[Here’s an article I wrote about six years ago. I was glad to find it in a folder in my computer, since I seem to be lacking time lately to come up with new stuff. Maybe things will have to change somewhat as my new vocation develops. Stay tuned...]
Do you like to quote Scripture passages such as, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall lack,” or “You will receive whatever you ask for in prayer”? Many Christians do, but there are other passages that most people definitely do not like to quote and would just as soon dismiss or explain away.
Like this one: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
What are we entering by means of these gates? Ultimately we enter Heaven or Hell. The Lord urges us to choose the narrow gate and not the wide one. The words of Jesus begin with this life and point to eternity, to that which awaits us after crossing the threshold of death. We choose a path, a way of life, that has as its end either salvation or damnation.
All must pass through one gate or the other. Evidently we don’t have the option not to enter by either gate. Long before we die, we have to make a choice about the way we’re going to live. For some, the choice can be by default: if we don’t actually choose the narrow way, we will find ourselves on the wide one. Not to choose is, in effect, a way of choosing. And each path inexorably leads to a final destination.
It is clear that Jesus isn’t merely recommending that we embrace certain values or engage in certain behaviors for the sake of a good life on this earth. We see in the parallel passage in Luke that the context is explicitly that of salvation (Luke 13:23-30). This whole Lucan passage is eschatological in tone, and the parallel to this extended discourse is picked up a few verses later in Matthew (7:21-23). We will examine this more closely below [i.e., in part 2].
For now let us note that one gate leads to “destruction” and one to “life.” Such terms in the New Testament usually have an ultimate connotation: eternal destruction or eternal life. Jesus’ words about life and death usually refer to the Kingdom that is coming, and are not limited to temporal earthly existence.
We might wonder why the way to destruction is so wide and easy, and the way to eternal life so narrow and hard. There are many today who, by their rejection or dishonest reinterpretation of the Scriptures or Christian Tradition, try to make it look like the way to life is much wider and easier than Jesus says it is. Such attempts, however, always end in error and failure, for one misrepresents the words of Christ only at one’s own peril.
It is a fact of life in our “fallen” world that it is often easier to commit sin than to practice virtue, or at least that self-indulgence is more attractive than self-denial. We are seduced by the spirit of self-gratification because we secretly want to be, so we chafe and bristle at the thought of obedience and self-discipline, and we may think that the very concept of “commandments” belongs only to a past, unenlightened mentality. Our inherited concupiscence goes the way of least resistance, but the authentic life of love and service to others is demanding. So if something feels good we do it, but if it requires some sacrifice we avoid it. It’s easy to take the easy way, and hard to take the hard way.
But we don’t seem to be sufficiently aware of what is at stake. Jesus is talking about life and destruction, Heaven and Hell. If we choose the wide gate and easy way, the selfish, pleasure-loving, Gospel-rejecting way, we destroy ourselves—beginning now, but lasting for all eternity. If we choose the narrow gate and hard way, to which Jesus exhorts us, we embrace true life, now and forever.
We simply have to accept certain facts of life, and this is one of them: because of our inveterate weaknesses and disordered desires, it is hard to be faithful in all things to the will of God. Yet this way is the most rewarding way, even if it doesn’t always seem the most pleasurable. (According to the ancient philosophers, it is pleasurable for a virtuous person to practice virtue. So if virtue is difficult for us, we’re not yet virtuous!)
The paradox is that if we learn from Christ—who speaks of narrow gates and hard ways—and follow Him, we find not narrowness or intolerable hardness, but an easy yoke and a light burden (see Matthew 11:28-30). Lose your life for Christ and you will save it, or rather, He will give it back to you, wholly transformed and shining.
But the choice of gates is not a once-for-all affair. We have to make choices every day that keep us on the right path. We can’t rest in the fact that yesterday we made a good choice. Today brings its own challenges and decisions. It is a whole lifetime of choices—all together forming a brightly-colored tapestry emblazoned with the words “Yes, Lord!”—that secures our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some would say that “walking the straight and narrow” makes Christians themselves rather narrow—that is, narrow-minded and inhibited—and they see this as an undesirable state of affairs. On the contrary, in order to squeeze through the narrow gate we need to be sharp and in top shape, having shed the flab of fuzzy thinking and self-indulgence that makes us fit only for waddling through the wide gate.
What seems mind-narrowing to some are only the necessary parameters of belief and behavior within which one can effectively do the will of God, and hence find the fullness of life. It is only the difficult (yet invigorating) narrow path that ascends to the clear, pure heights of unfettered understanding. There we are able to perceive the entire breathtaking panorama of God’s goodness and wisdom, horizons inaccessible to those on the wide and easy path. The wide path is, as it were, lined with mirrors, so those who travel it see nothing but themselves and their own desires. And that path of faithless narcissism goes in descending spirals to you-know-where.
To be continued…