The Multiple Meanings of the “Narrow Gate”
“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.” ~ Matthew 7:13-14
This little pair of verses is one of the most commonly quoted among Christians. It is almost a mantra, I have heard it so many times growing up: from the pulpit, from my dad, and perhaps most often, in my own head.
When I was taught this passage growing up, it was almost always about salvation. It split human beings into two groups: the big group of people who take the easy way in life, and the small group whose lives are flipping hard because they are living for Jesus.
As a Christian, I’ve undoubtedly had to consider that I belong to the smaller group. And based on the way I was taught this passage, I’ve always understood it to be based on belief. I choose the hard beliefs; I choose the beliefs that leave people thinking I’m a judgmental asshole sometimes. I choose the beliefs that result in being misunderstood, or naive. Because of course, if this Christian life is easy and without trials and difficulties, and if my beliefs aren’t challenged and opposed by the world around me, I must not be on the narrow path after all, right?
I wish that Jesus had offered more context when he spoke this saying. But there really isn’t any; it comes right in the middle of a bunch of other quick, brief teachings: don’t judge, don’t throw you pearls before swine (a weird passage if I ever heard one!), have confidence that God will give you what you ask for.
In light of that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we can look at these verses with an entirely different lens than the salvation/damnation paradigm. A little while ago, I read Rob Bell’s wonderful little book Love Wins. He has this remarkable way of personalizing Jesus’ teachings in the book while staying faithful to their message. He talked about heaven and hell—i.e., the narrow way and the broad way—not in terms of two places that human beings are divided into based on God’s judgment, but rather states of being that we choose for ourselves in this life—in the here and now.
So if we choose bitterness over a past wrong, we’ve chosen hell. If we choose to go out of our way to show kindness to someone, we’ve chosen heaven.
I think that same idea can be applied to this saying about the narrow way and the broad way. I think it might tie in nicely with all the stuff Paul says (in Romans I think, but probably in other letters too) about the lure of our sinful spirits, and about how difficult it is to choose Jesus. And really, choosing Jesus and choosing life are the same thing at the end of the day, aren’t they?
Anyway, tying back to what I said earlier about choosing the hard beliefs, I think the narrow way, the way that leads to life, isn’t about an exclusive set of beliefs. Or at least it isn’t just about that. I think so much of it has to do with how I view people, how inclusive I am of those around me.
At the end of the day, that is so much harder than having beliefs that “the world” thinks are silly and archaic. I’ve done that my whole life—believe me, I’ve got that down pat, and it doesn’t really faze me anymore (probably because I have come to realize that a lot of my beliefs were silly and archaic!). What is so much harder is breaking down stereotypes, seeing the people around me for the beautiful souls that they are instead of judging them based on the myriad ways of judging that human beings have invented and then passed down to their children.
That is hard. That is a narrow path that few people ever find.
But maybe, at least when looking at it this way, recognizing the path you are on is the first step to retracing your steps and finding your way back to the narrow path that Jesus desires us to take. I don’t think choosing the broad path has to be the final word, for otherwise what is the purpose of grace?
It’s so incredible when you peel back the layers of scripture like this, and unfold the myriad meanings that you can draw even from little sayings like this. That is why I love the Gospels so much; each story, each saying, each teaching can be viewed from a dozen different dimensions, and can result in a dozen different meanings. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
So yeah, I think narrow path could represent choosing a set of beliefs that most of the people around you have rejected. It could also represent the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus displayed (a path that I think many Christians today are totally not on!). Or it could be about something else entirely. You could pick your demons, really, based on what you are struggling with or what areas of ignorance or blind spots you currently have in your life. That’s the beauty of stories; there’s more than one way to read them.