Narrow Path in the California Forest
FALL RIVER, MA (Catholic Online). As we near the end of a three week study of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus describes for us his way of life and calls us to share it, he begins to give a synthesis and summary of all he has taught and describes the stakes involved in freely choosing to follow him step-by-step along this path.
He begins today by telling us, "Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before swine." In other words, he calls us to remember the treasure we bear in earthen vessels and not let it go waste. Just as a jeweler would never allow pigs to have at his collection of precious stones and pearls, so we need to value greatly not only Jesus' words but the dignity God has given us by creation and redemption. The Sermon on the Mount, the way of the Lord Jesus, is the way to maintain that dignity and help others to come to discover it and to live in accordance with it.
He then gives us a clear indication about how that treasure is supposed to bear golden dividends. "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you," Jesus exclaims. "This is the law and the prophets." The law and the prophets is a true Golden Rule that is not summarized merely in justice - doing to others as they have done to us - but by a much higher standard, doing to others what we would want others to do to us.
Included in those "others" is God himself. We're called to treat others the way we would not only others to treat us but God to treat us. That's why throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reminds us of the way God treats us, how he lets his sun and rain shine on the good and the bad, how is merciful to us on our good days and bad days, how he lavishly measures out blessings to us.
All of that largesse, however, comes with a "cost," to "pay it forward." After having given us that standard, Jesus says, we're called to live by it, because the measure with which we measure will in turn then be measured out to us.
If we're grateful, therefore, for all God has done for us, if we would have Jesus - perfect man and perfect God, the most important existential "other" of all - love us as madly as he has, praying for mercy for us even we chose Barabbas over him, crucified him, and murdered him, then the Golden Rule really means to love others as Jesus has loved us. We're called to do unto others as Jesus would do unto others and as we would want Jesus to do to us.
This leads to the third part of today's Gospel, which is the most challenging of all.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been calling us to live by his standards, but now he turns from a description of those standards to the moral choice we must make. He shifts from the "informative" to the "performative."
"Enter through the narrow gate," he tells us. In St. Luke's rendition of either the same discourse or, more likely, a similar one in which Jesus reemphasized these central points like any good teacher returns to the most important principles, Jesus says, "Strive to enter through the narrow door" (Lk 13:24). The Greek for "strive" is really "agonize."
Jesus is saying that we need to go into agony, to make the greatest, possible most painful exertion of our life, to fit through a gate that is "narrow." We need to work harder than an undrafted free agent gives everything he's got in a professional football training camp to make the cut, harder than gymnast works to make the Olympics and win the gold, harder than an immigrant father of large family works to ensure his family's survival.
We can imagine slivering through the slimmest aperture to escape from a life-threatening situation in which we've been trapped, like we've seen some people have to do to escape from rubble after earthquakes or building implosions.
We need to agonize that way to fit through the narrow gate as if our whole life depended on it - because, in fact, Jesus says it does.
With shocking words, Jesus declares, "For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and those who find it are few."
Few people, in other words, make the effort required to enter into life. Few agonize to live by the standards Jesus has been describing for us throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
Can anyone doubt this? Which is more popular, the path of spiritual poverty or materialist wealth? The path of purity or of pornography? The path of peace-making or score-settling?Â The path of mourning or the path of partying? The path of turning the other cheek or slapping back? The path of keeping all ten commandments or breaking them?
Jesus' path is not an easy one and he never pretended that it was. Loving according to his standards can be crucifying. But it's eternally worth it.
It's very important for us in this Year of Faith not to ignore Jesus' words about the path to Life and the path to perdition and the relative percentage of those who are on each path. There are "few" who have found the narrow, uphill, way of the Cross that leads to life and "many" on the wide, easy, congested "highway to hell.
This is not necessarily a picture of the way everything ends up - because the whole mission of the Church is to try to rescue people from the latter to the former - but it is a striking image, given to us by Jesus himself, about the way the vast majority of people are trending.
These are shocking words to modern ears. Most people - including most Catholics - today think that basically everyone gets to heaven - except perhaps serial killers, public smokers and those who gulp soft drinks larger than 16 ounces in Manhattan.
But this is a very dangerous error - in fact a heresy, universalism - that carries with it potentially the most serious of eschatological consequences.
On Thursday, Jesus will tell us that many will seek to enter through the narrow door but not make it. They will be left outside the door, pleading, "We ate and drank in your presence and you taught in our streets," and remembering, 'Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name." Jesus says that God will then reply, "I never knew you" (Lk 13:25-27; Mt 7:21-23).
Jesus is emphasizing that it's not enough to have heard him speak. It's not sufficient to have eaten and drunk with him, even the Holy Eucharist. It's not adequate to proclaim the Gospel in his name, to do exorcisms or even to work miracles. After all, Judas Iscariot did all of these things, and his salvation is, for sure, not a particularly safe bet.
Taking seriously what Jesus says about the narrow gate of life and the broad path leading to perdition, how much sense does it make to presume, as many do today, that the final exam of life is an easy-A and almost everyone goes to heaven?
Yet that is what people do. They don't think they have to "agonize" to enter onto Jesus' path but can keep on the same path they're presently on, perhaps with some minor course corrections, but nothing major. After all, if Jesus desires all to be saved and died on the Cross to make salvation possible, how can he ever flunk someone on the final exam of life?
How could a God who is full of compassion, slow to anger, and rich in kindness ever set up an eternal, infernal dungeon in which he mercilessly punishes people for disobedience? How could God who is love ever establish an everlasting Abu Ghraib for anyone, not to mention his beloved children?
In the final analysis, because God is merciful, many can begin to believe that it really doesn't matter if we pray or play, if we keep or break promises, if we steal or sacrifice, if we come to Mass or sleep in, if we're faithful to our spouse or cheat, if we provide for or neglect our family, if we forgive or settle scores, if we love or abuse the poor, or if we welcome or abort the littlest of Jesus' brethren.
Since almost everyone in the class is going to make the eternal honor roll no matter what they do, while we may still admire those who study hard, the really wise ones are those who eat, drink and be merry and still get their easy-A, right?
But this way of believing and behaving is not Christian. Contrary to the idea that the final judgment is a cake walk and that everyone is with Led Zeppelin on the Stairway to Heaven, Jesus insists today that "many" are on the wide, easy road leading to destruction and relatively "few" are entering through the narrow door leading to lifeÂ
Jesus came from heaven to show us the way to heaven and indicated quite emphatically that not all roads lead there. To get to heaven, we need to follow him. If we tragically refuse to follow him on that path, that choice has consequences.
But the question remains: How is Hell consistent with divine love? If God calls us to forgive 70 times 7 times, doesn't hell mean that there's a limit to his mercy?
Hell was not part of God's original plans, for everything he created was good. He formed us in his image and likeness in order to share his life and love, but he took a tremendous risk in creating us free: he made it possible for us to misuse our freedom against Him, others, and ourselves. Sin, suffering, death and hell are all the creation not of God but of those who refuse Him, the consequences of a disordered self-love so strong that it excludes the love of God.Â
Jesus said that he had come into the world not to condemn the world but to save it, but he added, "The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge, and on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge" (Jn 12:47). Those who reject Jesus' words of eternal life, who prefer to walk in the darkness instead of the light, become their own judges by the way they respond to the truth God has revealed.
"There are only two kinds of people in the end," CS Lewis once famously wrote. "Those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it."Â
Hell exists not despite God's love but precisely because of it, in order to honor the desires of those who don't want to live in loving communion with Him and others. It is the state, as the Catechism calls it, of "definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed." It is the tragic possibility of human freedom for those who, in voluntarily choosing sin, separate themselves from God and others.
When we ponder all God has done to make salvation possible, including Jesus' brutal crucifixion to pay the full price for our sins, our response should not be to take heaven for granted, but to say, with emotion, "So much mercy, so much love, and still some people choose against God!"
Jesus on the Cross paid the price not so that we could sin as much as we want and presumptuously still think we'll get to heaven, but so that we, moved by the horror of sin and by the immensity of his love, might choose to live in his light, lovingly unite our whole lives with him, follow him home to heaven, and help others to join us on the narrow path to his eternal right side.
It's the choice between life and death, light and darkness, heaven and hell.
Jesus did everything necessary to enable us to choose well. That's the pearl we should treasure. That's the way we're called to relate to others. That's the narrow path we're called agonizingly, and joyfully, to journey in this Year of Faith and in our life of faith.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, MA and national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. His homilies and articles are found on catholicpreaching.com.
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