Did AC/DC get it right? Is there really a highway to Hell? The idioms of the bible and Dante’s Inferno are so profoundly ingrained within our psyche that people really struggle with the idea of eternal torture. In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, we examine the metaphor of the wide and narrow gates. Is Jesus making a claim that the vast majority of humanity is on the highway to hell? Or is there something beyond the binary that can liberate us?
13 “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. 14 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 ESV)
Can I ask you to read this a few times in a contemplative way?
The Greek moods here are imperative and nominative. I point this out because most of scripture is in the indicative mood. This means Jesus is not describing what is but telling us what to do and pointing us in a specific direction. Indicative passages are descriptions. Imperative and nominative moods are prescriptions. All good scholarship knows the difference and teaches them accordingly. I think much confusion has come to the world from well-meaning but misinformed pastors teaching texts like this as if they were descriptions.
Since this is a prescription, we would do well to pay attention. Jesus is using a binary as is customary when trying to elevate the conscious awareness of people who are not very awake or mature. Like teaching the danger of a hot stove to a toddler, the child need only be aware of the stove’s danger until he or she is old enough to properly wield the fire in order to prepare a meal. Jesus wants to jolt us awake and uses this approach. It is not a statement saying that life can be easily reduced into a simple either/or decision. Transactional religion prefers to operate on this low level, but the greater context of Jesus’ sermon proves he is inviting us beyond this.
The wide (eúrúxoros) gate opens to a wide road which is like that of a multi-lane highway, meaning its broad or very wide. It has a lot of capacity to accommodate the (molùs) many. Like rush hour, much, great quantities go through the gate (passage way) and end up on the road. The destination is ápóleia (destruction or waste). This term is used a few times in the New Testament to refer to the end result for “objects of wrath” and it also means to waste or smash or break.
It’s really important this becomes clear in our heads because Jesus is not specifically referencing Hell in this passage nor in the larger context. Hell emerges because people import it into the passage and not without consequence. Jesus emphasis is not the destination, but the gate. It’s like he’s saying “We all go through the wide gate first before we get to the narrow one, don’t stay on the wide road, find the narrow exit ramp.” The wide, open gate is in the aeroist active voice meaning it is the present and ongoing state of the gate. Thus, the caution is to avoid the constantly open gate because it doesn’t shut. The many (polús) refers to the default mode of all of us. A better way to understand “destruction” based on the surrounding context is to blindly follow the trends of the masses and adopt their mindset, principles and institutions which rename us and cause us to miss life and miss finding our true self in God. Following the false self is a wasted or destroyed life. To not know your true name is destruction.
The contrasting perspective is that of the narrow gate, (stenos) narrow or restricted. The (ódós) road, path, journey, way of life is (thlibo) constricting, crowed against you, causes trouble, but its destination is (zoé) life (as opposed to bios). This is not the base, organic “alive” but the “other” kind of life, often termed eternal or spiritual. Jesus is saying the path to finding your true life is like a turn-stile. You can’t bring anything, no backpack or attachments. You must be stripped by all that crowds against you. It is an arduous, difficult process but we gain our real life.
By creating this binary, Jesus’ admonishment is a life-vest for the distracted and confusing chaos of life. It’s so easy to coast, to seek ease, comfort or immediate gratification. When we do, we forfeit something of the life that is ultimately worth waiting for. We can all crowd at the wide gate and fight for a spot in the express lane, or we can go single file, one after another, in turn toward something that isn’t a waste in the end.
This principle is true in even the most mundane of things like eating lunch. A healthy lunch comes with more constriction and cost, while the meals that make us full of disease come in minutes at little cost. It’s also true for relationships. It’s true for parenting. It’s true for our career. If we want our life to count, then we must count the costs and never cut corners. Pay the price. Undergo the constriction process, be pressed and pulled until that which is worthy emerges in us. We all start in bios, Jesus is leading us to Zoé.
Rather than describe a culturally contrived hell, Jesus is directing us to pay attention to this “other” dimension of life (zoé). We must get beyond our mere base human existence with its appetites and impulses. If we simply follow our appetites, we follow the herd, get distracted and ultimately lost. The only way to avoid this is the narrow gate. We find this to be a solitary, single-file constricting process. The difficult path is to rise above base existence and pursue real life, through spiritual awakening.
Like the wide gate, the narrow gate is open and it calls to each of us every single day. In Luke 13:24 Jesus gives similar advice. He says:
“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.
Jesus is revealing a sobering reality that the finders of the narrow gate are few, or as in the verse in Luke, want to enter but are not able. In two weeks we will explain this further as we read one of Jesus most severe and even frightening passages. For now, he seems to be saying that finding zoé is something that only a few people are able to do. Whether this is based on skill, or will, it doesn’t say. It’s only telling us that the masses miss it. And that seems to be in agreement with my observations in life.
It’s the difficult path, the suffering, the painful arduous journey that opens us up to the reality that we don’t have spiritual lives, but that we are spiritual lives. The carnal, anesthetized, inoculated masses don’t seem to discover this that often. Like a diamond, the rarity makes this a true treasure.
Are we willing to let go of attachments? Are we willing to go it alone? Can we break free of institutions that imprison us? Are we content with bios or do we seek zoé? Animal or human? To be alive or to really live? Will we do the soul work of becoming meek? If so, true life awaits. If not, true life is wasted. May that not be the case for you.