Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Go in through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it. (Matthew 7:7-12, CEB)
- I grew up in the Southeast United States, so when I hear the word “gate,” I don’t think about a walled city. I think of a gate in a fence around a pasture. This is another place where it’s interesting to compare metaphors in Matthew and John (“Y’all are the light of the world” vs. “I am the light of the world”). The gate shows up in John as well, and in that context it is a pasture gate: “I am the gate of the sheep” (John 10:7).
- Here, though, it’s clearly a city gate. The photo above is a tripartite city gate from Gerash, in Jordan. In Jesus’s day, any self-respecting city had a triple gate like this. The big gate was usually kept closed except on special days and for special people. Bigwigs would come in through the big gate in processionals. Everybody else would enter and exit through the small ones, because they were easier to guard.
- Incidentally, this is the image I think of when I read about the New Jerusalem in the last book of Revelation: “Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:25).
- I think Jesus is restating part of his thesis that has moved this whole sermon: “Don’t think I’m throwing out the Bible; I’m fulfilling it. I’m not lowering the bar; I’m raising it.”
- He has just said not to judge, that God will fulfill the quest for salvation and enlightenment for each of us who is seeking. He has said that love summarizes all of the law and the prophets. BUT — he wants us to understand — that doesn’t mean a casual approach to ethics. It is actually much harder to do the internal work of avoiding anger, not just murder; of avoiding greed and worry about tomorrow, not just hoarding.
- Given the photograph above, I think another way to read this choice between two gates is this: “Everyone is trying to be a bigwig, to go in through the exclusive and important gate. I’m asking you to go find the narrow, uncelebrated gate. People think the bigwig gate is exclusive, but just about everyone buys into that system, and look what it’s doing to the world. The way to true humility and authenticity is much rarer, and that’s what I’m asking of my followers.”
- When you read it this way, it not only sounds less moralistic, it is more consistent with what Jesus said way back in chapter 5: “Your righteousness must exceed that of the religious leaders.” These two statements are like bookends around Jesus’s instructions to his followers.
- When I read chapter 6 and the first half of chapter 7 together, I realize an important truth: Performing for the approval of others and judging others are two sides of the same coin. And without either of those, there’s just not much left of conventional religion.
- Compare this to what the Katha Upanishad says about enlightenment: “Sharp, like a razor’s edge, the sages say, is the path; difficult to traverse” (1:14).
- This ends the central section of the Sermon on the Mount, which is what I call “The ethical core”—how Jesus’s followers should think and act. We’ll summarize tomorrow, and then turn to the concluding material.