 citizens? Their first bit of advice in law-suits is never to admit you are wrong.
Or does the problem of smugness in our land stem from something deeper? Have we lost one of the key insights of our biblical tradition: that we, whether members of the "in" group or the "out" group, are all capable of evil and are also free to choose to do good?
Conservatives preach as if there are only two kinds of people in society: "the criminals" destined to commit evil acts, and the rest of us, who are by nature, more or less, rather good people. Such a simplistic painting of the world in shades of black and white, prevents conservatives from ever owning up to the shadow side of their lives and ever discovering the good Samaritans and the prodigal sons and daughters of our time.
Liberals, on the other hand, are so bent on blaming society and environment for all the violence and ugliness of our times that they fail to recognize the individual capacity each of us has to choose evil or to choose good. The truly wise of this earth are skeptical of liberal sentimentalism. They know that love means you have to say you're sorry until your dying day.Luke 13:22-30 reminds us that we religious people, in particular, can succumb to the sin of smugness as we battle those "not saved." We should remember the story of St. Anthony who went out into the desert to fight the devil. At the end of his life of battle, he taught that we must learn to find good, even in the devil.
During Communion, we eat and drink in the company of Jesus who banishes our smugness and opens up for us a narrow door.
An excerpt from Like Fresh Bread, Original title: More Than Mistakes Have Been Made, � 1993 by Robert P. Waznak, Paulist Press. Available at Amazon.com