“Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to perdition is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
—Matthew 7:13-14 (Jerusalem Bible)
“We are passing away, passing away passing away to that great judgment day”
(Bible quotations in this post are from the Jerusalem Bible except where noted.)
For me, one of the most vivid Bible images, and one of the most urgent of Jesus’ teachings, is that of the narrow gate (in the King James Version, the “strait gate”). I can picture the two paths—one wide, level, spacious, convenient, the other narrow, steep, twisting, unaccommodating; yet this is the one we are asked to choose. Interestingly, Luke 13:24 in the Revised Standard Version in calls it “the narrow door”: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.” We all wish to pass through, but how? The question is vitally important. Its importance is supported by the fact that it has not only been posed by Christianity but by several of the world’s faith traditions.
This is not so much about the gate or the door but about us. Passing from this state into the next is inevitable, for all life is subject to change. We must then be prepared to avail ourselves of the resources at hand to facilitate this change. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be avoided. It cannot be delayed. To work within its demands will result in our being not only content but successful.
In John 5:24 Jesus tells us “I tell you most solemnly, whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life; without being brought to judgment, he has passed from death to life.” Belief in the Savior is our key, but are there steps we may take to assist our passage? Here is a further clue: through the path of humility, a reduction of the demands of the self, we are released to enter into that greater reality. The self-improvement strategies presented in countless books on the topic pale by comparison. It is, in fact, the very opposite. There is simply no way in which we can improve ourselves or be “good enough” to shine with that requisite glory. So it must be that we must apply our strategy to that of reducing ourselves—repentant, aware of our mortality—to pass through.
The narrow path is characterized by the stripped-down life. It is here that renunciation is revealed as an affirmative, not negative pathway. The stripping down of material and mental encumbrances allows us a clearer vision of existence, a simpler, less cluttered life, and an immense openness whereby the fullness of the divine can enter in, enrich and transform. It is paradoxically the true wealth we seek. The Katha Upanishad (3:14) uses different imagery but makes the same point: “Stand up! Be vigilant! Having attained the excellent teachers, attend to them. Just as it is difficult to go stepping on the sharp edge of the knife, equally difficult is the way (to deliverance), the wise teach it to you.”
The book of Proverbs is rich in this teaching. Proverbs 4:23-27: “More than all else, keep watch over your heart, since here are the wellsprings of life. Turn your back on the mouth that misleads, keep your distance from lips that deceive. Let your eyes be fixed ahead, your gaze be straight before you. Let the path you tread be level and all your ways made firm. Turn neither to right nor to left, keep your foot clear of evil.” Proverbs 18:12 reads: The human heart is haughty until destruction comes, humility goes before honor. In Proverbs 21:16: “The man that strays from the way of prudence will rest where the Shades gather round him. Proverbs 22:4-5 gives us a different sense of passage, that “thorns and snares” confront the person who is not humble: “The reward of humility is the fear of Yahweh, riches, honor and life. Thorns and snares line the path of the willful, he who values his life will keep his distance.” This view underscores the importance of detachment, whereby the righteous may avoid entanglement. Our refusal to be satisfied with our lot leads also to destruction, as recounted in Proverbs 27:20: “Sheol and perdition are never satisfied, nor are the eyes of man ever satisfied.” (Notes to the Jerusalem Bible comment that the eyes are the seat of envy.) So, it is laid out very clearly before us: the path of destruction versus the path of life.
Moving to the New Testament, Jesus reframes the conception as that of childlikeness. It provides an ideal picture of what the life acceptable to God involves, and appears in parallels throughout the gospels. Here is the passage from Matthew 18:1-5 (title: Who is the greatest?) [parallel passages are contained in Mark 9:33-37, 10:13-16; Luke 9:15-17, 9:46-47 “At this time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? So he called a little child to him and set the child in front of them. Then he said, ‘I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
To what might we equate the quality of childlikeness? The first which occurs to me is that of dependence, just as Jesus was dependent upon his Father and exemplified that attitude throughout his life. To this can be added openness—expanding awareness, curiosity, a capacity for growth, a willingness to seek out and try that which is new—a growing rather than a contracting personal universe. Mark 10:13-16 contains “anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Third, a lack of guile, an innocent, free manner of interacting with the world and with others, with no trace of being jaded or bitter. These taken together lead to a clearness and brightness which is the hallmark of spirituality. Certainly, Jesus’ example of childlikeness becomes the key. He makes the connection between childlikeness and Christlikeness in the passage from Mark 9:33-37, saying, “anyone who welcomes on of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Finally, there is the very quality of humility itself, in Luke 9:46-48. “for the least among you all, that is the one who is great.”
As a child among children—here is both the inner disposition which enables one to pass through and the outer manifestation, the model for society, as well, for it is not only our task to make ourselves presentable but to let our light shine as an example for the young so that they may walk likewise. It is Jesus who lays this obligation upon us, saying that it will weigh heavy upon us indeed if we are the cause of them to stumble. Here is the scripture in Mt 18:6-10, 14 (title: on leading others astray) [parallel passages contained in Mark 9:42-50 and Luke 17:1-3]: “But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck. Alas for the world that there should be such obstacles. Obstacles indeed there must be, but alas for the man who provides them! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” If your hand or your foot should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away: it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away: it is better for you to enter into life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into the hell of fire. See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven”….Similarly, it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
Note “cut it off and throw it away” in the previous passage. Anything which drags us down, which impedes our passage, which distracts us from our goal, must be removed. We must lighten our load, and this is far more a problem for those with a greater share of the world’s goods, power, opportunity, etc. than those who do not have them. This is a serious and necessary task for these members of society. It is also the reason that, when confronted by the rich young ruler who wished to follow him, Jesus explained that for the rich to enter heaven is more difficult than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
Jesus’ instruction in Luke 12:15-21 (On hoarding possessions) points, again, to that lightness of being which must be achieved to avoid being weighed down by the things of this earth: “Then he said to them, ‘Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs (In the Revised Standard Version “for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”. Then he told them a parable: ‘There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land, thought to himself, “What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.” But God said to him, “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?” So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.’ ”
In Luke 18:24-30 Jesus tells the rich young aristocrat, “How hard it is for those who have riches to make their way into the kingdom of God! Yes, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’. ‘In that case’ said the listeners ‘who can be saved’? ‘Things that are impossible for men,’ he replied ‘are possible for God.’ Then Peter said, ‘What about us? We left all we had to follow you.’ He said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life’.
Lightening our psychological and physical load—all that hinders us from freely and fully entering into the Kingdom—is what is required. Luke 16:25-26, comparing Lazarus and the rich man, even mentions the great gulf, or chasm, which must be crossed. Here, father Abraham is speaking to the rich man: “ ‘My son’ Abraham replied [to the rich man] ‘remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf (Revised Standard Version “chasm”) has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.’ ”
2 Corinthians 5:1-4 employs the imagery of the tent, a temporary dwelling place in which we abide while we await our permanent dwelling: “For we know that when the tent that we live in on earth is folded up (other versions “dissolved”, “destroyed”), there is a house built by God for us, an everlasting home not made by human hands in the heavens. In this present state, it is true, we groan as we wait with longing to put on our heavenly home over the other; we should like to be found wearing clothes and not without them. Yes, we groan and find it a burden being still in this tent, not that we want to strip it off, but to put the second garment over it and to have what must die taken up into life.” This is further explained in Hebrews 11:10, 13-16): “They [Abraham, Isaac, Jacob] lived there in tents while he looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God….All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognizing that they were only strangers and nomads on earth. People who use such terms about themelves make it quite plain that that they are in search of their real homeland. They can hardly have meant the country they came from, since they had the opportunity to go back to it; but in fact they were longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, since he has founded a city for them…” 2 Peter 1:13-14 concludes: “I am sure it is my duty, as long as I am in this tent, to keep stirring you up with reminders, since I know the time for taking off this tent is coming soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ foretold to me.”
The smallness/greatness paradigm is exemplified by Jesus’ brief but important parable of the mustard seed in Luke 13:18-19 [paralleled in Matthew 13:31-32 and Mark 4:30-32]: “He went on to say, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it with? It is like a mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air sheltered in its branches.’ ” What is small as it is sown becomes great in the kingdom. This is the seeding of baptism, of death to the temporal world, and is our entry to the path.
Considering all these images: the Camel and the Eye of the Needle, the places at the banquet, the mustard seed, and the Narrow Gate, it is now possible to appreciate their importance and why Jesus focused on them. They cause us to ask serious questions that demands our consideration and action—what will pass from this world to the kingdom of God? Taken together they form a core teaching of our Lord.
Regarding our plans, James 4:13-17 gives this counsel: “Here is the answer for those of you who talk like this: ‘Today or tomorrow we are off to this or that town; we are going to spend a year there, trading and make some money.’ You never know what will happen tomorrow: you are no more than a mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. The most you should ever say is: ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we shall still be alive to do this or that’. But how proud and sure of yourselves you are now! Pride of this kind is always wicked. Everyone who knows what is the right thing to do and doesn’t do it commits a sin.”
The Hindu conception emphasizes the raft (or at other times the boat) as the means of crossing. Whether raft or boat, those who attempt to cross the stream must consider their means of doing so. In the Upanishads, Mundaka 1:2:7 alludes to the stream, describing the sacrificial forms as “unsafe boats” for crossing; Mundaka 2:2:6 encourages those who aspire to cross: “Om!—thus meditate upon the Soul (Atman). Success to you in crossing to the farther shore beyond darkness!” Shrotapatti is the term used to describe one who has entered the stream which will bear him to the Niveanic Ocean, or universal store of Being and consciousness, described by another scripture, the Srimad Bhagavatum: “The human body is like a boat, the first and foremost use of which is to carry us across the ocean of life and death to the shore of immortality. The Guru [for Christians read Christ] is the skillful helmsman; divine grace is the favorable wind. If with such means as these man does not strive to cross the ocean of life and death, he is indeed spiritually dead.”
The Shvetasvatara Upanishad (2:8-13 “Rules and results of Yoga”) elaborates further in yogic terms: “Holding his body steady, with the three [upper parts] erect, and causing the senses with the mind to enter into the heart, a wise man, with the Brahma-boat, should cross over all the fear-bringing streams….” In the Kaushitaki Upanishad 1:3-4 The aspirant “…comes to…the river Vijara (‘Ageless’). This he crosses with his mind alone. There he shakes off his good deeds and his evil deeds.”
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gives his own unique viewpoint, employing the language of Transcendental Meditation (quoting Bhagavad Gita 4:36 “Even if you were the most sinful of all sinners, you would cross over all evil by the raft of knowledge alone.”) “….Knowledge takes a man beyond delusion and molds his life in the oneness of God-consciousness….All the laws of life respond favorably to such a life….In this state one has crossed over all evil by the raft of knowledge….However dense the darkness and however long it may have existed, one ray of the rising sun is enough to dispel the darkness, though it takes time to reach the brightness of the mid-day sun. Even a flash of transcendental consciousness is enough to dispel the delusion of ignorance, where one has crossed over all evil by the raft of knowledge. This brings hope even to a man whose life may be full of wrong-doing. Sin produces coarseness in the nervous system, preventing it from functioning normally and obstructing its ability to give rise to pure consciousness.”
Buddhist teaching emphasizes the stream and how it may be crossed, not unlike the Christian and Hindu conceptions. There is what is called the Path of Streamwinners, Once-returners, Never-returners and Arhats (enlightened holy ones or saints) respectively. The streamwinner is “the first kind of Saint. He has just won the Path, thereby detaching himself from mundane existence.” Nyanaponika Thera elaborates the mental aspects of crossing: “These physical and mental phenomena, in their self-luminosity,’ will then convey a growing sense of urgency to the meditator: revulsion, dissatisfaction, awareness of danger will arise concerning them, followed by detachment—though certainly, joy, happiness and calm, too, will not be absent throughout the practice. Then, if all other conditions of inner maturity are fulfilled, the first direct vision of final liberation will dawn, with the stream-winner’s indubitable knowledge: ‘Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of vanishing.’ ”
Stream references are at home in Christian hymnody. The most memorable stanza, to me, comes from “Going Down the Valley”, “where the stream of death in silence ever flows”. There are others, to be sure, but this stands out.
It is important to consider that our emphasis on stream (and bridge) crossing should be not only for ourselves, but for others. Shantideva (quoted in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche) says that the individual may serve as a bridge and a means of grace for others: “May I be a protector to those without protection, a leader for those who journey, and a boat, a bridge, a passage for those desiring the further shore. May the pain of every living creature be completely cleared away. May I be the doctor and the medicine and may I be the nurse for all sick beings in the world until everyone is healed. Just like space and the great elements such as earth, may I always support the life of all the boundless creatures. And until they pass away from pain may I also be the source of life for all the realms of varied beings that reach unto the ends of space.”
The teaching takes a different form in Zoroastrianism, though its intent is the same. Not only is it a beautiful and accurate corollary of Jesus’ parable and helps to amplify our understanding; nothing is lost from the Christian teaching. It sheds light on the process, especially judgment of our deeds (or the lack of them). The image here is that of the Chinvat (or Chinawad) Bridge, which all must cross upon death. This bridge’s appearance varies depending on the observer’s asha, or righteousness. Thus to the wicked it would appear narrow and the demon Vizaresh would appear to drag his soul into the druj-demana, the House of Lies, a place of eternal punishment and suffering similar to Hell; but if a person’s good thoughts, words and deeds were many, the same bridge would appear wide enough to cross and the Daena, a spirit of revelation, would lead the soul to the House of Song. This “lightness of being” is the very gift that humility grants us, as in the Christian scriptures. We should all, whatever our faith, strive to cross the bridge of God. Sanskrit, too, employs the term setu, the separating bridge [or dam].
So what about judgment? Jesus has promised that through faith in him we may escape judgment; still, I wish to confront my failures in this life in order to be purified, to be rid of them, to ask for forgiveness, to be set right. Is it strange that I should look forward to this? There is scriptural support for the reality of uncovering sin. Matthew 10:26 contains a memorable phrase, repeated in Mark and Luke, which though applied to the falsehood of the Pharisees, has a ring of truth: “For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear.” (KJV “…there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.”) His words in Luke 16:15 affirm that Pharisaical pride and delusion must eventually be revealed: “You are the very ones who pass yourselves off as virtuous in people’s sight, but God knows your hearts. For what is thought highly of by men is loathsome in the sight of God.” For what is sin that it cannot be uncovered, and our failures of both commission and omission that they should not be brought to light. These things I must acknowledge to lighten this load, for it is what impedes my ability to pass through.
The primary verse reference, however, occurs in Ephesians 5:13, and we must turn to the notes of the King James Version to extract its meaning: “But all things that are reproved [notes: “Or, discovered.”] are made manifest by the light: for whatever doth make manifest is the light.” This is the spiritual light which not only discovers darkness, but overcomes it, in John 1:5 ”a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower”.
But, praise God, there is grace. A Christian understanding of passing over includes that of Jesus himself as the bridge/gate/door: John 10:7-9 gives us this assurance: “Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” Consider also this quotation “In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.” Hindu teaching supports this its philosophy of the Purusha, “the man who burns out sin”. There is a passage in the Guru Gita, which to the Christian suggests the power of Christ: “To the unfailing Guru, who helps the disciple in crossing the ocean of Samsara (the wheel of birth and death or empirical existence), becoming as it were, the bridge, the unfailing fulfiller of the devotees’ works, prostrations to that Chitsukhatma (the unbounded joy that wells up in the heart).” Along with this, numerous references appear in this gita to him who is able to help the disciple or devotee to cross the river of Samsara, repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death. One need not be a believer in reincarnation to understand this reality.
Passing through involves the reduction of that which would hinder our journey. There is the need in our lives to leave things behind, both in the physical and mental realm, which in our discernment are no longer needed. Excess in possessions can be a hindrance, as well as in thought. Hendrik Willemsz has written of the mental component by way of explaining how it moves from the personal to the societal: “But, first, one thing is essential for this, viz. that one learns to be purified oneself, not only bodily and outwardly but in the mind within: to get rid of the excess of barren, mental lumber to get from ‘idees fixes’ to think positively, to be free from restricting party spirit and clannishness; to become broad-minded, open-minded, ready to see in the other man that Sublime which is in us and in him also. That Nucleus may be besmirched, but essentially it has that Ineffable, Creative Power behind it.”
I will leave you with two closing passages. The first is from 1 John 2:15-17, is a passionate call to remember what is truly valuable and what we must take with us: “You must not love this passing world, because nothing the world has to offer—the sensual body, the lustful eye, pride in possessions, could ever come from the Father but only from the world; and the world, with all its craves for, is coming to an end; but anyone who does the will of God remains for ever.”
Finally, the dynamics of passing through are presented to us in Luke 17:26 when Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the afterlife, father Abraham tells the rich man that in this world he received his reward, but now he is in agony and it is Lazarus is being comforted. But, the lesson concludes, “that is not all; between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.” The finality of that condition should strike fear in us, as should the images presented in the several traditions we have seen. We have been taught that sin is separation, and here it is in its cold, brutal reality. It is vitally important that we order the values of our lives so that, upon the time for our departure, we are ready to cross. Our life is a preparation. We must think soberly, reduce the weight of our being, jettison that which is unworthy, prepare, and humble ourselves that we may be transformed from this world to the next. This is our task. This is the call.