The first reading for today’s Mass is from the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 19:9-36). It is an account of the siege of Jerusalem that took place about 700 years before the birth of Christ. The ruler of the Assyrian Empire, King Sennacherib, had already conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and sent 10 of the Israelite tribes into exile where they were lost to history. Now he was focusing his attention on the southern Kingdom of Judah, where the last two tribes of Israel lived. Sennacherib’s empire had expanded very quickly and in the scripture passage he sends a letter to King Hezekiah of Judah informing him that, like the gods of the other nations that fell to him, the God of Israel would not be able to protect the people of Judah from defeat at his hands. Feeling completely helpless, King Hezekiah takes the letter from Sennacherib and goes to the Jerusalem Temple. He lays the letter out on the ground, and asks the Lord to deliver them from their enemies. In response to the prayer of Hezekiah, the prophet Isaiah tells his king that the Lord would deliver Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah from the Assyrian forces. The prophet speaks of the faithful remnant of Jerusalem, survivors from Mount Zion, and that the Lord would “shield and save this city for my own sake, and for the sake of my servant David.” The passage ends with the angel of the Lord going into the Assyrian camp laying siege to Jerusalem, and striking down 185,000 men. Plague had miraculously broken out among the Assyrian army, and they were forced to withdraw. Jerusalem was saved. But just 100 years later, Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians and its people sent into exile. What happened?
With the miraculous liberation of Jerusalem rose a mentality among the people of the southern Kingdom of Judah that the Lord would never let the City of David fall to its enemies. They came to presume on the special protection of the Lord, whose Temple was in the Holy City. So, the rulers of Judah paid a kind of lip-service to God, making sure the sacrifices were offered in the Temple, but not living lives that were faithful to Him. They lived like their pagan neighbors, engaged in international diplomacy and intrigue. They even decided, against the warnings of the Lord’s prophets, to make an alliance with Egypt, the nation from which the Lord delivered their ancestors from slavery. They felt invincible because of their belief that the Lord had obliged Himself to protect Jerusalem against defeat. But when they were conquered and sent into exile, the Lord revealed His fidelity to them in an unexpected way. Forty years after Jerusalem fell, the new ruler – Cyrus the Great of Persia – allowed a faithful remnant in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. A few centuries later, Our Lord would be born from the faithful remnant and reveal to the world the extent to which God always remembers His promises.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord tells His disciples: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:12-14). He is warning against falling into the perennial temptation to which the ancient peoples of the Kingdom of Judah and their cousins to the north succumbed. Mere external observance is not what the Lord is asking of us. He is not like the pagan idols that demand animal sacrifices as “protection money.” Saying our prayers is necessary, worshiping Him at Mass is necessary, doing good things for our neighbor is necessary – but these things are insufficient on their own. We must do it with a humble heart that is aware of our struggles with resentments, with dishonesty, with envy, greed, and lust, but more importantly a converted heart that is aware of His goodness, His love for us, and His mercy. Aware of our fallenness and of His goodness, we strive for the narrow gate by ceasing to pay lip service to the Lord and by taking up the cross of faithful discipleship that He helps us carry and which requires us to know Him and to trust Him always.