IN THE END
An Indian friend of mine who had lived for a year in Europe said, “Europeans are always asking, ‘How much?’ and ‘Why?’ and ‘What time is it?’” I have never forgotten her words, because I find that they are true.
But Europeans may not be the only ones with that obsession. ‘How many will be saved?’ the disciples of Jesus wanted to know. He didn’t answer their question. Instead he told them how they themselves might be saved. Similarly when he was talking about the destruction of the Temple, all they wanted to know was, ‘When is it going to happen?’ (Matthew 24:3). He didn’t answer that question either. ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52). No answer. ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked (John 3:4). No answer. There must be a message in that.
The passage from curiosity to wisdom is a very long one, but it is our slowness that makes it long. Idle questions make us dawdle along the way: they don’t challenge us, they only entertain. They are the main reason we read the papers and watch TV.
No doubt curiosity is a good thing; cattle sheep and pigs have hardly any. It makes us different from them, open somehow. But we limit ourselves if we are never more than curious about anything, if we try to keep everything ‘out there’, not affecting ourselves in any practical way. Then it is a refusal of depth and wisdom. It is better to curb it then: not in order to close that gap that separates us from the beasts, but in order to open our spirit in a still deeper way. Jesus ignored questions that came from mere curiosity.
Will many be saved? Will everyone be saved? Christians haven't always been wise in the way they approached these questions. Even St Augustine put a foot wrong. He lived from 354 – 430, but he was the first to claim to know that there were people in hell. That he was the first is a remarkable fact, for it shows that for 400 years Christians approached the profound mystery of salvation without the curious question, ‘How many?’ The great modern theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasaar, summed up the matter. If you claim to know that there are people in hell, he wrote, you are claiming to know more than you can know; and if you claim to know that there is no-one in hell, you are also claiming to know more than you can know. In other words, curiosity is not gratified in this matter. It is too profound for curiosity.
Jesus responded to the question by saying what you (and I) should do if you (and I) want to be saved. He said it is a narrow door. If he had said, "It's dead easy to get into the Kingdom of heaven, don't worry, relax," no one, or very few, would consider it worth lifting a finger for. Anything that comes cheap, or for nothing, must be worthless. George Bernard Shaw said a cynic was a person who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. We easily confuse price and value, and so we think that what has no price has no value either. In our brutal world everything can be bought, even love - or rather a semblance of it. It means that priceless things like real love, truth, goodness, virtue are thought worthless. Money will get no one into the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24), but that does not mean that it requires nothing of us. On the contrary, we know that anything of real value requires everything of us. You would love, for example, to be able to give your knowledge and experience to another person automatically, like photocopying a page; you would love to transfer your knowledge of a language or a subject, but it can only be done by effort on both sides. This doesn't mean that you are reluctant to give; on the contrary you would give everything instantly if you could. But if you could do that, the knowledge or the experience or the language would not really become the other person's; it would remain alien material in their memories and minds.
Likewise the Kingdom of God. It requires everything of us, and yet it is all gift.
Donagh O'Shea OP