On the Straight and Narrow
Make sure to stay on the “straight and narrow.” That is a popular saying that comes from the Bible, even when the person saying it doesn’t realize it. But what does that even mean? Most often when people talk about staying on the straight and narrow, they mean that a person should be following the rules. They should stick to moderation, avoid excess and be a moral person. She should do their homework, finish their chores and complete all their tasks. Basically, it is about being a good respectable person.
However, when Jesus talks about the narrow way in this passage, he is responding to a specific question: Will only a few be saved? Saved from what? Before looking at Jesus’ answer, we need to understand the question.
Remember that this is all taking place in a Jewish context. God had made a covenant with Israel as his people. But who was Israel? This was a subject of debate. Was Israel everyone who belonged to the nation, people born to Jewish parents or people who converted to Judaism? Or was true Israel, the faithful remnant that were faithful to God’s covenant in contrast to those who claimed to be Israelites but were unfaithful? This was an ongoing discussion.
But we aren’t Jews. Does this mean anything to us? Since Luke, a Gentile and not a Jew, records this for us and for the rest of his Gentile audience, this must be relevant.
So what does it mean for us to be saved? Saved from what? Some would say saved from hell, but I would say that is only part of the answer. A more biblical answer would be that we can be saved from sin, which disrupts relationships with God and people. Hell after all is eternal separation from God and is a continuation of what sin does to us here.
The mainline church I grew up in never talked about being saved. If it came up at all, it was to criticize people who used that vocabulary. In my twenties, I started attending a much more conservative church and I was informed that all of the mainline churches were not saved, no matter what they believed about or did for Jesus.
Sadly, individual traditions have taken pride in the fact that they are the only ones who are saved. There are Catholics who say they are the only ones saved. There are Pentecostals who say they are the only ones saved. And then there are the Baptists who say only their particular flavour of Baptists are saved and not those other Baptists. I actually had another Baptist pastor email me, pretending to be a non-Christian, to test my theology to see if I was really a Christian.
The problem with all of this talk is that it doesn’t reflect what Jesus says about being saved. Whether we like the terminology of being saved or not, the truth is that sin disrupts our lives and we need to be reconciled to God and to other people. Thankfully, Jesus explains how.
Before getting to what Jesus says, how do most people think one is saved? I have been involved in an interesting activity of asking random people on the street what they would answer if God asked them why he should let them into heaven. I would say that the most common answer is that they were good people. They have never killed anyone one spent significant time in jail. They will perhaps talk about how they live a moral life, but without sharing their definition or measure of morality. Another common answer is that they have some church background. That might mean they were baptized as a baby, attended Sunday school as a child or presently their name is on some church membership role.
Many people, including myself, are concerned about the attacks upon religion by diehard atheists. However, there is something more dangerous out there than atheism. It is something called moralistic therapeutic deism. That sounds very technical but I believe that you will recognize it when I explain it.
The percentage of the population who are atheists is very small is not growing very fast. But the other part of the population is not active in church. What is going on?
A common form of spirituality is moralistic therapeutic deism. What is that? By moralistic, we mean that they see spirituality as shaping morals. Belief in God should make us nice to other people, protective of the environment and seeking peace. Therapeutic means that there is some personal benefit to the spirituality. It helps you to stay positive, makes you happy and may even keep you healthy. Deism is how they understand our relationship to God. Deists believe that there is a God, that he created the universe and may even have been responsible for the first life. But that is it. This God is like a child who winds up a toy and then walks away. There is no ongoing interaction.
The reason that I say this is dangerous is that it has enough truth in it to distract people from the God of the Bible. People can become satisfied with this incomplete understanding of God that they miss the real thing.
So how are we saved? We are still looking for the answer. If we switched our survey of random people on the street to those within the church, we might get some different answers. The conversation might revolve around the relationship between faith and works. So some would say that we are saved simply by believing in Jesus. Others would say that we are saved by following Jesus, that is doing the things he commanded us to do. Which is it?
Jesus tells us a parable of a man who has a house and who is welcoming people into his home. Some people come to the house and the owner turns them away. The reason? “I don’t know you.”
How are we saved? We are saved by knowing Jesus and being known by him. Let that sink in. What does it mean to know Jesus? It is more than being acquainted with Jesus. Those who are turned away say that they ate and drank with Jesus and heard him preach in their streets. But Jesus still doesn’t know them. Jesus is not looking for acquaintances.
Let me illustrate this with some examples of social media. I have over 1200 friends on Facebook and over 3300 followers on Twitter. If I was struggling in some way, how many of these do you think I would reach out to? You could count them on one or two hands. Sometimes I have people who know me on social media who come up to me and start talking to me. I don’t know their face and often I don’t even recognize their name. They may be aware of me, but I don’t really know them.
We have answered the question of how to be saved by saying it is about knowing Jesus. But this leaves us with the question of how to know Jesus. Is it just about reading about him in the Bible and other Christian books? Is it about hearing about him in church? Those are good parts of the process but the key is reaching out in faith. How this happens is different from person to person. For some it is praying a specific prayer. For others it is responding to an altar call. For others it is so natural that the faith just appears. What is important is to understand that faith is more than just believing facts about Jesus. It is about consciously wanting to be in a real relationship with him. This will include worship, prayer, Bible reading and so on. But it also includes living a life that pleases him, obeying the things that he has taught us. This is not about earning salvation, it is about deepening a relationship.
People who know me, know that I love puns. So people will come to me in person or contact me on social media and share a pun they heard. They do this because they know me and they are responding to what they know pleases me. What pleases Jesus?
This is what I love about the idea of knowing Jesus. It obliterates the conflict between faith and works. Faith and works are all part of knowing Jesus. This is the narrow way.
One of the places that I would love to visit is Israel. It would be amazing to walk the same ground that Jesus did during his ministry. I would especially like to visit the Church of the Nativity in bethlehem. I have no idea if this really was the place where Jesus was born, but there is something powerful about this church. The doorway to the church is only three feet high. This means that you must bow or kneel to get into the church. This is a beautiful image of the narrow door.
How are we saved? How are we reconciled with God? We come to know Jesus. This might sound easy but it is not. It is described as the narrow door because almost any other attempt at salvation is easier. Having a relationship with a person is hard. There is a price to be paid. It makes us vulnerable. But this relationship with Jesus is worth it. This is not something to be entered in out of fear. Rather it is a response to a Jesus that very much wants to know us.