I’ve recently heard a couple of references to the “narrow way” or “narrow gate” of Jesus “that leads to life,” which “only a few find” (Matt 7:13-14; one example here). It’s the kind of statement that we would all like to have on our side: I want the “narrow way” to be the path I’m on, while the “broad road that leads to destruction” is the path of all those other people I disagree with. It’s also the kind of statement, then, that we tend to fill with whatever content we think it should have: the “narrow way” is the path of strict personal morality, or proper public morality, or correct conservative doctrine, or whatever minority viewpoint we think is right.
But what exactly is the “narrow way” that Jesus refers to?
The image of the two ways, broad and narrow, comes as the Sermon on the Mount is wrapping up. As you read on in the Sermon’s conclusion, it becomes clear that the focus is on Jesus’ teaching, specifically his ethical teaching in the Sermon itself. You can see this most clearly in the concluding parable of the Sermon, where Jesus speaks of “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” being like the wise man who builds his house on a rock (7:24). Matthew’s Gospel also ends with the same focus: making disciples means “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:20). Yes, everything.
So, the “narrow way” is “hearing and obeying” Jesus’ teaching, even the hard teachings of Jesus, and most particularly his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7).
And what is this teaching?
We are to be characterized by the beatitudes, including being “poor in spirit” and “pure in heart” and “meek” and “hungering and thirsting for justice (dikaiosunē)” and being “merciful” and “peacemakers.”
We are to be “salt” and “light” by doing “good deeds” in the world. We are to cultivate an inner life free of anger and lust, characterized instead by faithfulness and trust and truthful speech. We are to love our enemies, doing good both to the just and unjust, and so being “perfect” as children of our “perfect” heavenly Father. We are to do these “good deeds” not to draw attention to ourselves but in true selflessness.
We are to long for God’s kingdom to come on earth, seeking first God’s kingdom of justice above all other kingdoms. We are to forgive others as God forgives us. We are to be characterized by a radical trust in God that shows itself in simplicity, relying on God to give us just what we need just when we need it. We are not to be judgmental of others, and instead to look first to our own sin before we attempt to help others with theirs.
In sum, and in fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets: We are to do to others as we would have them do to us. In fact, it is immediately after this statement—the golden rule—that Jesus speaks of the “narrow gate.”
So do we truly want to follow Jesus’ narrow way?
Then let’s seek first God’s kingdom, not the agenda of any particular nation, or a social or political agenda of our own making. This means…
Let’s long for and strive for God’s justice on earth, a justice in which God provides for the basic needs of both the just and unjust.
Let’s love our enemies; not seeking their harm, even their death, but instead working for peace.
Let’s not be judgmental of others, but let’s turn our scrutiny on ourselves and our own sinful attitudes and words and actions—only then can we help others with their own sin.
Let’s be as generous in forgiving others as God is in forgiving us.
Let’s live simply: freeing ourselves of the entanglements of money and power, and trusting in God to meet our needs.
Let’s be salt and light not by drawing attention to ourselves and our pious words but by quietly doing good deeds in the world.
To give another summary idea that might well have been in Jesus’ (or Matthew’s) mind in all this: “Do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
This way is indeed narrow, and few find it. It’s a hard road, and I stumble often on it. But it’s the way of God’s kingdom, the way of Jesus: he has walked this path, and he will walk it with us still.
So here’s the question, the most fundamental question we need to answer: Will we follow Jesus? Will I? Will you?