How Narrow is Narrow?
Sometimes when we hear the Gospel proclaimed at Mass we are so encouraged and consoled that we think: I cannot be lost. Other times we hear it and we might think: How will I ever be saved? The apostles themselves occasionally responded with those extremes: “Who then can be saved?” once escaped their lips. But on the other hand, when James and John were thinking of the thrones they would occupy in the kingdom, they seemed to consider themselves practically saved.
In the passage on the narrow gate (Lk 13:22-30), something about our Lord’s teaching made someone in the crowd think that only a small minority would be saved: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” And indeed, if every careless word demands an account, if every thought and desire that we entertain will be scrutinized, then who could bear it? Psalm 130 speaks for all of us: “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?”
We seem to be suspended between two poles: ease of salvation, as a gift given requiring our open hands only; or the looming, quasi-impossibility of salvation, the no-matter-what-you-do-you’re-lost idea. If the Lord once said that no one shall snatch His sheep from His hand, He also said that many will try to enter the narrow gate to life and simply will not succeed. Is there a double-standard with God?
In one sense, there are two standards which the Lord accounts for:
That servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Lk 12:47-48)
We cannot do the impossible, nor be held accountable for what we did not know and could not reasonably come to know. This accommodates the uncatechized, the poorly instructed or malformed individual. People are not always to blame for their ignorance nor for the prejudices inculcated in them.
Yet apart from this, there are not two gospels: one for the strong and one for the weak, one for the rich and one for the poor, one for the educated and another for the uneducated. There is one Gospel, just as there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (cf. Eph 4:4-6). The Gospel does not cease to be strict because we do not measure up to it, nor does the gate cease to be narrow because we don’t fit into it. Ask the camel striving to get through the needle’s eye how true this is.
St John Henry Newman says that many are scandalized by the strictness of the law of Christ and are always looking to explain it away. The contemporary case of Holy Communion is very relevant here: Some say Jesus would refuse communion to no one, that it is even unchristian to do so—an error at odds with both Scripture and Magisterial teaching. Heaven, God’s law, God’s word, and the Gospel do not change: “We must change,” says Newman.¹ And indeed much of the New Testament is about our change, our regeneration—that beautiful word meaning rebirth and renewal. “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5), begins with us sinners, and to live as though Jesus has not renewed us is to play dumb in the face of gospel revelation.
According to Newman, those who downplay the demands of the Gospel claim
that it is very well for its ministers and teachers to set up a high doctrine, but that men are men, and the world is the world, and that life was not meant to be a burden, and that God sent us here for enjoyment, and that He will never punish us hereafter for following the law of our nature.
True. But only partially true. It is mostly a dodge. Accepting it means believing that Jesus has basically brought nothing new to the fallen world. At the end of the day, that He came and died and rose for us means very little in the here and now. Nothing has changed and nothing need change in light of the Incarnation.
Newman goes on the offensive:
I answer, doubtless this life was meant to be enjoyment; but why not a rejoicing in the Lord? We were meant to follow the law of our nature; but why of our old nature, why not of our new? … Now that God has opened the doors of our prison-house, and brought us into the kingdom of His Son, if men are still carnal men, and the world a sinful world, and the life of Angels a burden, and the law of our nature not the law of God, whose fault is it?
We have to learn to live a new life and not leave it untried because it seems too beyond us. The Spirit will come to our aid—that is His mission in our lives: the grace of the Spirit poured into the new wineskins of our regenerated nature. We are not supermen, but vessels of glory, of glory gifted and borrowed, surely clay vessels all the while, but still filled with “this treasure” (cf. 2 Cor 4:7).
This is why the Lord does not answer the man’s question about the fewness of the saved with a yes or no. He answers not by numbers, but in terms of saving knowledge of Him derived from firsthand experience of Jesus’s strength and our weakness. This is a knowledge gained only by the experience of striving, failing, and learning to lean on the Lord. The man who said “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” first really tried to do things on his own. But he learned the Lord’s power in his weakness, and then became a trumpet for His grace ever after, eventually proclaiming: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
Is salvation hard or easy? Are they few or many who are saved? Yes. The point is union with God that goes beyond external closeness, outward association, and gets deep under our skin. Those who say to the Lord, “‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets,’” are met with the brusque “I do not know where you are from.” It is the mutual abiding with Jesus, this striving together in the new life He has won for us, that brings saving knowledge. “Let us strive, let us strive to know the Lord,” says Hosea (6:3), connecting both the effort and the fruit of our new life in Christ.
Only those who surrender to Christ’s exacting work, who strive to enter the narrow gate, learn what it means to possess the Lord as your second and true self. Simply balking at the high bar of gospel teaching and refusing to try condemns one to the awful loneliness of self-reliance. We sell short the grace of the Holy Spirit and abort own our rebirth. In short, our life is no life at all, or at best a very pale version of the newness of life promised by Jesus.
C.S. Lewis puts these demanding words on the lips of Christ:
“Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself.”²
There you have the knowledge gleaned from striving to enter the narrow way, finding at first nothing but a broken and hapless self, and then coming to realize: Jesus doesn’t want someone who muscles his way in or keeps trying with greater and greater force to plow through the obstacles. He wants a total surrender of that weak and helpless self to His saving work, so that the victory is His, and boasting is out of the question.
Through striving, we come to learn that the narrow gate is only as narrow as the heart of Christ, and the heart of Christ is wider than the universe. Do you know this from experience? Where do you stand, outside banging on the door, or inside knowing the Lord from that place of struggle and renewal? Unpacking our stuff and leaving it outside a gate is challenging but doable, as when people escape a burning building with only the shirt on their back. Life, after all, is more than clothing.
But divesting the heart of its possessions is a very different matter. Does Christ reign in your heart? Ask the things you have stored up there. See what they tell you. Does self-reliance seem like the most reliable way home? Everyone has a list of failures to demolish that claim. Only knowing the Lord as your yokemate and redeemer enables a passage through the strictest crevice. The approach is all different: no longer trying like a fly to buzz through a sunlit window pane, but as one carried not along the way, but by Him who is the Way.
¹ John Henry Newman, “The Strictness of the Law of Christ,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 4, no. 1. All quotes from Newman in this article are taken from this sermon.
² C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book 4, Ch. 8: “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?”
Image Credit: Esther at the Palace Gate (Filippo Lippi), Public Domain