Great Texts of the Bible
Choosing a Road
Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many be they that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life, and few be they that find it.—Matthew 7:13-14.
1. There is a certain inevitable movement of human beings implied in the whole of this passage. Our Lord regards the multitudes around Him as all in motion—none quiescent, none fixed and centred. This transiency and mutability of human life can neither be doubted nor denied. We are not dwellers, we are travellers. We are all on the way, staff in hand, loins girt, the dust on our sandals.
And the myriad feet are echoing that trod the way before
In a vague and restless music evermore.
Ahead of us there is the cloud of a vast company travelling; behind, the clamour of those who follow in our track; each one pressing forward, never resting, not in sleep, not in daytime, not in stillest night.
2. Similarly, moral progress is also constant. This is a far more serious and important kind of progress. If we could stay our spirits amid this universal vicissitude, and keep them in fixed conditions, the outward change would be of less moment. But the moral progress is as constant as, and infinitely more important than, any change that can be apprehended by the senses. This is the tremendous thing, that each one of us is being saved or lost, that each one is putting on the image of God, the eternal beauty, and wearing more and more the everlasting strength, or losing both, falling into vileness and weakness, although it may be by slow or even imperceptible degrees. It is a solemn thought that the one process or the other is going on in every one of us, without the intermission of a day or an hour. Our souls as well as our bodies are on pilgrimage; our spirits as well as our feet are on the way. And here the question arises: What way? How many are there to choose from? Two; only two. The way of the many or the way of the few.
The Way of the Many
The world speaks of numerous ways. It specially favours a via media. But here our Lord, with more than a touch of austerity in His tone, declares there is no middle way. He puts the antithesis sharply and nakedly. There is a wide gate, and there is a narrow gate; there is a broad way, and there is a straitened way; and there are just two ends, destruction and life. At one or other of these ends every man shall arrive, and what end it will be depends upon the road he travels.
1. The entrance is wide.—We have taken the broad way first, if for no other reason than that it is the broad way. It is the most manifest and obtrusive, and the nearest to us naturally. Let us begin at the beginning of it. It has a gate. A gate is a place of entrance—to a city, or a field, or a country. As a religious term it means the beginning of a course or onward career. Being a figure, there is no need to attach to it a narrow inelastic meaning, but it does point to the great moral truth that there are critical and decisive points in life to which men come. There are gates of decision, narrow or wide, through which they pass into the course that lies within. It might indeed be said that we enter upon the broad way when we are born: that birth is the wide gate, and natural life the broad way. There is truth in that; but it is only a half truth. It is also true that we may be born in the narrow way, may pass, as it were, through the strait gate in our nurture as infants; we may tread the narrow way in our Christian training, and leave it only by our own act and choice. Manifestly, our Lord is not entering here upon that question. He is speaking to reasonable and responsible men of their acts of choice, in the decisive times and places in life. He is speaking of the entering in at either gate of those who know that they so enter. And yet the knowledge may not be very express or clear. From want of reflection, from want of observance of the real character and consequences of things, men may go on from youth to age without being aware that they pass through “gates” at all. They live as they list, or as they can. They take life as it comes, and they are not conscious of points of transition. They see no gates in life, pass through none to their own consciousness. To-day is as yesterday, and to-morrow will be as to-day! All this is consistent with the spirit of the passage “wide is the gate.” One may go through it and hardly know it is there. No one needs to jostle another in passing through. No one needs to ruffle his garments or to lay anything aside or to leave anything behind; no one needs to part from his companions; all can enter together, for the gate is wide.
The pangs of pity which Dante’s sensitive soul feels for the forlorn and tormented spirits in the Inferno serve to show how intense is his conviction that nothing can set aside the laws of eternal right. Francesca will arouse in him infinite and overwhelming compassion, but Francesca must face the withering tempest which her fault has aroused against her. Mr. J. A. Symonds expressed his wonder that Dante should be so hard and pitiless in his judgment upon the weaklings who hesitated to identify themselves on either side in the great battle of all time. Others may have felt that the harsh contempt expressed by the poet was out of proportion to a fault which might be called weakness, but never vice; but to Dante the cowardice which refused the call of high duty or noble ideal was sin almost beyond forgiveness: it revealed a spirit dead to righteousness through the paralysing influence of self-interest.1 [Note: W. Boyd Carpenter, The Spiritual Message of Dante, 33.]
2. The way is broad.—If there is amplitude even at the entrance, or at the critical points of life when the gates are passed, we may well expect that there will be space, and allowance, and freedom in the way. All kinds of persons may walk in it. The man of the world may work out his schemes, gather his money, and achieve his position. The pleasure-seeker may eat and drink and dance and sleep and sing. The sensual man who kills his moral life and vilifies the Divine image within him may pass on unchecked. The formalist may count his beads and say his prayers. The Pharisee may draw his garments away from the sinner’s touch. The sceptic may think his doubting thoughts; and the crowds of persons who never think, who live without a purpose, who do good or evil as the case may be, may all find a place here.
There is a wide gate. It opens into a broad way. But the broad way leads to destruction. The idea of an enclosure, a place enclosed within a wall, lies at the basis of the representation. One might have supposed, from the spacious entrance, that the way would conduct to some magnificent home, a palace of beauty and of bliss. But no. It leads to destruction, to some kind of everlasting death. What may this broad way be, with its wide gate? It is doubtless the way of self-licence, of that self-gratification which is determined to take a wide berth for itself, spurning Divine prohibitions, and laughing at the limits of a strict and narrow morality. It is the way of things that is counter to the way and will of Christ. There were many in Christ’s day “entering in through it.” There are still many. The multitude still goes that way. He who would be a Christian must still be somewhat singular in his habits and manner of life.1 [Note: James Morison.]
3. It leads to destruction.—All who journey upon the broad way come at last to its conclusion. And what do they find? Life? Happiness? Peace? They find destruction. Destruction! Destruction of our higher sentiments, of the peace of our conscience, of the life of our spirit! Destruction of our faith, our love, our hope, of our character, of our soul. Destruction! The pains of the final condemnation of God, of banishment from His presence into the darkness unutterable, into the penal fires of self-reproach and remorse.
By a natural law man leans towards destruction. It may be called the gravitation of a fallen being. Let a man only be at ease in himself, satisfied with what he is, and consent to the usurping customs of the world, drawing in the unwholesome breath of refined evil, and letting his moral inclination run its natural course, without check or stay, and he will most surely tide onward, with an easy and gentle motion, down the broad current to eternal death. Such a man is seldom strongly tempted. The less marked solicitations of the tempter are enough. The suggestion of a great sin might rouse his conscience, and scare him from the toils. We may take this, then, as a most safe rule, that a feeling of security is a warning to be suspicious, and that our safety is to feel the stretch and the energy of a continual strife.
There is an extraordinary confirmation of His teaching about the broad way in the attitude of those who among ourselves have rejected Christ and His laws. Their thought tends to Pessimism; and so far as they believe anything, they believe in extinction—i.e., the broad path leading to destruction. What is the attitude of Nietzsche or Max Nordau in Germany? or of Daudet, Loti, Guyau in France? or of Björnsen and Ibsen in Norway? The way of Jesus is surrendered or rejected, and blank destruction stares the thinker in the face.1 [Note: R. F. Horton, The Commandments of Jesus, 227.]
There is in man an instinct of revolt, an enemy of all law, a rebel which will stoop to no yoke, not even that of reason, duty, and wisdom. This element in us is the root of all sin. The independence which is the condition of individuality is at the same time the eternal temptation of the individual. That which makes us beings makes us also sinners. Sin is, then, in our very marrow, it circulates in us like the blood in our veins, it is mingled with all our substance. Or rather I am wrong: temptation is our natural state, but sin is not necessary. Sin consists in the voluntary confusion of the independence which is good with the independence which is bad.2 [Note: Amiel’s Journal.]
But two ways are offered to our will—
Toil, with rare triumph, Ease, with safe disgrace;
Nor deem that acts heroic wait on chance!
The man’s whole life preludes the single deed
That shall decide if his inheritance
Be with the sifted few of matchless breed,
Or with the unnoticed herd that only sleep and feed.
The Way of the Few
In reading the Gospels one is often struck with what, for lack of a better term, one might call Christ’s frankness. He makes no secret of the conditions of discipleship. He does not attempt to deck the Christian life out in gay and attractive colours. On the contrary, He scores and underlines and emphasizes its hardships and difficulties. He wants no man to follow Him under the impression that he is going to have a pleasant and easy time of it. And so at the very beginning He confronts him with the “narrow gate” of an exacting demand. “If any man would come after me,” He said, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Self-denial and the cross—these constitute the “narrow gate” by which a man enters upon the service of Jesus Christ.
1. The entrance is narrow.—Like the broad way, this way of the few has, at its outset, a gate. It is a narrow gate and may be taken as expressing the initial act of repentance and the commencement of a life dedicated to Christ. The entrance into the Christian life may aptly be described as a narrow gate, for it is a definite and decisive act into which one is not likely to drift with a multitude by chance. Like a narrow gate, it may easily be overlooked; and the main difficulty of the Christian life is perhaps that it escapes notice altogether. Multitudes of people seem not to have so much as heard that there is a Christian life. They follow the broad path because it is broad, and they never notice that unostentatious entrance into the way of life, repentance and faith. But, while it is narrow, the gate is broad enough for entrance, always provided that one is content to enter stripped and unburdened.
The entrance into the way of life is by the strait gate of penitence and renunciation. If men could carry the world along with them, if young people could carry their love of pleasure along with them, multitudes would crowd into the gate of the Kingdom. But to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof is too hard a command. To put away the old man with his deeds is more than they can bring themselves to do. The gate is “narrow.” That is why Christ added that solemn word, “Few there be that find it.”
“Thou didst send for me,” said Savonarola to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the tyrant of Florence, as he lay on his dying bed. “Yes,” said Lorenzo, “for three sins lie heavy on my soul,” and then he told the monk how he was tortured by the remembrance of the sack of Volterra, and his robbery of a bank whereby many poor girls had lost their all and been driven to a life of shame, and the bloody reprisals he took after a political conspiracy against him. “God is good,” replied Savonarola, “God is merciful. But,” he at once added, “three things are needful.” “What things?” asked Lorenzo anxiously. “First, a great and living faith in God’s mercy.” “I have the fullest faith in it,” replied the dying man. “Secondly, you must restore all your ill-gotten wealth.” At this Lorenzo writhed, but at last he gave a nod of assent. “Lastly,” said Savonarola to the cowering prince, “you must restore to Florence her liberty.” And Lorenzo angrily turned his back upon the preacher and said never a word. The gate was too “narrow.”1 [Note: J. D. Jones, The Unfettered Word, 106.]
2. The way also is narrow.—The word used by the Revisers here is “straitened.” The figure contemplated is that of “double-dykes.” There is a path between two properties, each measured off with its wall. Both walls approach as closely and compressingly as possible to the centre of the thoroughfare, which is the public “right of way.” The “double-dykes” almost meet, and there is, at points here and there, bulging on either side, while all along loose stones have fallen down, and make the way inconvenient, so that the traveller can only painfully and with trouble pick his steps as he moves along. It leads, however, to life, that is, to everlasting life, to the home of everlasting bliss. Being a narrowed way, it will not admit of latitudinarianism of demeanour. Neither will it admit of accompanying parade and pomp. It would not be possible to drive along it in a coach and six. When kings would go by it they must step out of their coaches and walk. Princes and peasants must travel there on an equality. What is this narrow way? When we get down, through the envelopments of imagery, to the real base or essential substrate of the representations, we hear the voice of Jesus Himself saying, “I am the way; no man cometh unto the Father” (or “to the Father’s house”) “but by me” (John 14:6). As the martyr Philpot said, “The cross-way is the high-way to heaven.” There is no other way.
The word Strait, applied to the entrance into Life, and the word Narrow, applied to the road of Life, do not mean that the road is so fenced that few can travel it, however much they wish (like the entrance to the pit of a theatre), but that, for each person, it is at first so stringent, so difficult, and so dull, being between close hedges, that few will enter it, though all may. In a second sense, and an equally vital one, it is not merely a Strait, or narrow, but a straight, or right road; only, in this rightness of it, not at all traced by hedges, wall, or telegraph wire, or even marked by posts higher than winter’s snow; but, on the contrary, often difficult to trace among morasses and mounds of desert, even by skilful sight; and by blind persons, entirely untenable unless by help of a guide, director, rector, or rex: which you may conjecture to be the reason why, when St. Paul’s eyes were to be opened, out of the darkness which meant only the consciousness of utter mistake, to seeing what way he should go, his director was ordered to come to him in the “street which is called Straight.”1 [Note: Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, Letter 59 (Works, xxviii. 441).]
(1) How is the way straitened? Did God make it so? The Bible recording that the one way is narrow and the other broad does not make them so, any more than a medical book recording smallpox makes smallpox to exist. The fact is, God has done His best to reverse these terrible facts. God has striven to make the way to the good broad, and the way to the evil narrow.
“When I was a young man,” says Dr. Albert Goodrich, “I taught in the ragged schools of London. On one Sunday I had this passage for my lesson. ‘I say, teacher,’ merrily sang one of those sharp, ragged boys, ‘it says, don’t it, the way to the good is narrow and the way to the bad wide?’ ‘Yes, it does,’ I replied. ‘I know that’s true,’ he said, with a knowing wink; ‘but,’ he added, dropping his voice, ‘is it fair? Oughtn’t God have made them both the same width? He’d have given us, then, a fair chance.’ ”
(2) Who or what, then, makes the two ways so different? It is not the will of God; it is the sin of man. Man’s injustices to man, man’s inhumanity to man, narrows the way. By hardness, by provoking one another, by tempting one another, we make the way narrow. Employers make it narrow to their employees; employees make it narrow to their employers. Children make it narrow to their parents; parents make it narrow to their children. What need there is to consider one another, lest we make the way to life even more narrow than it is.
What is it, Augustine asks, which makes this gate so strait to us, and this way so narrow? It is not so much “strait” in itself, as that we make it strait for ourselves, by the swellings of our pride;—and then, vexed that we cannot enter, chafing and impatient at the hindrances we meet with, we become more and more unable to pass through. But where is the remedy? how shall these swollen places of our souls be brought down? By accepting and drinking of the cup, wholesome though it may be distasteful, of humility: by listening to and learning of Him who, having said, “Enter ye in at the strait gate,” does to them who inquire, “How shall we enter in?” reply, “By Me;” “I am the Way;” “I am the Door.”1 [Note: R. C. Trench.]
3. The narrow way leads to life.—Life! The mind alive in truth, the heart alive with full affection, the conscience alive in the vision of duty, and the enjoyment of peace, the soul alive in joyous communion with God. Life! The activity of our finer faculties, the consciousness of their expansion, the enjoyment of achievement, of progress, of laying up imperishable treasure, the sense of wealth and power in truth and in God, the enjoyment of service with God for the coming of the Kingdom, the hope of the crown of life, of life regal, imperial, in and with God for ever. That is worth an effort to attain. That is worth the striving needful to walk the narrow way.
Jesus here quotes an idea whereof the ancient moralists had made great use and which had passed into a commonplace, almost a proverb. It is as ancient as the poet Hesiod; and it appears in Kebes’ quaint allegory The Tablet, a sort of Greek Pilgrim’s Progress, purporting to be an account of a pictorial tablet which hung in the temple of Kronos and emblematically depicted the course of human life. Kebes saw it and had it explained to him by an old man who kept the temple.
“What is the way that leads to the true Instruction?” said I. “You see above,” said he, “yonder place where no one dwells, but it seems to be desert?” “I do.” “And a little door, and a way before the door, which is not much thronged, but very few go there; so impassable does the way seem, so rough and rocky?” “Yes, indeed,” said I. “And there seems to be a lofty mound and a very steep ascent with deep precipices on this side and on that?” “I see it.” “This, then, is the way,” said he, “that leads to the true Instruction.”
The allegory of the Two Ways had passed into a sort of proverb, and Jesus here applies it to the great business of salvation throwing His hearers back on the broad principles of life. It was recognized that, if a man would attain to Virtue or Wisdom, he must face a steep and toilsome way, and climb it with resolute heart. “All noble things,” said the proverb, “are difficult”; and salvation, being the noblest of all, is the most difficult. It can be attained only by resolute endeavour, and every man must face the ordeal for himself. It is folly to stand gazing at the height and wondering whether few or many will win it. “There is the narrow gate!” cries Jesus; “yonder is the rugged path! Enter and climb.”1 [Note: D. Smith, The Days of His Flesh, 302.]
While the writers of the New Testament vary in their mode of presenting the ultimate goal of man, they are at one in regarding it as an exalted form of life. What they all seek to commend is a condition of being involving a gradual assimilation to, and communion with, God. The distinctive gift of the gospel is the gift of life. “I am the life,” says Christ. And the Apostle’s confession is in harmony with his Master’s claim—“For me to live is Christ.” Salvation is nothing else than the restoration, preservation, and exaltation of life.… I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. “More life and fuller” is the passion of every soul that has caught the vision and heard the call of Jesus. The supreme good consists not in suppressed vitality, but in power and freedom. Life in Christ is a full, rich existence.… The spiritual man pursues his way through conflict and achievement towards a higher and yet a higher goal, ever manifesting, yet ever seeking, the infinite that dwells in him. All knowledge and quest and endeavour, nay, existence itself, would be a mockery if man had no “forever.” Scripture corroborates the yearnings of the heart and represents life as a growing good which is to attain to ever higher reaches and fuller realization in the world to come. It is the unextinguishable faith of man that the future must crown the present. No human effort goes to waste, no gift is delusive; but every gift and every effort has its proper place as a stage in the endless process.
“There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before.”2 [Note: A. B. D. Alexander, Christianity and Ethics, 128.]
Choosing a Road
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