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Taking the Narrow Path

Image: Krivec Ales

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

The entire loop is just over four miles and it takes me a little under an hour to walk it. I don’t walk it every day. I wish I did; I certainly need to. My walking route is mostly sidewalks. But there are three spots where I can veer from the beaten path and walk through wood lots or fields. Little pockets of nature within the suburban sprawl where we live.

They hold all the amazement of the great swaths of untouched wilderness (with the obvious exception of available acreage and the consistent hum of traffic in the background). I’m always glad when I add the extra few minutes to my route.  On these excursions through the roughage, I’m often treated to close encounters with wildlife. Squirrels, turkeys, ducks, geese, deer. Often closer than you would think possible. Close enough to deer that their smell has reached me before my eyes have picked them out from the tall grasses and shrubs. Once a pair of huge pileated woodpeckers flew right past my face. They are rare enough to see one, let alone a pair. That day was a real treat.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that it’s on these side jaunts, the steps taken through the rough and the wild, choked with weeds, branches, and yes poison ivy, the places where few feet have beaten the path, where each step requires care and diligence, that these encounters occur. The path less traveled holds more risk (I’m prone to poison ivy) and, nearly always, more reward.

The Broad and Narrow Gates

Jesus encouraged his listeners to take the narrow unbeaten path. His words predict my own experience thousands of years later. Before Jesus spoke of the benefits that come from the hard work of finding and taking the narrow path, he warned of the consequences of taking the easy way through life.

It’s easy to limit the scope of Jesus’s words to the spiritual plane. Hearing them post death and resurrection, we quickly assume that he means accepting his death as sacrifice for our sins, accepting him as savior and lord, and following his ways. We hear Jesus calling us to believe in him, warning us of the dire future consequences if we do not, and offering us the greatest of rewards if we do. 

But what if we are limiting the scope of Jesus’s words? He called for people to find the narrow path that leads to life well before his death. He warned of the danger of the easy path far before he ever even hinted at his coming death (Matt. 16:21-23). 

I’m not suggesting that Jesus’s call to find life and avoid death has nothing to do with an eternal destiny. It may just be that his words are not exclusively about hell and heaven.

What if Jesus was talking about taking the easy way through life? He described the paths as broad and narrow. What did he mean by that? 

A broad path is easy to find and stay with. It doesn’t require any deliberate care or action. The broad path is likely smooth from the myriad feet that have walked it before us. It is the simple path, the comfortable one. It is the way to relax and be carefree.

The narrow path, on the other hand, is harder to find. It may even be slightly obscured. It is more difficult to stay with. If (and when) we do find it, we must pay attention to where we are walking. The narrow path forces us to choose wisely and carefully, placing our feet with deliberateness and even caution. The narrow path is difficult.

The destinations also help us grapple with what Jesus may have fully meant. The words for destruction and life are not strictly tied to eternal destinations. The Greek word for destruction can also mean ruin, as in a destitute and unsuccessful life. And the word for life can refer to both physical life and spiritual life. When it refers to physical life, it can mean real and genuine life, life to the fullest, success and flourishing.

Here and Now AND Forever More

Jesus meant both. Of course he was calling people to accept him as the Messiah, and in so doing to find themselves inheritors of eternal life with God. He was warning those who rejected him of their destination. But, as in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, he was calling people to live out the ethics and values of the Kingdom of God now. 

He was warning that the wide path—skating through life, making the comfortable decisions, avoiding work and discipline—will only lead to a life that leads nowhere. 

A life lived on purpose, however, a life that doesn’t shy away from work, a life that makes use of the time in productive ways, a life spent living for God and for others is a life that is satisfying and full. 

Every situation we face offers a broad and a narrow path. The narrow path is not easy, it may not necessarily be fun. But it does lead, now and forever, to the place we all want to go. Finding and taking that path is worth the trouble. 

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