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The Narrow Door


"Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." Luke 13:24

"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.

Jesus compares life to a path that we walk. Everyone is walking some road to some destination, even if you seem to be sitting still. You may not be moving in space, but you are nonetheless moving in time, and you will one day reach an inevitable destination, the grave. The only question in that case is whether you will arrive with anything to show for it: any slides or photos, any souvenirs worth keeping, any experiences or encounters worth remembering.

But how do we choose the path we are going to walk? In The Wizard of Oz, the pilgrims Dorothy and the Scarecrow come to a fork where the Yellow Brick Road splits into two roads, each identical with the other except that they lead off in two directions. Dorothy and the Scarecrow have a destination in mind. They're off to see the wizard, after all. So which path will take them there? In the end they choose by playing Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, dancing this way and that, starting down this path, then that, until the song ends and chance has decided them. Luckily they made it, though you have to wonder if both paths wouldn't eventually have rejoined on the way to the Emerald City.

Often the weightiest factor in our deciding which path to take is whether we will be alone on the trip. We would rather go with the flow of the crowd, even if it is a crowd of lemmings headed for the ledge. In this saying Jesus warns against that error.

The feeling is a familiar one. We arrive at some office or event, not quite sure what to do next, where to line up. So we nervously glance about to see if anyone else seems to know what to do. If we see a crowd of people waiting here or there, chances are we will join them. Just to be sure, we may ask them, "Excuse me, but does this train stop at Union Square?" And then we will feel secure. Maybe the person we ask will say, "I sure hope so!" And we will take even that as sufficient reassurance. As if a chain is going to be strengthened by having two weak links instead of one. As if, by standing on this platform hoping it's the right one, you were both praying to the train god to let this be your train. Add more uncertain people who come up and ask both of you, and the sense of ignorant solidarity you feel quiets your worries, even though all of you may well be wrong. But you'll only find that out once you all arrive at the wrong destination! And who will there be to blame?

Again, Jesus implies that most people are like vacationers taking the scenic route. They think the journey is just for sight-seeing, so it doesn't much matter where they may ultimately be headed. The trouble is, they're like naive visitors to totalitarian countries. The authorities show them around, wine and dine them, but never let them see the real country. All you are allowed to see is the carefully groomed display-model people on the immaculately swept streets, with never a glimpse of the poor and the dissidents who have been shipped off in advance of your arrival. You are seeing the window dressing. What's behind it is a very different matter. And, Jesus is saying, you are going to find out one day, and then it will be too late.

In many ways, it is true to say that life's journey has no destination except for the journey itself. The play's the thing. But presumably Jesus and most of his hearers were thinking of some type of salvation or doom awaiting us at the end of earthly life. In that case, we had better be pretty clear as to where our choices and actions are leading us. You and I may or may not be so confident of an afterlife, whether or pain or of joy. But for the sake of the saying it hardly matters. Notice that Jesus does not actually specify eternal life or life after death. He may just as well be referring to "abundant life," as the Gospel of John interprets it.

Epicurus, another ancient sage, made it clear that he believed death was the end. But he, too, knew it matters very much what destination you choose and what path you plot out to get there. In the short run, there are many things we strive for, many happy moments of fulfillment we hope very much to reach. They don't have to last forever. Epicurus said we ought to strive for pleasure, happiness. And we ought to have enough foresight to realize that often only a pretty rocky road will get us there. Often we will have to take a long trip with few provisions. We may have to face dangers, but if we really want to get there badly enough, we will take it all in stride. The true epicure, the seeker of a pleasant life, will endure much hardship in the here and now as a trade-off for the future. Any dieter knows that well. The fulfillment of life is the goal, and the way to it is straight, not much to look at, and few rest stops.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can't we have an easy, picturesque journey and coast all the way to the grand destination of success and happiness? There are various possible answers to this question. It might be that since life is a hard row for many people to hoe, the prospect of something much better in the future is a hopeful light at the end of a dark tunnel. So it's a hard journey here, but worth it once we get to the other side. But that doesn't seem to be what Jesus has in mind. If that's all he meant, there would be little point in his telling you, advising you to choose the hard road, as if you had choice in the matter. But a choice is usually what the sorely oppressed do not have. So he must have had something different in mind.

Could he have meant that God is a spoil sport who relishes the spectacle of poor mortals living a miserable life? And once you're done with the ordeal God says, "Okay, you've suffered enough. Here's your reward. Good dog." We often get this impression from our religious upbringing, whether deservedly or not. But this, too, is far from the intent of Jesus.

It is a simple fact that nothing worth achieving can be gained without hard work and discipline. No athlete can even think of getting to the Olympics without long years of training, because the needed skills are just not going to appear by magic. No matter how much natural talent you may have, you can forget about becoming a musician or an artist if you don't plan to put in a lot of hours developing and refining those talents into skills. No matter how much potential you have, potential is all it's going to be unless you take the considerable pains to actualize that potential. Otherwise it will be like a bank full of money that you never spend.

The straight and narrow path is the path of single-minded discipline. It is not a burden another has laid upon you. It is the burden of your own greatness and giftedness that you may sometimes feel like shirking. And that always remains an option. You can always slough off your destiny and join the mediocre crowd heedlessly careening down the path of least resistance. There needn't be anything particularly apocalyptic about it, nothing in technicolor. The truth of Jesus' saying is made all too clear at high school reunions when, not surprisingly, it turns out that the nerd who applied himself and studied all those hours is making a big salary as an engineer or a computer wizard while you and your fellow gas pump jockeys are reminiscing about all your wild nights in the good old days. 

Perhaps the best commentary on this saying of Jesus comes from Robert Frost.


     The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood and I-

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.


This familiar poem says that the choice of your life's direction will in all likelihood be made only once. Even though it may seem like you have all the time in the world to change direction, as indeed you may, the way things go, it will become much too difficult to disentangle yourself from all the associations and commitments you will accumulate along the way you have chosen. You just can't realistically go back and start over, much less walk both paths at the same time. There's not enough of you to go around. You have to choose one path to be able to go on any path at all.

You surely have more potential than you will have opportunity to actualize, and to choose one option is to sacrifice another. So, as Jesus urges, consider well. In Frost's poem, the narrator chooses the less-travelled path on something of a hunch, as if sensing that it might lead to sights and experiences that the multitude would not find to their taste. Jesus, too, recommends the road less travelled, but for moral or at least prudential reasons. He assumes you are able to see the disastrous outcomes of some choices, and that you should have the common sense to delay gratification till you get to the end of a hard road.

Yet, as Robert Frost's verse suggests, "way leads on to way," and if you cannot retrace your steps and go back to the fork, it may yet be that you will come to other forks and make a mid-course correction. This is certainly what Jesus presupposes. After all, he addresses himself to people who have been pursuing some way for some years. He is not talking to people who are at square one, because there are no such people. Birth in a particular family, culture, or tradition has already set your direction. Do you need to change it? Jesus assumes it is always possible to exit the broad and winding way to doom, to find a narrow door, and to join the straight and narrow path already in progress. Otherwise, what would be the point of this saying in the first place? Just to tell people how bad off they are?  




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