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The way of life and the way of death

13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is 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.

Jesus tells the disciples to choose a difficult road leading to life rather than an easy road leading to destruction. The basic question to be addressed here is this: Is this a choice exclusively for the community of his followers in the context of first century Judaism, or does Jesus have in mind a universal dilemma? We should also consider the possibility, of course, that Jesus intended both the historical and the universal frame of relevance.

The argument for the historical reading arises from a number of considerations.

1. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Israel. It is a response to the initial preaching of good news (euangelion) about the imminence of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17, 23), behind which is Isaiah’s proclamation (euangelizomenos) of salvation for Israel - that YHWH is returning to Zion and will reign over his people (Is. 52:7-8 LXX). The beatitudes similarly draw on a narrative about the judgment and restoration of Israel. Jesus is quite explicit about the fact that he has come to fulfil the prophets (Matt. 5:17), but what the prophets consistently speak about is the transformation that will take place in Israel when YHWH comes to punish unrighteousness, restore a remnant, and reign over his people in place of their enemies. The judgment of gehenna (eg. Matt. 5:22, 29, 30) is closely associated with judgment on Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). In other words, in the Sermon on Mount Jesus defines a community that will survive the imminent eschatological crisis.

2. The image of the two paths is used by Jeremiah to express the choice with which Israel was confronted when faced with the judgment of the Babylonian invasion:

And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the LORD: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire’ (Jer. 21:8-10).

If Jesus was understood by his audience to be speaking as a prophet in the language of the prophets, we can suppose that they would readily have drawn the conclusion that he made use of the image for much the same purpose as Jeremiah: he confronted Israel with a choice between the ‘destruction’ of military invasion and the ‘life’ of community survival. This is not a ‘fulfilment’ of Jeremiah: he simply re-uses the argument for his own purposes.

3. There may also be recollection of Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live….’ As a conclusion to the covenantal blessings and curses this choice must be taken quite realistically. Jesus invokes a motif that has to do fundamentally with the survival of the community.

4. In Luke an abbreviated version of the saying occurs in a passage that clearly has in view the historical fate of Israel and Jerusalem (Lk. 13:24). Jesus warns that if the people do not repent, they will perish like the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate or the inhabitants of Jerusalem who were crushed when the tower of Siloam collapsed (13:1-5). He tells a parable about a fig tree that would be cut down if it failed to bear fruit (13:6-9). Those who are excluded from the kingdom of God will protest, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets’ (13:26), which, even if it is not quite to be taken literally, gives a strong sense of historical immediacy to the coming judgment. The passage concludes with Jesus’ powerful lament over a city facing desolation and destruction:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Lk. 13:34-35)

If in this context Jesus warns, in response to a question about how many will be saved, that only a few will succeed in entering by the narrow gate, we are bound to assume that he means that few will survive the judgment on Israel and Jerusalem.

4. The saying about the two ways in Matthew 7:13-14 is followed by a warning about ‘false prophets’ who will be known by their fruits. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (15-20). This inevitably recalls John’s fierce rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were fleeing from the ‘wrath to come’. They must bear fruit in keeping with repentance, for the axe is already ‘laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matt. 3:7-10). The phrase ‘wrath to come’ in this context must have been understood as a reference to God’s judgment on Israel (cf. Zeph. 1:15; 2:1-3; Mal. 4:1; Rom. 9:22).

5. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with another image of eschatological destruction (Matt. 7:24-27), reminiscent of Ezekiel 13:8-16 (cf. Dan. 9:26).

It seems to me, therefore, that the eschatological-historical context of the saying has to be taken very seriously: Jesus presents first century Israel with a choice between destruction and life. Given both the consistent force of the Old Testament background and the historical threat that Rome posed to Israel’s political and religious integrity, there are good reasons to think that the prospect of ‘destruction’ was concretely realized in the events of AD 70. If that is the case, then ‘life’ must be interpreted in the first place as the life of the community following judgment on Israel - that is, the life of the age to come.

This is not to say that the motif of the two ways cannot be used to speak of judgment and salvation outside the immediate eschatological-historical framework of Jesus’ teaching. But I think we have to recognize that this would be a secondary, analogical and in certain respects divergent application. Clearly, however, this reflects a significant hermeneutical commitment - namely, to Scripture as ‘historical narrative’ rather than as ‘universal spiritual manual’. The big question is whether the ‘historical narrative’ approach can safeguard the fulness of biblical truth for the people of God. I am increasingly convinced that it can and that we would greatly benefit from reading the New Testament in this way, but I recognize that it would entail a major paradigm shift.