As Jesus begins moving towards a conclusion to his sermon on the mount, he paints another word picture for his disciples—“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The context does not precisely clarify what imagery Jesus is drawing on. Perhaps he’s referring to an officer’s door in a city wall in contrast with the main gate for the local population. Maybe he’s referring to the narrow alleyway one would take leading up to the small door of their home versus the broader main street up and down which crowds would walk and vendors haul their carts. Whatever specifics Jesus had in mind, the text is sufficient. Two ways. Wide and broad; small and narrow. Within Jesus’ words, three sets of differences distinguish these ways from each other.
The first difference between these two ways is freedom. A wider, broader way allows more freedom for moving around and about for comfortable maneuvering and exploring. The smaller, narrower way, however, offers less freedom; the edges are tight and walking space is restricted. The path has to be taken as it is or not at all.
The second difference concerns the travelers who frequent these ways. While many enter and walk the wider way, few will find and follow the narrow way.
The boundaries of these respective paths are no doubt a factor for their travelers. The wide way allows spaciousness for strolling, side stops for meandering, features for customization. The traveler chooses the pace; it allows them to turn to the left or to the right. The path is about the traveler’s individual story or experience. The broader way is for tourists.
The narrow path, however, forces focus. Care must be taken for each step, how the leg is extended and the foot is planted. Lest you lose sight of the leader or hold up those behind you, the mind must be melded with every disciplined movement. The trek is about the path itself and how it works its essence into the travelers who belong to it.
Ultimately, however, the freedom each path seems to offer is ironically inconsistent with where each leads. The third difference, therefore, is the destinations towards which these paths are moving. The way that was so wide and broad, scenic and spacious eventually comes down to an undoing of everything it seemed to promise, a dead end with nowhere to go. The narrow path, as small and limited as it seemed, eventually opens up into a spaciousness that offers elation and beauty with an abundance of life.
As helpful each of these differences are in parsing the picture Jesus paints here, it still remains a bit abstract. The narrow way Jesus emphasizes and directs disciples toward can be generalized to mean anything, turning it into some existential road less traveled. If viewed through the context of what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount, however, the constrictions of the narrow way become more defined and emancipating.
Rather than allowing murder to remain the epitome of evil and dysfunctionality, Jesus singles out the anger we broadly tolerate as the darkness to avoid. Instead of measuring our martial fidelity in terms of affairs or incidents of cheating, Jesus characterizes it by the purity of our hearts. Rather than reinforcing the “eye for an eye” sense of justice, Jesus distinguishes peace as our balancing contribution. Instead of reserving love for those who will repay it, Jesus stipulates a sacrificial love for all, enemies included. In each of these examples, Jesus moves the standards of righteousness from the broadly held to the narrowly pursued. It is the narrow way because it is framed by ways of living that are characteristic of Christ alone.
When the LORD gave Moses the commands, He said “So you shall observe to do just as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right or to the left. You shall walk in all the way which the LORD your God has commanded you.”
Now centuries later, Jesus here moves his listeners away from broad generalizations about moral goodness by painting this “all the way” visualization of discipleship. It has been said “we make the way by walking it”. The narrow way has been formed in the unique footsteps of the Messiah; each of his words and actions has been a step that leaves his way before us to follow, and by following it, we brought into a community who embodies a way of life that reveals the Lord who can always be found along its route.