Through the Narrow Gate
These are very challenging words from Jesus. ʺEnter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.ʺ There is so much here. But I suspect that most of us hear only two words; ʺmanyʺ and ʺfew.ʺ These words seem to take on the real power of the message that Jesus is giving us here. They can be interpreted through sinful lenses, like pride, or they can cause, in those who are not yet fully matured in their faith, a great deal of fear. This is a passage of great importance, though, and it must be understood properly. Maybe we should focus, rather, on the words ʺnarrowʺ and ʺwide.ʺ
C. S. Lewis, in his great little masterpiece, Screwtape Letters, gives us a very important insight into this passage when he has the Master Devil, Screwtape, advise his apprentice, Wormwood, in how to handle his ʺpatient,ʺ or the soul that he has been sent to bring down to ʺOur Father in Hell.ʺ Screwtape in his imagined correspondence with Wormwood writes: ʺThe safest road to hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.ʺ This is as apt an interpretation of the ʺwideʺ gate and the ʺbroad roadʺ as any I have encountered before. The wide gate that finally ʺleads to destructionʺ is arrived at over a smooth, gradual, gentle path that is ʺsoft underfoot,ʺ easy to traverse, without any challenges, or difficult sections. On the other hand, in the real world, the path to the narrow gate is difficult for two very real reasons. First, it requires a well-formed conscience, and a mature self-discipline, to remain on the narrow path of righteousness, when the detours to ʺVanity Fairʺ are made so immediately attractive, so tempting, and so apparently ʺeasy.ʺ Each of us knows the struggle of conscience. We know the pull that immediate gratification has on us. We know how hard it is to say no to it, to remain true to our consciences, true to God’s commandment.
The second reason that it is difficult is that we are so vulnerable to peer pressure. We often follow others toward the wide gate because we want to be accepted, and to avoid the pains of rejection, or hated. We look at the wealth, fame and adulation of others and want the same for ourselves, or at least to be around it. We like the comfort of being surrounded by those who agree with us, who are moved by the same things that move us. We militate against the challenge of change, even if it would be better for us. And we are capable of rationalizing our human precepts into unshakable doctrines.
We are no different than the people of Jesus’ time. The world lifted up idols to them (as it does to us today) that ʺappearedʺ to be beautiful and satisfying; worldly things like, fame, power, social position, and wealth. Jesus said to them then and to us now, ʺWell did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.ʺ (Mark 7:6-8) This is the broad road that leads inevitably to the wide gate of destruction. Jesus was telling them, and us, how to identify it, and what we ought not do.
On the other hand, Jesus also boldly taught them (and us) clearly what the narrow gate, the narrow path, looks like, and what we ought to do in order to enter through the narrow gate. It was then, and still is today, a teaching in contradiction to that of the world. He taught a very simple, but challenging doctrine that was in union with the commandments of God. He taught us things like the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-49) He told the rich young man that, if he truly wanted to be perfect, if he truly wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven, he should sell everything, give to the poor, and follow me. (Matthew 19:21-22) He taught, ʺAmen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me (or not). (Matthew 25:40, 45)
These two paths lie before us at all times. It is up to us to choose which path we will take. It is not for me to worry over the words ʺmany,ʺ or ʺfew,ʺ rather, it is for each of us to know the difference between the ʺwide gateʺ and the ʺnarrow gate,ʺ and then, to choose to follow the narrow path, to enter through the narrow gate. This will demand both faith and courage of us. For if we see that we are being led down the wide road, we will need to be able to turn away from it, for the sake of our eternal soul. We will need to be able to endure the pains that may come our way for not going along with the crowd. In the end, the choice that each of us must make is between eternal life and eternal perdition. ʺI have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him.ʺ (Deuteronomy 30:19) Fear not, for God is with us. Turn to him in faith and humility and you will never be abandoned.