At the end of a long post about changing her views on abortion, Mermade asks:
…sometimes I do worry about whether or not I am indeed deviating from the narrow path (see Matthew 7:13), but no longer view the â€œnarrow pathâ€ as being politically conservative in a secular culture. I am still trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said to enter through the narrow path. Any interpretations you guys have of that are very much welcome.
Well, lots of folks can give interesting lectures about the various gates into the city of Jerusalem that existed in Jesus’ time. The number of treatises and dissertations that have been written about the physical location and theological significance of those entryways is mind-boggling. But since we tend to use the idea of the “narrow” and “wide” gates metaphorically in contemporary Christian culture, I’ll roll with that, and offer a reflection that doesn’t cling too narrowly to traditional interpretation.
“Wide” gates are those that many people can fit through at once. “Narrow” gates are those that, perhaps, only one person can get through at a time. A simple and reasonable reading of the passage is that Jesus is doing what he does throughout Matthew: turning conventional wisdom on its head and suggesting a radically different interpretation of what it means to live a righteous life. Matthew, of all the Gospels, is the one most concerned with reaching the Jewish listener. Jesus challenges the parochialism and ethnocentrism (these are not anachronistic terms to use here) of his followers, suggesting throughout Matthew that active commitment to loving the entire world (rather than just one “people”) is the central component of his message.
By challenging his followers to love their enemies, to refrain from judging, and to rely upon an essentially individual relationship with God for their spiritual sustenance, Jesus shatters their preconceived notions about identity and community. As he will do in Luke with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus suggests that being a good neighbor to all requires a rejection of tribalism. There’s one of His many paradoxes at work here: on the one hand, the follower of Jesus is called to a life of radical love and service; on the other, the follower of Jesus is called to reject too close an attachment to family and culture lest family and culture become idols. This point is made explicit later in Matthew:
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Those are hard words, particularly for people who do what so many people all over the world do: practice “family worship”, in which obedience to parents and submission to tradition are seen as the chief duties and responsibilties of life. Most people want to enter through the “wide gate”, meaning that they want to go through this life and into the next with an entire entourage of loved ones. The wide gate is nice; it’s the gate of consensus, the gate of tradition, the gate of obedience, the gate the ancestors built and walked through themselves.
The narrow gate is wide enough for, well, you. And perhaps you alone. Abraham showed his willingness to walk through the narrow gate when he took his only son out to be slaughtered, showing us all where family ought to rank in our priority list. Ruth walks through the narrow gate in her eponymous book when she chooses devotion to Naomi (to whom she no longer has any kinship ties) over loyalty to her own people (to whom custom dictated she ought to have returned.) We walk through the narrow gate when we prioritize God’s unique claim on our hearts over the commands of the culture and our families. And as scary as it is to walk through that gate alone, our solitude is always illusory; in the end, we walk in the certainty that He who knows us best and loves us most is on the other side.
My favorite spiritual, about which I wrote in a similar vein a few months ago, is “Lonesome Valley”. The beautiful — and to my mind, theologically sound — refrain:
Youâ€™ve got to walk that lonesome valley
Youâ€™ve got to walk it by yourself
Ainâ€™t nobody here can walk it for you
Youâ€™ve got to walk it by yourself.
I wrote in March:
“For me, as boisterous and gregarious as I can be at times, the journey of life is a walk through a lonesome valley. In the end, in the very end, I walk alone with Jesus. My wife is with me for part of the journey, perhaps (God willing) until the end, but she joined me late. My late father was with me for part of the journey, but he has left me now, and gone to join the cloud of witnesses who love me and cheer for me but do so from afar. Day in and day out, the life of faith is essentially solitary, even when surrounded by family and friends. And barring the apocalypse, we shall not all die together. The last stage of the Lonesome Valley crossing is made radically alone, even if (as we all hope) there will be a glorious reunion and eternal togetherness on the other side.”
This is what it means to walk through the narrow gate.