14 April 2019

The Narrow Gate

Matthew 7:13-14 & Matthew 21:1-17

Palm Sunday

We don’t usually hear these two texts together, side by side: Jesus’ teaching about the wide and narrow gates and his entry into Jerusalem through a gate, probably the Eastern or Golden Gate, the one nearest the Mount of Olives.  But there is a connection between the text. In fact, I would suggest, one edifies and illuminates the other.  To see this, we need fresh eyes.

As we’ve seen in this Lenten sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount, there are many verses in the Sermon that are taken out of context, and therefore carry distorted meanings. We like to lift out and isolate texts—such as “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:4)—and then develop warped understandings of what we think God expects from us (as we explored several weeks ago). The same is true for: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt. 7:13-14).  These verses have suffered from centuries of abuse, especially from preachers warning about dissolute, depraved, and degenerate living. “Wide,” “easy,” “broad,” have become Christian-code for loose morals. The “narrow” and “difficult” way is the way of moral perfection, piety, and purity. Because we’re prone to reduce the Christian gospel into a moralistic code of behavior, we assume that Jesus is warning against bad behavior.  Or we assume that only those who are good make it through the narrow gate, that they’re the ones that get to heaven, which means that because the road to destruction is wide, most of humanity is destined for hell.  This, too, is another way the text has been read.

Every text of scripture has a context. So if we put this text back into the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the foundational text of Jesus’ preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God, then everything changes.  And what does Jesus say earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, which we explored last week? “Strive first, therefore, for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” (Mt. 6:33).

Now what I’m going to say might sound extreme, but I stand by it. It’s impossible to make any sense of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, impossible to make sense of his life, impossible to make any sense of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter, without seeing that the kingdom of God was at the very heart of Jesus’ mission and life. The basileia tou theou, in Greek. Basileia is difficult to translate.

Kingdom is correct, but because we have no understanding what it’s like having a king or living in a kingdom, and as Americans we have desire to have a king or live in a kingdom, the word doesn’t mean much to us.  It sounds exotic, romantic, like something out of a fairytale.

Because of its masculine associations, some like to drop the “g” out of “king” and refer to it as the kindom of God.  That helps some, but I think it domesticates the real power of this word; I understand its use and use it now and again, but kindom sounds a little too folksy. 

A better word might be realm. This picks up the spatial element of the Greek; the root of the English word “basilica,” a building that has an apse.

However, an even better translation, probably the best translation is the word empire. Now, I can’t imagine the Church ever using this word, but it’s crucial for us to think of the kingdom in this way—especially when we’re praying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Mt. 6:10), for we are essentially praying for God’s empire to come. That’s what Jesus wanted for us.

Jesus came proclaiming the empire of God, he invited his disciples to flourish in God’s empire, he invites us to live in God’s empire, and the Church itself was created to serve this empire.  God’s empire is a power at work in the world, an alien power that is always at odds with and stands against the powers that be. Life in God’s empire is about justice and wholeness and healing, it’s the way of love and redemption and human flourishing and welfare. God’s empire is about life—all that makes for life and gives life, true life, calling people to life, saving people from everything that hinders us from coming alive, or threatens our lives or tries to destroy us. It’s a life of service, a life of suffering love, a life of compassion, and kindness, and joy.  And it’s this life, the life of the kingdom, the life of God’s empire, which is the narrow way, the narrow gate!

The Greek word “narrow,” stenos, can have a spatial dimension, but it also has other association, such as cramped, confined, distressed, troubled, even groaning.  “Narrow” is also linked in the Greek to the word “difficult,” which has associations of oppression, affliction, and persecution.[1] If this is what “narrow” and “difficult” mean, then it suggests that striving after and entering the kingdom of God will entail affliction and struggle, and even persecution from the powers that be who are always threatened by the power of God. Didn’t Jesus say in the Beatitudes, “Blessed [or flourishing] are those who are persecuted for righteousness, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed [or flourishing] are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt. 5: 10-11)?  And we need to remember that in these blessing statements, as well as everything in Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about himself.  We learn who Jesus is through his teaching; and he is what he teaches.  So that when Jesus talks about the narrow gate, he’s really talking about himself. Jesus is the narrow gate. His life is the kingdom way, the empire way, the difficult way, and we are summoned to enter it!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945) took this summons seriously. In his classic book The Cost of Discipleship, a kind of training manual for seminarians in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Third Reich (and note that “Reich” is German for empire or kingdom.), we see that Bonhoeffer also understood the entrance to life equated with Jesus and the demands he makes on us. “To confess,” said Bonhoeffer, “and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way.  To believe,” said Bonhoeffer, “the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them…. [This is a narrow way.] The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it.”[2]

Jesus said, “The road is difficult that leads to life.” And this in this week that we call Holy, we see the cost of Jesus’ own discipleship to the kingdom. His journey toward life begins on the other side of that gate. If we were traveling by foot during Jesus’ time, imagine approaching a city far off in the distance, and that city was your destination. To reach the gates of the city would mean in some sense that you had arrived.  Jesus tells us, however, that when we approach the city that there’s a new destination on the other side of the gate, something called “life.”  We see this notion brilliantly illustrated in John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress (1678, 1684).  Bunyan turns things inside out. Pilgrim, the main character, approaches a gate, and with allusions to Mathew 7, where Jesus says, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Mt. 7:7), Pilgrim knocks at the gate and enters.  The gate marks not the end, but the beginning of a road, the beginning of the journey.

Jesus is the narrow gate; he walks the narrow way. Because his way is at odds with the powers of this world, his way is the difficult and demanding way, the way of persecution, struggle, resistance, and suffering.  And during Holy Week it all comes to a head, as we witness the clash of empires. And it’s Jesus’ heart—all that he is, body and soul, thought and will and feeling and desire—his passion for God’s empire that compels him “to set his face toward Jerusalem,” (Lk. 9:1) to walk through its city gates, to take on the powers that be, to go straight to the temple, to take on the religious leaders who were making a mockery of God’s demand for worship and justice, to take on the hollow righteousness and false piety of the Pharisees, to take on the leaders of the temple who were quick to placate the Romans, and who were, thus, collaborating with empire, the empire of Rome.

And so, the political dimension is everywhere in this text, but it’s not evident to us because we don’t expect to see it, maybe don’t want to see it.  For many years I didn’t see it, but it’s there.  We’ve been taught that this week is about spiritual things, such as sin, and taking away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29). But we’ve forgotten that sin always has a public, social, political dimension, as well as being personal or individual. The Church has a bad habit of spiritualizing and sanitizing things, especially on Palm Sunday. It’s easy to forget that, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” has enormous political overtones.  “Look, your king is coming to you…” (Mt. 21:5)!  This is an explosive statement to make in a city that was already tinderbox.  We think of “hosanna” as “praise,” but it’s a Hebrew word that means “save” or “rescue.”  So the crowds are shouting in the streets, like at a demonstration:
Save us! Save us! Rescue us! Son of David. 
Save us! Save us! Rescue us! Son of David.
Save us! Save us! Rescue us! Son of David! 

And who was David? The shepherd-king. And who are they asking to be saved or rescued from?  The oppression of the Roman Empire. [3]

And, remember: crucifixion was reserved for those who posed a threat to the empire. Full stop.

So, sure there’s a spiritual dimension to this week. Yes, the Spirit is at work—the Spirit is at work in and through Jesus who suffers as king on behalf of this kingdom, to show us the way of God’s kingdom, God’s empire, whose power the Caesars of the world, both then and now, cannot see and will never understand, even though they give lip service to God and sound religious and pious, surround themselves with people claiming to be religious—they are not serving the kingdom. The Caesars cannot see and cannot understand because the throne of King Jesus is not made of iron.  It’s not an iron throne—and he’s not playing games.[4]  His throne is a cross, and he wields his power where Caesar least expects it: in weakness, in human brokenness, in cries of dereliction and abandonment, in love that suffers, even in death—there, too, he reigns and death has no hold over him. 

Scripture tells us, “For the sake of the joy that was set before him he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2), high and lifted up (Jn. 3:14-16), he took on the power of death and the grave (1 Cor. 15:54-55), as Paul tells us. On the cross, Christ was fighting against the “principalities and powers,” as Paul said, fighting against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Philippians 6:12), against the dark demonic forces that are always hell-bent on destroying and enslaving and dehumanizing and even caging God’s people.

That’s what this week will bring. 

It’s an enormous struggle of cosmic proportions that continues to play itself out, even today. And resurrection or Easter will mean little or nothing for us without knowing again (or perhaps the first time), the cost—all that was required for life, the demanding, difficult way of Christ: the narrow gate who continues to lead us into life.

Marc Chagal (1887-1985), Le Christ et le peintre (Christ and the painter), 1951 (Vatican Museum)

Following Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount
March 10: Are You Flourishing?
March 17: Becoming Salt & Light
March 24: Wholeness, Not Perfection
March 31: Matters of the Heart

April 7: Setting Priorities
April 14: The Narrow Gate

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 273-274.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1961).

[3] John Dominic Cross, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

[4] Yes, this is an allusion to George R. R. Martin’s The Game of Thrones. The eighth and final season of the HBO production begins on Palm Sunday evening, 14th April 2019.

10 April 2019

Setting Priorities

Matthew 6:25-34

Fifth Sunday in Lent

It's so easy for us to be pulled in ten thousand directions. There's much that distracts and diverts us from the things that matter most. And we worry. About the present and the future. About paying the mortgage, making car payments, buying groceries, and saving enough for college tuition. About having enough for retirement. About our health. We worry for our loved ones, our children, grandchildren, our parents. We worry about our nation, and the state of the world. Along with countless other things that make us restless, and anxious, and keep us awake at night. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to put things into perspective. He calls us to set priorities. There's only one thing to strive after, first, then everything else finds its place. 

But we don’t stop worrying simply by being told, “Don’t worry.” We can’t talk ourselves into stopping. And when we hear someone say to us, “Don’t worry about it” or “Stop your worrying,” well, that just raises our hackles and increases our level of frustration. So, how do you feel when you hear Jesus saying to you, saying to us, “Do not worry about your life”? On the one hand, we might think or feel: Jesus as Lord of life knows more than I do, so I should probably do what he says.  On the other way, it’s easy to fall into guilt and self-judgment because, depending upon one’s temperament, we do worry—and maybe worry a lot—and might feel, therefore, that we’re poor Jesus-followers.

It doesn’t help that Jesus starts talking about birds and wildflowers. Sure, look at the birds, look at the lilies; yes, but look at the bills! 

Jesus isn’t suggesting that human beings are like birds or lilies. Jesus is using a common rhetorical device used by rabbis called “light and heavy.”[1]  If the lesser is true, then the greater must be even more true, more important, more significant. “Compared with human beings, birds are insignificant creatures and lilies are trifling weeds (“the grass of the field”). If God cares so lavishly for inconsequential creatures, how much more will God provide for human beings.”[2]

And so Jesus calls us to look—really look at the birds.  And consider—really ponder the lilies of the field. These are very strong verbs in Greek. Look. Consider. Enter into it. Bring yourself into the world of nature. Become fascinated by it, learn from it, and then consider how much more God loves and cares and provides for you—for what you are called to do in the world, for the work that is placed before you.  You’re not called to be a bird—although some days you might really wish you were a bird.  And you’re not a wildflower—although you might want to be, without a care in the world, just basking in the sun.  You have a different calling.  You have a different task. We need to put our focus elsewhere.

As we have seen in this series on Matthew 5-7, one of the major themes running through the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ concern for the integrity of the human heart; it’s a steady current that runs through the entire sermon. We saw this two weeks ago in our exploration of Jesus’ call to wholeness, not perfection.  Jesus summons us to be whole, even as God is whole.  We also saw that Jesus, as a teacher of wisdom and physician of the soul, is a kind of cardiologist: he wants healthy hearts for us.  More than an organ that pumps blood or the seat of emotions, the heart was understood as the totality of one’s self, the source of thought, emotion, and will or action. Jesus understood the pain and destruction caused when hearts are divided, when we are at war with ourselves, or when our outer life is not aligned with our interior life.  Jesus came to heal divided, broken hearts, to lead us toward wholeness, toward a life that flourishes in the Kingdom.  “Flourishing are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “because they will see God” (Mt. 5:8).

Our text this morning is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching, everything that comes prior in chapter 6: teaching on how to pray (Mt. 6:7), praying for the God’s kingdom to come here in us, among us (Mt.6:9-13), his teaching on fasting (Mt. 6:16-18), the treasures of the heart (Mt. 6:19-21), having a good eye or a bad eye (Mt. 6:22-23), and warning against the dangers of serving two masters, God and wealth (Mt. 6:24). Then comes, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (Mt. 6:25).

So, first, Jesus tells us not to worry. In Greek, merimnate, from the merimnao, meaning “concern” or “anxiety.” We find the same Greek word elsewhere in scripture. Peter says, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6) or Paul writes to the Philippian church, “Do not worry about anything…” (Phil. 4:6). This word is also related to another Geek word, merizo, meaning “to divide,” or “to draw in different directions,” or “to distract,” or “to have anxious care.”  It’s the word Jesus uses when he says to Martha that she is “distracted about many things” (Lk. 10:41), or, in Matthew, in the parable of the sower and the seed, the “distractions” or “cares of the world”—the things we worry about—prevent the seed from taking root and growing (Mt. 13:22).

Jesus isn’t just saying “stop worrying,” as if we can turn it off by an act of will. Worry and anxiety have their origins, in part, in the many things that divide our hearts and distract our attentions. Anxiety can be a symptom of double-mindedness, a divided soul, a divided heart. However, Jesus summons us to wholeness, to singularity of purpose. And in love, Jesus commands us to turn our focus away from the things that worry us and redirect our focus, our vision, our attention toward what the heart desires. He commands us to reorient our hearts and strive first for the kingdom of God. Or, because we’re talking about the life of the heart here, Jesus wants us to desire the kingdom of God. He invites us to long after the kingdom and God’s righteousness, first.  In a Communion Discourse, Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) once prayed, “Father in heaven, longing is your gift.”[3] We need to pay attention to what our hearts desire, what we long for.

“First” here doesn’t refer to chronology, but in terms of emphasis, priority, aim, goal, dedication.[4] This—kingdom and righteousness—is our vision for being in the world as Jesus’ followers.

This is what we were created to crave for, this is what the human heart truly desires, it’s what we hunger for: God’s kingdom, God’s realm, God’s way of life and love and redemption and justice and wholeness and healing. 

This is God’s righteousness—one of the major themes running through the Sermon on the Mount—which refers to the quality of life found in covenantal relationship with God, when our lives (all that we are, heart, soul, mind, strength) are aligned with God’s desire for us and all God’s people, within us and within the world, and what God desires is justice, wholeness, human flourishing. That’s righteousness. Did not Jesus say in the Beatitudes, “Flourishing are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6)?

And so, Jesus gives us this table of bread and wine to remind us, but not merely to remind us, he invites us to enter in and experience our hunger and our thirst for righteousness, for God’s realm, a hunger for the kingdom, a thirst for wholeness and justice, for the things that make for life, to hunger and thirst after, desire for, strive after God’s presence.

Casting care and worry and anxiety aside, with singular devotion, we turn our hearts toward God and lift our hearts to the Source of everything we need for life. “Flourishing are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled.” Filled, indeed.

This sermon is part of a six-week Lenten series:

Following Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount

March 10: Are You Flourishing?
March 17: Becoming Salt & Light
March 24: Wholeness, Not Perfection
March 31: Matters of the Heart

April 7: Setting Priorities

[1] In Roman rhetoric, it is called a minori ad maius, from the lesser to the greater.
[2] Tom Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 75.
[3] Cf. the title of Kierkegaard’s devotional classic, The Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing.
[4] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 249.