Monday, July 5, 2010

Matthew 7:13-14 - "Enter by the narrow gate..."

Jesus says the road to destruction is a five-lane highway clogged by serious traffic with a big welcoming gate up ahead as wide as a salesman's smile. It leads to a place of doom. Here's how I picture it. As you move with the crowd you look around and see big names and well-known faces and think, "We are together. We all agree. All these hot shot Christian leaders and famous pastors would never be turned away. I'm safe if I stick with them." It's a pleasant road, easy on the feet with a consistent downward slope. You hardly have to think. You can let yourself be swept along with the current. Surely so many people can't be wrong, can they?

The gate to life, on the other hand, is small. The way leading there is narrow and few are those who find it. Here's how I picture it. Just as the most popular hiking paths are broadened by the trampling of many feet, this path is narrow and sketchy because it isn't well-trod. It is a hard way to go. There are steep inclines, blind turns, and boring level stretches that go on for miles. You don't have much company, except for the many false guides who come alongside to try to persuade you to take short-cuts or detours, all of which lead to the broad path below. The only guide you can really trust is the word of God. It's the lamp that lights your way and the map that keeps you on track. You don't dare trust in anyone else, not even the other travelers. The farther you go the more Bibles you see discarded along the side of the road by other once-faithful travelers. You wonder if you'll wind up like them. You just want to make it to the end, to make it through that slender gate.

How apt that Jesus concludes his moral teachings of the Sermon on the Mount with this sober warning about entering the narrow gate. Starting with "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and concluding with "However you want people to treat you, so treat them," he has laid down the steps you need to take to walk the narrow path. The meekness, the humility, the suffering, the watchfulness, the faith, the forgiveness, the integrity, the sacrificial love--all this takes you along the path that few will find. Calling them "moral teachings" doesn't even cut it, as if you are just checking off a "to do" list. The relationship between Jesus and his teachings is more like a symbiotic relationship. You come to know Jesus by following his teachings, and you learn to follow his teachings by getting to know him.

A big problem a lot of us have with the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus' teachings seem so impossible. We don't even want to consider that this is the "narrow path" Jesus is talking about, because we've already decided from the very start that it cannot be done. He can't seriously want us to attempt these things! Otherwise who can be saved?

But the fallacy may be that we are viewing these teachings as a law to be kept perfectly instead of as a path along which to be led. Of course we're not going to keep the Golden Rule perfectly. Of course learning to love our enemies will be a growing process. Using fear of failure as an excuse to reject these teachings may be one of those things that detours so many people away from the narrow path and ultimately from Jesus himself. Jesus is very clear when he says knowing him and loving him translates into keeping his commandments. He also makes it very clear that at the very end of time when we stand before him, he will judge us based on whether he knew us or not.

Keeping Jesus' commands is not so much about perfection as it is stepping out in faith and persevering in it. We are already justified by his blood. What have we to lose? The real question is, are you willing to try to love your enemy? Are you willing to try to withhold judgment from your brother? Are you willing to believe that seeking first the kingdom will result in all these things being added to you? Sure you'll fail, but a lot can be learned from failure. If anything you'll learn about the grace of Jesus as he helps you to your feet and gives you strength to continue on the narrow road. And when you do see him blessing your feeble efforts, his power and person become real to you. Your hunger to see him face to face increases. Your desire to meet him at the narrow gate becomes a quiet force in your life through hardship, sorrow and suffering.

I believe Jesus is saying that any path that does not involve these challenges to faith, and these struggles with obedience and personal sin which ultimately lead to a humble dependence on himself, isn't the right path. Furthermore there are plenty of false teachers out there who will try to convince you of an easier way, and you will want to believe them. Jesus elaborates on this in our next passage.

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