While some teachings of Jesus are overlooked or obscured, others get used so often out-of-context that they take on a mutated meaning. In Matthew 7 (again), Jesus says:
13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the way is wide and easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
In American Christianity, these verses are too often read through a prism of exclusivity and right belief. Groups obsessed with doctrinal certainty and cultural supremacy find in Jesus’ words an endorsement of their own agenda and a condemnation of all outsiders. I have seen these verses used to shut down young Christians with questions about the narrow beliefs of their particular church tradition. “Jesus told us that the way would be narrow, and that only a few of us would be saved!”
This way of thinking can bolster unhealthy certainty in abstract beliefs and poison the way believers perceive and interact with the world outside their church. It’s us (the redeemed, the faithful remnant) versus them (the unbelieving hordes). And for many American denominations, “them” does not consist merely of non-Christians, but also of the millions of Christians who do not profess the same configuration of belief that we do. Extremely narrow is the way, our way.
In context, however, Jesus’ words are not about religious belief, church, or exclusivity. They come at the end of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” a collection of ethical teachings given by Jesus to his students and a crowd of their Jewish neighbors. Having just described an ethically ideal worldview (and alternate reality) he calls the “kingdom of God,” Jesus issues a challenge and a warning: Not everyone will choose this narrow way of humility, empathy, and peace! In fact, most will hold to their course of violence, greed, and selfish living. One way leads to life, the other to self-destruction. It was a typically didactic (and Jewish) assessment of humanity’s dilemma, not a threat that God would only choose to favor a lucky select few. It aptly described the religious climate Jesus observed in his own moment, and it still hits home today.
The “narrow path” of Jesus doesn’t conform to the boundaries of religion or doctrine, in fact it cuts through all segments of humanity. Consider also Jesus’ parables of judgment (eg. Matthew 25:31-46). In the end, says Jesus, people from all nations and tribes are judged on ethical grounds, not according to how much they believed in correct religious ideas. In reality, we all know remarkable people from diverse traditions and walks of life who have chosen the narrow way, and many from our own tribe who have not.
As Christians, we “believe in Jesus,” but we must decide what this means for us. Does it mean belonging to an exclusive religious club which boasts Jesus as its mascot? Or does it mean trusting that the Way of Jesus truly does lead to life, wherever and by whomever it is embraced? Jesus did not teach and heal and die and rise so that there would be Christians, but so that humanity would be called loudly to the path that leads to life. Those who call ourselves his followers need to hear the call as much as anyone. We cannot imagine that religious affiliation or assent to doctrine places us on the narrow way.