“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Matthew 7:13-14 (NRSV)
We are now on a trajectory in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus starts bringing in more directly the idea of the coming judgement. Here, we have people being destroyed who take the broad and easy path. In the next section, it’s false prophets. In the next, it’s people who outwardly profess allegiance to Jesus but who are actually disobedient. In the next, it’s people who hear Jesus’ words but do nothing about them. And on that happy note, the Sermon on the Mount ends.
It’s pretty clear Jesus hasn’t read any good books on preaching or taken a homiletics class in seminary, because everyone knows you’re supposed to end on something upbeat and encouraging. Also, he does not have clearly signposted points, and very rarely does anything start with the same letter. There’s an incredible lack of funny stories. Who taught this guy how to write a sermon, anyway?
Ahem, getting back to the narrow gate.
Throughout the Sermon, Jesus has urged his listeners to strive to belong to the humble, faithful group who will come through the judgement and be rewarded by God with a reversal of their fortunes. This is in contrast to Israel’s oppressors, some of whom might appear religious but in actuality are fully allied with the present evil age. This is the group who will be brought low by God, and the prosperity they have enjoyed via their hypocrisy will be small comfort on that day.
Here, Jesus illustrates this with two gates. One gate lay at the end of a hard road. It is narrow and admits few. It is a struggle to use this gate. The other gate is wide and the road is easy. It admits many, and many take advantage of the ease of this route. The problem is that the hard road you walk that brings you to the narrow gate admits you into life, whereas the easy road that ushers you through the broad gate admits you into destruction.
This may be an allusion to Jeremiah 21. In that passage, judgement is going to come upon Jerusalem via the invasion by Babylon. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, assures the hearers that Nebuchadnezzar’s victory is certain, and when the Babylonians show up, they will kill everyone in Jerusalem. Thus, God puts two paths before them:
And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.
Jeremiah 21:8-10 (NRSV)
I find it highly likely that Jesus, as God’s prophet to Israel, uses the same motif for the same warning. Matthew loves doing this with the Old Testament. Luke, in chapter 13, will tie this saying of Jesus directly to the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, but he omits the “two paths” motif that Matthew includes.
Jesus’ use of Jeremiah’s imagery is obviously very appropriate when dealing with another army who is coming to destroy Jerusalem and kill everyone in it. In this age, Jesus will urge his followers to flee the city and not surrender to the occupying force, but the net effect is the same. Destruction is coming to Jerusalem, and God sets before them the two paths – one that leads to life, one that leads to destruction.
It is those who will listen to Jesus’ words and follow his instructions who will find that they will live through these days and emerge on the other side of this great tribulation. They will find themselves in a new age where there is no Temple and no Jerusalem hegemony. There will be no Sanhedrin prosecuting Israelite sharecroppers for Torah violations. There will be no Sadducees lounging in their manors fashioned after Herod’s. There will be no Pharisees and scribes condemning their fellow Israelites and boasting of their righteousness and claims to God’s favor. There will be no tax collectors. There will be no money changers. There will be no collaborators with the Empire in Jewish clothing. All this will be swept away like a flood.
And all it takes to be swept away in that destruction is: nothing. All you have to do is make a comfortable life for yourself. You don’t have to be evil. You don’t have to kick homeless people. All you have to do is ignore Jesus’ call to repentance and faithfulness in the face of a coming judgement. All you have to do is eat and drink and live your life and chill on your couch. And the Romans will come for you. The road to destruction is easy and the gate is broad, and many are those who will pass through it.
By contrast, Jesus calls the faithful to repent and renew the relationship to God Israel lost a long time ago. Jesus warns them of a coming judgement, but he also promises life in a new age. And for those who hear his message and follow, he does not turn anyone away. The sick are healed. The poor are fed. The sinners are forgiven. The outcasts are welcomed and loved. Whosoever will come is welcome, and they carry with them in their hearts the very seeds that will blossom into the new world waiting for them in a post-Temple world. It all sounds nice, but it involves discomfort. It involves selling your possessions to take care of the poor. It involves leaving behind the intoxicating, sinful ways of life that Israel has fallen into. It involves getting back up and being a new creation. It involves being ready to leave when Jesus tells you. It involves giving up the rewards the world offers to accept poverty and humility. This gate is narrow. The road is hard. Few will choose it.
This immediate, in-their-face dichotomy influences everything Jesus has to say. This is not to say that everything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth directly relates to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, but that eschatological event is like the banks between which a river flows. Jesus’ sense of urgency, his warnings about destruction, his claims that he is the only way his hearers will be saved, his weeping over Jerusalem, his urgent pleas for people to listen to him and believe him – all these things are said knowing that a dark, devouring day is slowly creeping up onto the world stage of history. And if you can put yourself, even for a fraction of time, into the heads of that Judean villager sitting on the mountainside listening to this sermon – with all of your (then) present-day concerns and the world as it was all around you…
Or better yet, if you could see through Jesus’ eyes, and you see before you great crowds. People of a nation that was once called Holy to YHWH. A nation of kings and priests now eking out an existence as sharecroppers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and fishermen under a Gentile reign that flies its Eagle over the Star of David. You see these – the lost sheep of Israel that God wants so dearly to reclaim – and you know what is coming for them – the darkness and the fires and the blades and the blood that are about to swallow them up. Perhaps you can feel your heart start to break, and the urgency rise up in your chest, and the determination that you will win these people back and save them. No. Matter. What.
As God will reveal in the unfolding of time, this is the heart He has for all of the old creation.
You are a part of this story, now.
- Although Jesus had something specific in mind with his illustration of the broad and narrow gates, are there other events in the life of the people of God this could be used to describe? Are there crossroads in the life of the contemporary church where this idea might also be descriptive? Can it describe the progress of new creation and, if so, how?
- What does it mean to be “lost?”