Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
If I had to guess, I think I’ve heard that verse preached on more than any other verse from the entire Bible, and since this verse only had one possible interpretation for Christian fundamentalists, I’ve heard that particular sermon a lot. This verse, in the communities I grew up in, was meant for us, because we were the only ones who had it figured out. The “straight and narrow way” equaled the fundamentalist lifestyle, being “separated from the world,” the “salt of the earth”– in short, we were of bunch of judgmental legalistic assholes.
But, we were convinced that we weren’t legalists because we wanted to follow the rules– all of which we got from the Bible, anyway!– because they were our personal convictions. And we weren’t judgmental– we were just right, and how can we help it if people were convicted by our modesty and our “upright conversation” (conversation here in the archaic sense).
We thought this verse applied to Christian fundamentalism for a few reasons: first, we thought of ourselves as a persecuted minority, so the “few there be” part was literally true (I thought at the time. I now have serious doubts about how much of a “minority” fundamentalists actually are). Second, we were extremely proud of ourselves for being one of the precious few who were truly committed to living a holy, righteous life. Any supposed “Christian” who didn’t look, talk, and act like us was on the “broad way that leads to destruction,” the sorry bunch of liberals.
Now that I’m one of those liberals, I’ve had to re-think this verse, but I’ve had to be careful. A huge part of me wants to keep the same exact idea, but instead of applying it to fundamentalists I’d claim it for the liberals; I could so easily take the “straight and narrow way” and make it mean “be a Democratic anti-capitalist yuppie,” thereby rendering people like me the “few there be who found it.”
I’ve been thinking about what “the straight and narrow” could possibly be over the last week. I’ve been driving the same four-hour route a couple times this week, and I’ve passed a church with “Straightway” in its name each time. I also just finished reading 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker (the first thing I’ve read by her, and I really liked it. Enjoyable but challenging, too), and she raises the point that if Christians were truly following some of Christ’s simplest commands, so much of what is desperately wrong with the world would disappear (for example, there are 4o Southern Baptists for every child in the American foster system).
So, what in the world is Jesus talking about in Matthew 7?
Well, it’s part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, for one– a passage I’ve wrestled with more now that my viewpoint has shifted so drastically over the last few years. Judging, fasting, giving generously and sacrificially, loving your enemies, trusting God, the Golden Rule, bearing good fruit . . . it’s all there: The Teachings of Jesus: Condensed Version.
Interestingly, my ESV groups this “straight and narrow” bit with the Golden Rule:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you,
do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
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.
And as I’ve been mulling this over this week, something occurred to me– maybe I should be reading this passage just a little more literally, especially because of its context. Whose “destruction” is Jesus talking about? What does “life” mean here? And I’m wondering if Jesus might be talking about our world, our communities, as a whole. If we’re not making sure the needs of those around us are met, if we’re spending all of our time pursuing wealth, if we’re petty and vindictive to each other . . . are we not destroying our communities– literally?
Could it be that what Jesus meant by saying that “few there be” who find the “straight and narrow” was simply a statement of fact about the destitution of our world? That there is far more suffering and pain and death and sickness and poverty– destruction– than there is life? Isn’t part of the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount to instruct his followers in what it looks like to be a Christian in the day-to-day? That we must be the life-bringers, the merciful, the meek, the peacemakers?
The more time I spend reading about Jesus and hearing his words for what feels like the first time, the more I think I understand about what it means to be a Christian, and it is so far removed from the ridiculous pettiness of the Christianity I was raised in, where we were obsessed with “practicing our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”