Of Strait Gates and Narrow Ways

Keep it in the Straight and Narrow.  We’ve all heard this phrase.  Obviously, it’s a reference to the gates and the ways mentioned in Matthew 7:13-14.

“13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

“14  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (KJV)

In more modern terms, this reads,

“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.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (ESV)

This certainly makes more sense to 21st century minds.  But what is it all about?

Whenever I think of this passage, I am reminded of the 1984 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge.  In this film, the unlikely hero, Larry Darrell, portrayed in counter-type by none other than Bill Murray, has lived a life of privilege in the burgeoning economic wonderland at the dawn of the 20th century in the United States.  In the First World War, he served as an ambulance driver and became disillusioned with life as he knew it.  He chose the life of an expatriate, seeking something that was missing from his life.  While working in a coal mine somewhere in Britain, he was introduced to the Upanishads, the philosophical foundation of the Hindu religion, by a paradoxically philosophical miner, who instilled in him the notion that he must travel to India to find meaning.  Larry went to the Himalayas and entered a monastery where he was saddled with menial tasks along with his contemplations.  When he was sent by the lama to an open-sided shelter high in the mountains to meditate, he carried with him a stack of books.  There, with nothing between him and death by exposure but a tiny fire, he quickly reached the end of his fuel and was forced to begin burning his books.  And then, he learned the lama’s intended message: only so much can be learned from books.  When he returned to the monastery to announce that it was time for him to leave, Larry related to the teacher, “Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on top of a mountain?” The lama observed in return, “You are closer than you think. The path to salvation is narrow and as difficult to walk as on a razor’s edge.”

That film was released while I was in college.  Although it got horrible reviews, I watched it and was deeply moved by that scene.  It became a theme for my life, not to be a holy man on a mountain, but to be the right kind of man in society.  I still remember the chills I experienced when I heard those lines.

But is that the idea that Jesus was teaching in this saying from Matthew 7?  That salvation is hard?  What about what he said in Matthew 11: 28-30?  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.   For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)  If salvation is truly hard, then Jesus contradicted himself.

So, let’s think about this whole narrow/broad dichotomy.  First off, “straight” is a corruption of “strait.”  “Straight” means something that is not crooked.  “Strait” means that something is narrow, and may carry with it the ideas of rigor and difficulty.  So, many have taken this passage to mean that the way of salvation is difficult.  Its narrowness must mean that it is hedged about by many rules and laws.  The fact that there will be few that find it suggests exclusivity.  The broad gate and way that lead to destruction suggest to some easy travel.  No restrictions.  No difficulties.  These are the conventional, traditional explanations of the teaching.

But Jesus was unorthodox.  That’s right, he didn’t go with the flow.  “Orthodox” means right, true, or straight thinking or belief.  It’s often times what we’ve been handed down to do or to believe.  It isn’t always wrong, but without questioning it, without understanding it, how do we know if it’s right?  From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned the world upside down.  Consider the logic of several of the beatitudes in Matthew 5.  “Blessed/Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….Blessed/Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth….Blessed/Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed/Happy are you when others revile you….rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven….”  These things are counter-intuitive.  If you had been a listener, gathered with so many others on that hillside, and someone sat down and started talking apparent non-sense like this, you would either get up and walk away, or maybe wait a little while for an explanation.  How could the “poor in spirit” receive the kingdom of heaven?  Wouldn’t you need to be “rich in spirit”, as demonstrated by your righteous deeds?  How could the meek inherit the earth?  If one would conquer, throw off the chains of servitude to a cruel world power, boldness would be necessary.  Jesus must not know what he’s talking about.

But continuing throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly reversed or at least revised a lot of their traditions and thinking.  Sayings constructed as “You have heard it said…But I say…” occur six times in chapter five, if I counted correctly.  He warned them that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—the ultimate examples of righteous law-keeping—if they would enter the kingdom of heaven.  External actions were no longer to be the measure of behavior: the heart must be right as well.  The old ways of eye for eye and tooth for tooth led only to escalation of hostilities.  Love must be for all, including your enemies, and not only for those who love you back.  Humility exalts in God’s eyes, not great public shows of righteousness and superficial piety.  Judging should begin with ourselves before we turn an eye on others, and a righteous standard must be used, with mercy if we would receive mercy.  Proactive goodness reaps goodness in return, so don’t wait for another to treat you well.  Rather, love your neighbor, because all of the law and prophets revolved around love.

So much of Jesus’s message that day was forcing his listeners to turn their thoughts around.  The discussion of gates and ways is no different.  If I were hiking a trail or driving a car, the easier path, the one with better pavement, the path of least resistance is usually the safer one, the one that leads at least to an easier life.  If I were entering a walled city in Jesus’s time, I would do so by day when the larger gates were opened for easy admission, enter with the traffic of commerce, so that I would not be confused with a person of bad intentions, sneaking around looking for the private entries, trying to slip in unannounced.

But Jesus says that his listeners should enter by the strait (narrow) gate, and only a few would find it.  Those who would enter in to the way leading to life must actively search for the entrance.  Following along with what everyone else is doing keeps you in the mainstream.  It’s easy to find, but it may not be where you want to go.  The broad gate and its subsequent way are easier.  You don’t need to think.  Autopilot or cruise control is fine.  How many times have I been driving on the interstate, keeping up with traffic, and I miss my exit?  It happens.  We get lulled into a rhythm, a rhythm of life, and we forget to search for the right exit.  Or the right entrance as the case may be.

Why should anyone purposely decide to take the harder path?  Well, why do men climb mountains?  With mountains, it’s “because they are there.”  With hard roads, and narrow gates, there may be a similar motive.  They are challenging, and some people love challenges.  We need to conquer our fears, our inadequacies, our weaknesses.  The way is narrow, and maybe it’s difficult to navigate.  But like with mountains, there are those who are willing to subjugate their fears and weaknesses and go forward.  Maybe it’s a steep path that climbs to greater heights.  The risk of falling is certainly there, but the reward, the view from the top, would be worth it.  The broad gate and its broad way beyond it are easy to find, easy to follow…and easy to get lost on.

He then goes on to suggest that entry through either gate is just the beginning of the journey, and not the destination.  Another conundrum.  One would usually think that we enter a gate at the end of journey.  But not this one.  These are ways of life.  We choose our gate, we choose our path, and we press on.  The narrow way, the more difficult one leads to life.  The broad and easy one leads to destruction.

What makes the narrow way “difficult” and the broad way “easy”?  Maybe Jesus is referring to the ways of righteousness that men designed and the way of righteousness that he was teaching.  He did not give a lot of commands in this sermon.  He explained behaviors.  He showed the wrong way to think or act, but then he showed them how to do the right thing.  We humans are a crafty lot: we can devise more ways of getting around doing the right thing than should be humanly or mathematically possible.  We are prodigious like that.  Doing the right thing may not be the easy route.  It goes against our natural tendencies to look out for ourselves.  That may be the narrow gate through which we travel.  Doing any number of wrong things is easy.  It takes little will, and a lot less concern.

Can we make a case for the practice of righteousness, living a righteous life, being the narrow gate or the narrow way?  If we consider verse 12, judiciously placed immediately before the discussion of gates and ways, and what we have come to call popularly the Golden Rule, it just might make sense:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  Doing good, living a life of goodness, becoming love and kindness—all of these fulfill the law.  Self-centeredness, revenge, self-promotion are all easy, and they fall within the natural tendency for many people.  Further, in Matthew 22:35-40, when Jesus was asked by the lawyer about the great commandment, Jesus responded that loving God completely was first, and loving your neighbor was a close second.  So then is love the narrow gate?  It must be part of it.  Does love lead to life?  Is apathy the broad gate, and indifference the way to destruction?  All of these ideas are connected.

Is the “life” mentioned here only referring to heaven and the “destruction” referring to hell?  There is no doubt that these images draw attention to the eternal state.  But in a real sense, righteousness may improve one’s life even in the here and now.  Think about the teaching on adultery.  In Matthew 5: 27-28, Jesus reminds his audience of the seventh commandment, then reveals that any man who even looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  Which of the two great commandments would I break in doing so?  Of course, God said don’t do it, so the first is violated because failing to keep God’s command fails to show love for him.  By objectifying the woman after whom I lust, I will have failed to show her the love, respect, and honor due any human being.  By keeping the heart in tune, my life is richer and less complicated, and so is hers.  It’s a win-win.  Now, is it hard to keep that baser instinct in check?  Absolutely.  Would it be easier to go with the flow?  Yes.  But what would the outcome be?  In virtually every situation of adultery I have ever heard of, the result is some level of destruction:  destruction of character, trust, love, self-esteem, family—in a word, life.  We make a little piece of hell on earth when we fail to do the right thing, when we seek only our momentary and/or selfish gratification.

So, do rules help us keep in the strait and narrow?  Sure.  The traditional emphasis has been to mind your p’s and q’s.  Be careful to observe all of the rules and laws, because that is all that’s keeping you in the narrow way.  It’s a sheer drop-off to either side.  Pretty frightening, if there’s nothing there to catch you.  We may be too busy balancing to enjoy the trail.  But if we focus on the two great commandments that Jesus cited, we may not need a lot of very specific rules.  Jesus’s message in the Sermon on the Mount was one of correcting the heart.  Righteous life is not imposed from outside, it cannot be legislated.  It must come from within.  If we truly subjugate the emphasis on self in deference to the good of others, we’ll do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. We’ll honor God out of love, not fear.  We’ll love our neighbors, and seek their good, not take advantage of them for selfish gain.  It is entirely possible that focusing more on rules and law-keeping may divert us into the heavier traffic flow of that broad way.  Jesus warned the Pharisees of this when he reminded them of their responsibility to the weightier matters of the Law.  They were masters of detail, but failures when it came to motive, and motive emanates from the heart.  Maybe the broad way is broad enough to let us bring all of our baggage of whatever origin, even religion.  Doing the right thing is harder, especially when the easy way is so enticing.  But challenges will make us stronger, wiser, and more determined to keep on.

Until we get to the end of the road, there is nothing that says we can’t turn back.  Anyone on the narrow road may grow tired, and sit down to rest.  But sitting still is falling behind.  Others may look back, like Lot’s wife, and pay a price for their too-fond retrospection.  And others may take a short cut and wind up on the broad way.  That would be a sad and tragic mistake, but it’s a choice we each make each and every day.  On that broad way, there’s also nothing that says the road is only one-way.  At any point, before we reach the journey’s end, we can get off that easy path and seek the way of life.  Every fork in the road has an option for the road less traveled.  It’s harder going, but it’s peaceful.  And the view from the top will be amazing.

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