22 He passed through towns and villages, teaching and making a journey towards Jerusalem. 23 Someone said to him: ‘Lord, are those being saved few?’ And he said to them, 24 ‘Struggle to enter through the narrow door, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able to.’
Jesus is asked by a man in the street whether it is true that only a few will be saved. The question highlights the centrality of the theme of judgment on Israel in Jesus’ teaching, as it is found in statements such as: ‘I came to cast fire upon the land’ and ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the land’ (Luke 12:49, 51). It further presupposes Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 1:9 and 10:22-23, which speak of the few that will survive the devastation of the country by the Assyrians or the remnant that will turn back to the mighty God. Paul quotes these passages in Romans 9:27-29 to underline his argument that Israel now faces a similar disaster from which only a few will be saved. Isaiah 10:18-19 speaks of Israel as a forest which the Lord will destroy: ‘The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.’ Less directly relevant are apocalyptic texts such as 4 Ezra 7:47; 8:1-3; 9;15.
Jesus’ response echoes the saying in Matthew 7:13-14 about the broad gate and easy path that leads to destruction and the narrow gate and difficult path that leads to life – ‘and those who find it are few’. This is Jesus’ reworking of Jeremiah’s warning that Israel faces a way of life and a way of death:
And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. (Jer. 21:8-10)
The context of the passage in Luke also points to a concrete, historical interpretation: if the Jews do not repent they will be slaughtered by the Romans as the Galileans were slaughtered, they will be crushed in the ruins of Jerusalem as the eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell were killed (13:1-5); Israel is a fig tree that sooner or later will be cut down because it does not bear fruit (13:6-9); people who have known Jesus will be excluded from restored Israel (13:25-30). The chapter concludes with Jesus’ lament over the city and its forsaken ‘house’ (13:34-35).
He urges them, therefore, to ‘struggle’ (agōnizesthe) to enter by the narrow door. The use of agōnizomai makes this a strongly apocalyptic motif. Paul uses the word on a number of occasions for the struggle to complete a path or fulfil a vocation that will end in suffering, death, and vindication with Christ (1 Cor. 9:25; Col. 1:29; 1 Tim. 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). In the account of the martyrdom of Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother, it is said that Eleazar ‘struggled first’ (proēgōnizeto) and then the brothers ‘struggled’ (ēgōnizonto). In Ben Sirach 4:28 we have: ‘Exert yourself (agōnisai) to the death for the truth, and the Lord God will do battle for you.’
‘Struggle to enter by the narrow door’, therefore, is a call to the Jews to abandon everything, take up their cross (cf. Lk. 14:26-27, 33), and follow Jesus down the painful path of suffering and death for the sake of the survival – or salvation – of the people.