Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7: 14)
In the midst of his varied teachings about faith and its application to life, Jesus presents a key saying which describes the attitude of the disciple. Our Lord is not simply presenting a ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ approach – he is not averse to such things, but he is not doing it here – instead he is offering a foundation for the life of faith which will stand the disciple in good stead when the Day of the Lord comes. Jesus was well aware that actions, whether good or bad, spring from our understanding and intentions. The disciple who accepts the ‘narrow way’ will be in a good place to develop a life which brings forth fruit in the Kingdom of God.
This is important for us to note. Jesus has just introduced the teaching known as the ‘Golden Rule’.
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7: 12).
This is a passage beloved of the vaguely religious for whom ‘being nice’ rather than being penitent and knowing their need of God is the key to their eternal destiny. This is the sort of religion which says, ‘it is nice to be good, but it is even better to be nice.’ When this verse is taken on its own – out of context – the result is a religion from which the demands of discipleship are largely absent. Jesus would spare his hearers that, hence the teaching on the ‘narrow way.’ Discipleship can be hard and needs a lot of determination and effort.
The Church celebrated St. Theresa of the Child Jesus last Thursday. A 19th Century French Carmelite, she is remembered primarily for her teaching about the ‘little way’ which is completely in accord with Jesus’ teaching about the ‘narrow way’ and is a perfect expression of it. St. Theresa taught about the importance of doing the little things in life for God – as an act of devotion to him and in support of others. Interestingly nobody really noticed her doing this during her short life – she was 24 years old when she died. She was just another sister in the convent, but on reading her diary in which she writes about the ‘little way’ it became clear that not only had she written about it, but she had done it as well, quietly and humbly without anyone noticing. The ‘little way’ was St. Theresa’s way of orientating her life towards God in fidelity and devotion. In doing she had obeyed the ‘Golden Rule’ and followed Jesus’ ‘narrow way’.
The ‘narrow way’ has three aspects for us to consider. As a foundation for faith it is primarily vocational. Its acceptance implies that we are going somewhere, and going there for a purpose at our Lord’s bidding. It is he who is calling us to walk with him as disciples along the road. Much has been made over the last few years in the Church of England (at least) of the image of the pilgrim going on a journey through life. It is not a bad analogy at all. Sometimes though, it has led to an inadequate realisation of the second aspect which we must consider: that the ‘narrow way’ has an ethical dimension. The road is ‘narrow’ because there is a specific standard of behaviour which is required of us: a Christ-like standard which includes the ‘Golden Rule’, but also the other hard sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Just to give one typical example,
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matthew 5: 27-28)
The ‘narrow way’ and the ‘Golden Rule’ go together: a purposeful journey is travelled in a particular way – and that is the way defined by Jesus in the gospels and elucidated by the other writers in the New Testament.
The final consideration concerns our way of thinking. This is not about intellectual endeavour, still less intellectual achievement, but about the basis of our thinking. St. Paul writes about having the ‘mind of Christ’. This means that as we grow in discipleship it becomes natural for us to think Christianly as we are gradually conformed to the likeness of Christ. This can be seen in the life of St. Theresa and the saints for whom it became natural to think of Jesus first and to put him first in everything that they did. To obey his will and to please him was everything to them.
St. Paul is an excellent example not only because he expresses himself so well, but because the course of his life did not always run smoothly. Not only was he aware of his great failings, but he also suffered severe persecution for the faith. It is always easier to follow the ‘narrow way’ when the road is smooth. In his letter to the Philippians he wrote,
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Philippians 3: 10-11)
The Apostle was certain where he was going in life and convinced that he knew the means of getting there. It is something which he holds in common with the faithful in every age who have single-mindedly devoted themselves to Jesus. Each of us might express our motivation and intention slightly differently, but each of us would recognise the other’s as an authentic expression of discipleship.
St. Paul was always looking forward and that is the Christian practice. After his example Christians do not wallow in a self-indulgent nostalgia or a sanitised version of history. It is not a blind, stumbling towards an uncertain future either, but a grasping of the trajectory of history of which we are a part. We are inheritors of this past and sometimes victims of it, but as we grasp it for the sake of the Gospel we come to discover our true purpose in life and are invited to accept the call to follow the footsteps of our Lord.
We claim a knowledge of our true purpose and direction having been formed by the cross. When we make our act of confession, kneel in supplication or approach the altar, we come to the foot of the cross. The time then comes to walk on (through that door) having been released from our deepest burdens, having shared our greatest concerns and having been fed with the bread of heaven. Being further conformed to the likeness of Christ we go on to live the resurrection life in the power of the Spirit.
As I suggested earlier, each of us has our own way of expressing these truths, as St. Paul’s words are different from St. Peter’s and yet both express their commitment to the Gospel. On the day she took her vows, St. Theresa prayed,
Grant that I may fulfill my engagements in all their perfection; that no one may think of me; that I may be trodden under foot, forgotten, as a little grain of sand. I offer myself to Thee, O my Beloved, that Thou mayest ever accomplish in me Thy Holy Will, without let or hindrance from creatures. (The Story of A Soul)
Our words may be different again, but they need to be authentic and they need to be meant with heart and mind.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
4th October 2020
Image by Ostap Senyuk on Unsplash