Confusing isn’t it, when Jesus almost in one breath tells us that many will come into the kingdom – into heaven- from the four corners of the world, when he has just said that the gate is narrow and few will enter? (Luke 13:22-30) Of course, as with his saying that we should cut off our hand if it does wrong, we’re not meant to take what he says literally; but nonetheless we need to make sense of it. St Paul too is full of joy that we are saved (1 Cor 15:2 Eph 2:5) and yet he tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as if we have not been saved. (Phil 2:12) The point that both are making is that God has given us a free gift – eternal life with him in what we call heaven – but we have to unpack that gift, rather than leaving it wrapped up in a cupboard!
Before we go any further, we need to remind ourselves of something that people often forget. There is no automatic entry into heaven. All of us are actually destined for hell – what is called “eternal punishment” – unless – and this is the point – God gives us, as a gift, eternal life. We also have to remind ourselves that none of us are entirely ready for heaven. All of us have faults and failings that make us imperfect. However hard we try, we all know that in one way or another we fail. That is why we have the comfort of knowing that as long as we do our best, and are open to God’s love in some way now, then the final stage of being made perfect by God, will take place after we have died.
The Church has described that process as a period of time – or “temporal punishment” – many days (or even years) if we have been very bad, and far fewer if we have been very good. But I think it is better not to use the time analogy since in death there is no time, but instead to talk about – more purification or less – according to what our life has been like. That purification is what is traditionally called “Purgatory”, when we are, as it were, purified by fire as gold in the furnace – (1 Cor 3:12-14) although St Peter reminds us that our faith is more precious than gold. (1 Peter 1:7)
The next question we clearly want to ask is – How do we work out our salvation with fear and trembling? What are we supposed to do so that the process of purification for us after death will be as short as possible? The answer is obvious. We need to follow Jesus – the way to eternal life – as closely as we can. This simply means being open to what God wants us to do day by day – what we call prayer – supremely the special way of prayer he gave us – linking ourselves to him in the bread and wine that becomes his real presence at Holy Mass. And then, putting God’s will into practice – what we call “works of mercy” – to care for our fellow humans with the sacrificial love shown us by Jesus on the cross.
In order to help us with this process of working out our salvation, the Church sometimes gives people a series of things to do that help with this. This is what is called an “Indulgence”. It always includes sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer, and then some other actions either devotions which might include going on pilgrimage, or good works which might include giving money to the poor or to the work of the Church. The latest example of such an Indulgence was issued for those who went to the World Youth Day so that includes our Jack in Eynsham! The text reads, that it applies to “ the faithful who are truly repentant and contrite” and “Who will devoutly participate in the sacred rites and exercises of devotion that will take place in Rio de Janeiro.”
Indulgences have had a bad press in the past when they were understood wrongly as an automatic way to get into heaven – pay so much money to the Church and you are guaranteed a place! Even back then, if people had read the small print, they would have seen that it required them to make a genuine Confession, Communion and prayer, and that the gift of money to the Church, just like you give when you go to Mass, must be a genuinely Christian action – part of a process of real penitence and prayer!
This then is what our Readings today are all about. Jesus was warning those who assumed they had an automatic right to heaven that this is not the case – something we all need to hear. And he was also telling us that all sorts of unexpected people from the four corners of the earth may well get into heaven before us. “There are those now last who will be first and those now first who will be last” In other words sitting having holy thoughts will not do. Each of us needs to respond more and more fully to what God wants us to do with our life. Like a parent he loves us yes, but we all need training – preparing ourselves for heaven!