“Broad Road, Narrow Road” on Matthew 7:13-14 by Joe Ellis — April 16, 2023
One road leads to life — it's narrow, not easy, and has few travelers. Another road leads to destruction — that one is broad, easy going and has lots of travelers. Jesus is drawing from an ancient way of describing the choices presented to God’s people. The way of life vs the way of death. After giving the Law and before the Israelites were to enter the Promised Land, in Deuteronomy 30:15, the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Walking in obedience to God’s commands in the Torah would be the Narrow Road leading to life, walking against them would lead to death. For the Israelites, there was an aspect of the Broad Road that would have been especially alluring. Coming from slavery in Egypt, a land of many gods, continuing to worship those gods was a big draw. They might have thought that since different gods had different powers, it was safest to appease them all. Yet the Israelites were called to leave that “Broad Road” and learn to walk the Narrow Road, embracing monotheism (one God). The Broad Road of polytheism (many gods) was a constant pull away from this Narrow Road. Broad Roads tend to kill, and polytheism would eventually lead to Israel’s destruction as a nation — that’s the story that the books of 1 & 2 Kings is trying to tell.
Now, fast forward about 6 centuries and you’ll find that the Broad Road luring the people of God in Jesus’ day didn’t have so much to do with polytheism. Jesus was speaking to a people who believed that they needed to help God’s Kingdom come about by violently overthrowing the pagan nation of Rome. This conviction that they were to hate the Romans and kill their oppressor, was a significant feature of the Broad Road many Israelites felt they were on.
So, in The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summons those people onto a Narrow Road — A road where peacemakers are blessed, a road where people are called to turn the other cheek and pray for their enemy. This Narrow Road led away from violence against Rome. The Sermon on the Mount is a map of the Narrow Road on which Jesus calls his disciples to join him. Jesus says Broad Roads are easy and crowded, and the Narrow Road is difficult and lonely. Traveling with others is part of what makes the Broad Road easy. Traveling alone is part of what makes the Narrow Road so difficult.
What do you think? Is it easier to hate your enemies in the company of your friends because everybody is doing it, or to love your enemy alone? Is it easier to join your family in cursing your neighbour, or to pray for your neighbour and be ostracized from your family? Is it easier to join the army and fight your enemy or to go the extra mile and betray your nation? What’s counted as easy depends on the community you find yourself in.
Broad roads are also dangerous. Just like the Broad Road of polytheism that led to Israel’s destruction as a nation, Jesus also warned that the Broad Road of a violent uprising against Rome would lead to their destruction. This happened in 70 AD when a revolt was mounted against Rome — Jerusalem and the Temple were utterly decimated. Broad Roads tend to kill.
Now, Jesus tells us to avoid traveling the Broad Road. A Broad Road isn’t a Broad Road unless you can feel its pull, its allure, its persistent tug. Today, we don’t care so much about polytheism or overthrowing Rome. Those aren’t our Broad Road. Our Broad Road is different — you can hear about our Broad Road in this piece written by Ann Druyan whom Lex Fridman introduced as “a writer, producer, director, and one of the most important and impactful communicators of science in our time.” She was also the wife of the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Listen to what she said about his death:
“When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me — it still sometimes happens — and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous — not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
A Broad Road isn’t a Broad Road unless you can feel its pull, its allure, its relentless tug. She has named many aspects of the Broad Road that our civilization is on. Did you notice that this Broad Road has no space for God? — As she says, this is not a Road that takes “refuge in illusion.” On this Broad Road, faith is an illusion, perhaps a weakness in character or a deficit of intellect. Certainly, we have all wondered: “Is my faith an illusion? Am I fooling myself? Why do I keep showing up Sunday after Sunday?”
Another feature of our culture’s Broad Road is that it has no space for the miraculous — as Druyan says, “Not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural.” On this Broad Road there is certainly no room for God to act against the laws that govern our universe. As Christians, we feel the pull of this logic — so either we pray for God to work His good within the laws of our universe, or, if we pray outside these laws, we often don’t expect anything to come of those prayers. Sometimes I talk about God breaking into this world, as if when He is present in us, something gets broken. This means that on this Broad Road, it appears that there is no divine hand guiding us — there is no divine Road Maker — as Druyan noted, “It's all chance. Everything that happens along this road, happens by random chance.” Christians can sometimes feel the presence of this randomness even when we receive a direct answer to prayer. Moments after clearly seeing the hand of God at work, we find ourselves wondering: “Was that really God? Or was that simply chance? Perhaps it was a coincidence?”
On this Broad Road, where everything is about probability and chance, the threat of meaninglessness is terrifying. The film that won best picture at the Oscars, “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” (and I don’t recommend it) wrestles with the existential terror of living in such a random world. The idea that nothing we do on this Broad Road really matters. Yet, Druyan courageously points out that relationships are where meaning might be found in a random world. She says, “That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful.....The way (Carl) treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday.” That’s how we find meaning on the Broad Road. Showing kindness and love across human relationships are primary drivers of meaning on this Broad Road. Relationships are what is most important — not doctrine, not ethics, not how this grand story will end. We find meaning in showing kindness to one another and in our relationships.
Again, Jesus says that one other defining feature of a Broad Road is that it leads to destruction. Druyan confidently agrees. She says, “The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl.” As Druyan says, this view requires “unflagging courage.” There seems to be something noble, strong and brave in unflinchingly walking this Broad Road which leads into a terrifyingly unknown.
A Broad Road isn’t a Broad Road unless you can feel its pull, its allure, its pressure, its tug. Sometimes you agree with it, sometimes you wish you didn’t, yet you and I will still feel its influence. None of us live out of reach of the gravitational pull of this worldview. If and when we find ourselves going off this Broad Road, we might feel silly, like we are taking refuge in superstition and illusion. Prayer, partaking in sacraments, worship, hope in life after death, encountering God — all seem like impossibilities on this Broad Road. Sometimes traveling this Broad Road doesn’t feel like a choice. Sometimes the Broad Road feels like being in the middle of a four-lane gridlocked highway, like you have very little choice and you seem boxed in on all sides, so all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride as best you can.
Jesus calls us to veer off the Broad Road. He calls us onto a less well traveled Road, one that does not lead to destruction, but leads to life. A road that leads into life in His Kingdom. This is what the Sermon on the Mount is intended to be — the Sermon on the Mount is a road map for the Narrow Way into His Kingdom. Yet Jesus says that few find this road. Think of the amount of times you’ve been driving on a major highway and you see some narrow vehicle tracks going off to the side — you might’ve thought, “I wonder what happened there? Hope they don’t need help.” Not many of us would wonder if maybe that was the way we were supposed to go and we missed the turn.
Getting off the Broad Road can be quite tricky. Consider that we can even live out aspects of the Sermon on the Mount while remaining comfortably on our culture’s Broad Road. I’ll give you one example. In Matthew 5:42, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” This passage can be lived firmly within the guardrails of the Broad Road. Remember that our culture finds meaning through showing each other kindness and love — perhaps we might do this by “giving to those who beg, and not refusing anyone who wants to borrow from you.” We can breathe a sigh of relief as we live into this aspect of Jesus’ teaching while very easily continuing on the Broad Road. There is no tension with the Broad Road in this passage. As Christians, we can often manipulate our faith to fit the logic of the Broad Road. That is, we can really lean into the teachings of Jesus that don’t involve any expectation that we will encounter God or expect Him to do something directly. We can learn to practice our faith in such a way that faith itself becomes unnecessary, until eventually, it's abandoned. That is unsettling.
So, let’s go back to the Matthew 5:42. Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” How might we practice this in a way that corresponds not with the Broad Road, but rather to the Narrow Road that winds its way towards life in God’s Kingdom where God is present and active? What if we pair this with when Jesus later said that when we give clothing or food or hospitality, we do so unto Christ himself. Jesus did say in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The Broad Road would have us take this as a simple metaphor or an inspirational thought — no further. This is not the Narrow way of interpreting this passage. Look at This 15th Century painting of Catherine of Siena giving a cloak to a beggar on the right. In doing so she is encountering Christ Himself on the left side of the painting. The Narrow Road invites us into a deep mystery: that when we give to those in need, we are encountering Christ Himself, immediately and directly.
Last Thursday I was walking into BV Printers to pick up our Good Friday pictures of Jesus carrying His cross. The owner of BV Printers was standing at the door, keeping an eye on a man rummaging through the dumpster. As I drove off, I had a nagging feeling that I should have done something. I’ve been haunted by the thought ever since. Did I miss an opportunity to encounter Jesus in that dumpster? Was I too wrapped up in Broad Road logic by thinking “My kindness won’t meet the needs of this person, I don’t have time, whatever I do won’t really help.” The Narrow Road invites me to consider that perhaps it might have been Jesus in that dumpster, and he wanted a sandwich.
So, one way to find our way onto the Narrow Road is to do practices that simply don’t compute on the Broad Road — Showing kindness to hurting strangers — not only because we find it meaningful in doing so, but because we believe we are mysteriously encountering Jesus Christ Himself, who identifies Himself with the least of these – that Jesus receives what ever we are giving to another person.
Another way onto the Narrow Road is through developing a regular practice of prayer for the sole reason that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that the Father Himself will be there in the room or outside with us. Or through partaking in the Lord’s Supper, with faith that we are not only remembering Christ’s death (that logic of remembering is very comfortable on the Broad Road). In addition, we embrace the mystery that we are somehow consuming His body and blood as we eat the bread and drink the cup — and in this we become unified with our Lord.
To help us get off the Broad Road of our culture, we can frame our practices around encounters with Jesus. We learn to expect encounters. We learn to trust that we are encountering Christ, even when we don’t feel it or see it. And when we do experience an encounter, we hold fast to that experience, refusing to let the Broad Road take it away.
Let me close with a word about Ann Druyan, and all of us who find ourselves walking with her on the Broad Road. We don’t leave each other behind on the Broad Road. Somehow, the Broad and Narrow Road intertwine and overlap. As we move along the Narrow Road, we remind each other of Whose we are, even as we are wondering if it's all random chance. We walk with each other in faith, even as we wonder if we are just sentient matter marching closer to death. We walk with one another despite feeling the stifling pressures of the Broad Road, because we know that it is in those dark places that we will encounter the God of the Resurrection. The Broad Road is a place of death, but where there is death there can be resurrection. After all, for Christ to be raised from the dead, he first had to die. Resurrection happens only where there is death. The Broad Road becomes Narrow when we face with each other the terrors of the Broad Road — and expect Resurrection. Then, when we encounter resurrection, we get to tell each other of the wonders of Who we have encountered on this Narrow Road.