The Narrow Way
Today we come, at last, you might be thinking, to the end of the sermon on the mount – three chapters of concentrated spiritual, practical, and ethical teaching. It’s taken us eight Sundays to work our way through, and given the amount that I’ve had to leave out when deciding what to talk about, I’m sure that we could have spent many times as long.
Yet these words could be read aloud in rather less time than it takes to listen to a single sermon – even in the Uniting Church, with our tradition of keeping sermons relatively short. For a preacher, that’s a rather sobering thought: what, we have to ask ourselves, are we playing at, if Jesus could say so much with so fewer words. But then again, he was Jesus, so maybe we don’t have to feel too bad about it.
And in today’s reading, the teaching is brought to a conclusion with a challenge, and with three warnings: or rather, with the same warning, three times.
First, though, the challenge: the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it … the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
It’s a common refrain in our household, when watching whatever Netflix series we’re currently binging, to ask “how could they be so stupid?” as characters take directions clearly signposted as a path to self-destruction.
But “many”? The vast majority? is it really credible, looking around you, that the majority of people are taking “the road that leads to destruction”? That only a few have found, or will find, the road to life?
Now in many Christian circles these words are heard as talking about people’s eternal fate: that it doesn’t matter how well people seem to be living, if they haven’t made the right commitment, believed the right thing, prayed the right prayer, been baptised in the right way, they are doomed to destruction. But nothing in the whole sermon on the mount gives us any reason to believe that in these words Jesus was speaking of life or destruction after death: the vast majority of the teaching is about life very much in the present.
And it’s easy enough to see at least some examples of ways that the choices we make here and now lead to a more abundant life, or to destruction of ourselves and those around us.
We all know people who seem to make decisions (sometimes for understandable reasons, sometimes for no obvious reason at all) which, to the despair of onlookers, seem to inevitably lead to pain, relationship breakdown, financial ruin, poor health, for themselves and for those around them, those who care for them or depend upon them.
And we all know others who seem able to act with the sort of grace and wisdom that tends towards the opposite outcomes.
But Jesus doesn’t say here that there will be some who follow a path to destruction, and many who will live good, upright, beneficial lives; he turns the balance around. And while there may be a certain amount of hyperbole about these words, I believe there is a genuine bite in them: that the life that Jesus is talking about, the life abundant that he said elsewhere that he came to bring, is more than just living what we would call a good life, more than being a good “Christian” citizen; that there is more to living life the way that Jesus challenged his disciples to live than adopting what get called “Christian values”.
C.S. Lewis wrote, in the painfully dated language of his day, that we already had a word for a man who lived an upright, honourable, honest life; and that word was not “Christian”, it was “Gentleman”. The word “Christian” must mean more than just someone who lived up to the standards of their day; the road to the life that Jesus calls us to is more radical, more challenging, than that.
The real bite in the sermon on the mount is that we are called to be more than good people; we are called to make known, make visible, the character of God, the grace, the welcome, the inclusion, of God.
As Jesus said: If you love those who love you, look after those who are like you, forgive those who have forgiven you, you do no more than we might expect of any decent human being. “Even the gentiles do that”. “Even tax collectors do that”.
Of course there are those who don’t even live up to that standard, but we are not challenged by Jesus words to compare ourselves with the worst, or even with the generally good, but to find – and live – the narrow road.
The road of loving those who are painful, annoying, embarrasing; caring for those who need our care regardless of who they are or where they come from; giving beyond our comfort to look after those who are in the greatest need; taking the painful steps to forgive and seek reconciliation even with those that we might prefer to be estranged from; welcoming those who some would say we should condemn; and accepting unjust criticism for staying true to that road.
And in the light of that challenge, the teaching of the sermon on the mount ends with three paragraphs which ought to put to bed once and for all any form of Christian teaching which suggests that the core of the faith is believing the right things or saying the right words.
You will know them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
And, of course, the wise man who builds his house upon the rock.
How often have you heard that final parable told with the punchline of “build your life on the rock of Jesus”? The children’s Bible song “the wise man built his house upon the rock” makes it the final verse “so build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the blessings will come down”.
And I guess that’s good advice, although to be honest I’m not sure that what the words “build your house on Jesus” really mean, especially in a kids’ song – quite disturbing for those of a literal turn of mind.
But in any case, it’s not what the parable says.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
Here, at the very conclusion of the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ words are not about what you believe, what you say or pray, whether you attend Church, but whether, hearing the words of Jesus, the hard, radical, revolutionary teaching that makes up the sermon on the mount, you act on them.
The one who builds on the rock is the one who hears “love your enemies and do good for those who curse you”, and asks – “who is my enemy? And what could I do as an act of love for them?”. Or “forgive others as you would be forgiven” and asks “who am I holding a deep grudge against, and how can I let go?”. Or hears “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” and asks “what am I holding back; what is more important to me than God?”. Or hears “how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” and asks “what can I do with the wealth God has given me care of?”. Or hears “whatever you did for the least of one of these, you did for me” and asks “how can I, today, this week, this year, do more for those in my community, my country, my world, who are most in need?”
The one who builds on the sand hears all the same words of Jesus – for the parable does not compare those who hear with those who do not, but those who hear and act with those who hear and don’t act – but chooses not to act in the way Jesus asks, advises, commands. Who hears, but finds reasons that these words don’t apply to them.
Hears, but decides that right now, at this stage of life, it isn’t practical.
Hears, but chooses to hold on to what is theirs rather than opening their hands in gratitude and generousity.
Hears, but prefers the moral high ground of having been wronged to the possibility of reconciliation created in forgiveness.
It is a narrow path; it is harder to dig foundations on rock than on sand; it is easier to grow weeds than fruit (very much easier, in my experience). It’s much easier to hear Jesus’ words, agree with them, affirm them, even preach them from the pulpit, than it is to act on them. But that is not the way to life. Not the way to live.
As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found hard and not tried.”