Friday, December 28, 2012

Wide & Narrow Ways (part 1 of 2)

Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there who are many who enter through it.  But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it. – Matthew 7:13-14  (NET)

These words are drawn from Jesus’ famous “Sermon On the Mount”.  Though there can be little doubt that Jesus spoke these words on more than one occasion and in various places, the setting in which Matthew sets them forth, as Matthew goes to great lengths to make the point that Jesus is a new Moses, has Jesus sitting on a mountain and teaching His disciples (5:1)---offering a different set of commandments from a different mountain (the implicit reference to Moses and Sinai).  At this point, the record of Matthew shows that Jesus has only called to Himself four of His chosen twelve, but that “large crowds followed Him” (4:25).  Additionally, we find that the crowds, which seem to be referred to as His disciples, would be “amazed by His teaching, because He taught them like One Who had authority” (7:28b-29a). 

It is important for us to remember that the words of our text are presented in the context of a continuous series of thoughts that make up chapter five through seven of Matthew.  Now, there is a reason that it is generally referred to as a “sermon,” and that is because it presents a series of ideas that press towards a conclusion.  We find that conclusion as the seventh chapter comes to a close, when Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock.  Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (7:24-27) 

Jesus’ entire discourse built to that point, as in His teaching, as He farmed the fallow grounds of the Galilee (from whence revolutions in Israel sprang) to form His new and revolutionary group (though a different sort of revolution) He began to set Himself apart from those that had come before Him.  There had been numerous people before the time of Jesus (including numerous messianic claimants) that had drawn crowds to themselves, with John the Baptist being one of those that had drawn significant audiences (without any messianic claims, though it is possible that there were those who looked to John as a messianic figure as he proposed a new exodus movement as symbolized by his baptizing in the Jordan); but inevitably, they pointed to the prophets or to Moses or to some person of renown in order to lend them credibility and legitimacy.  Jesus, on the contrary, seems only to point to Himself and His words, providing His own credibility.  This was unique.  Obviously, with such poignant words, undoubtedly offered over and over, we can surmise that Jesus intended His teachings to be taken seriously and to be accurately understood and applied by His hearers.    

When we hear a sermon, or a speech of any kind for that matter, we do not expect the speaker to flit about from topic to topic, offering up disconnected thoughts that have nothing to do with what comes before or after; but rather, to present, with minor digressions useful for making or elaborating points, a unified system of thoughts and ideas.  However, for some reason, when we come to these words of Jesus concerning wide and narrow gates and ways, and the destruction and life attendant upon those ways, we have a strange tendency to disconnect it from its larger context.  Doing that, we put these words into Jesus’ mouth as some type of amorphous and ambiguous statement, lacking in substance, that is just sitting there waiting for us to fill it with the content of our subjective musings concerning what it is that constitutes sin.  How ridiculous, presumptuous, and short-sighted.  Rather than look for what it is that Jesus is communicating, we project on to Jesus’ statement nothing more than our own opinions about what actions should be described as “wide gate” actions that lead to destruction, and “narrow gate” actions that lead to life.

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