Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.
Franz Kafka’s famous novel The Trial tells the story of a man arrested and prosecuted for a crime that is never revealed either to him or to the reader. The novel epitomizes the despair of modern man in the face of overwhelming social and political forces that he cannot escape; it was written at a time—the early 20th century—when anxiety about dystopian states was high, and for good cause. Within a few decades, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin would all come to power. I wonder if the sensitive reader of the Gospel lesson might feel a bit like Joseph K.—the protagonist of The Trial—when he hears the words of Jesus: “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” The complaint might be made that Jesus is asking too much and being too hard on weak human nature. He has put us on trial, and we do not even know where to begin with a defense. After all, what is the narrow, strait way that Jesus talks about? We cannot be expected to walk through this door if we do not know where or what it is.
Sometimes, it is easier to make sense of the statements of Scripture if we compare them to practical things that are more tangible, and I think that is the case here. Imagine that you are doctor. You’re a successful physician who has worked for many years. During that time you have healed many and brought comfort to many more. You have also had to make some difficult decisions along the way. Through the years you learned also how to navigate the demands of your vocation and your duty to your family. Looking back on your life, it is no accident that you have come this point. In fact there are thousands of small decisions every day that kept you on this course. It is evident that there were a myriad of ways you could have moved off of this course: neglect in your studies as a medical student, clashing with those in authority over you as a young physician, making a serious error in the treatment of a patient, becoming emotionally detached from your family, medicating sorrow and disappointment with alcohol; all these and more could have put you off that narrow path that has led to this point in time. But instead, you have gone through the narrow, strait gate. And we could say something about any other major accomplishment. Success is not a wide open path, but a strait and narrow one, whether it is raising children, prospering in a vocation, or becoming accomplished in an artistic skill.
The same point applies to spiritual matters; think of the devotions involved in Lent. It would be easy to keep a poor Lent simply by doing little or nothing for this season of prayer and fasting. You would not have to work very hard to do this. And many fall into this temptation. On the other hand, to fast, to pray, and to read the Bible are all small acts that require daily renewal and determination to do them. Along the way there are lots of small decisions to make in order to live into this season.
You see, the truth is that “wide is the door and board the way that bringeth down many to destruction.” It is easy to neglect the spiritual life and eternal things. To live life in a heedless pursuit of pleasures; to yield to every thought in speech and every impulse in action; to be consumed with trivial and transitory things; to be arrested by idleness and slouth, to reject the voice of correction from God’s law; to be unwilling to examine the thoughts and intentions of the heart; to be proud and scornful, forgetting that man is but dust. All of these are so easy, and we see them all the time, in the wider culture and in our own lives. Wide indeed is the way that leads to destruction. The statement is self-evident upon examination. Lent is a time to withdraw from the broad way and wide gate in order to be open to spiritual matters, to be open to changing one’s mind, to be open, in short, to new life.
But, of course, it is never sufficient to think of our faith solely or even primarily on the plane of human effort. A closer look at the Gospel lesson shows how grace enters into this consideration. Jesus’ discourse is prompted by a question: are there few that be saved? How many are making it to heaven? It is comforting to know that then and now there are questions that either cannot or should not be answered, and further that even Jesus largely rejected speculative questions, not because he did not know but because he was always more concerned with the state of the person asking the question than with the answer to their question. The only thing a straight answer to this question could satisfy is idle curiosity. Jesus however wants to speak something to the questioner’s benefit and edification. Our Lord’s response consists of a kind of parable. He begins by stating the already discussed phrase, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.” Then the image is continued with these words, “When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are.” This helps to fill out the imagery of the parable. Imagine a large house, a mansion even, and the owner of the house standing at the front door inviting outsiders in. There is only one door on the vast exterior of the house but it is open. I imagine some of those outside the house arguing with each other about where the door is, speaking so loudly that they cannot hear the master calling them into the house. Another has fallen asleep on the hard ground with a stone for a pillow, when if he only passed through the door there is a room and bed waiting for each. Others have heard the invitation and stand near the door, seemingly about to enter, but on closer inspection they are arguing with one another about who should enter first based on honor and reputation; it is apparent that they will never go through the door unless they let go of their religious arrogance. Still others are standing anxiously around looking at themselves with concern, wondering if they are wearing sufficiently nice clothing to enter the master’s house, forgetting or not knowing that at this feast, a wedding garment is provided. The point we need to be reminded of when we read this Gospel is that the door is open not closed. Yes, it is narrow. We cannot simply keep living as if eternal things were ancillary or an ornament to life now and in this place. The impulse to treat religion as just one component in a well-rounded life is strong. But religion is what seems to disappear when we allow faith to inform every aspect of our lives.
In closing, I would be doing you a disservice if I did not remind you that Jesus reserves some his harshest criticisms for those who are outwardly religious. When he says strive to enter at the narrow gate he is speaking to the respectable and church going folks of his own age, as becomes evident from the succeeding verses. The more I am aware of this recurring message of Jesus, the more I am disturbed and unsettled by it, because I know he is talking about me. It is the Jerusalem religious establishment that will be cast out of the kingdom, while the true sons and daughters of the kingdom will come from the north and the south, from the east and from the west. It is the characteristic of such people of the establishment to warn Jesus of Herod’s power with the ulterior motive of getting rid of Jesus. But of course, all the powers of heaven and earth could not drive Jesus from his mission, nor the wise man from truth. It is no wonder then that Jesus sees Jerusalem at the seat of the persecution of all the prophets and that he would have gathered them together but was seemingly prevented by their obstinacy or their unwillingness to be instructed in true faith. If you are as disturbed as I am by these thoughts, good. As Dr. Blackwood said in his quiet day remarks, we have to reach the end of ourselves in order to be open to grace, and I might add that we have to reach the end of our religious selves as well. If we are disturbed by Jesus, then you and I are both ready to hear the Gospel of new life addressed to all who will hear the words of the master, “Come unto me,” “follow after the one who goes before you to prepare a place for you.”