Monday, February 21, 2011

A Difficult Path and an Easy Yoke

Jesus is often found saying things that challenge us, perplex us and confuse us. For example, he tells us that we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood if we ever hope to enter the Kingdom. He also expects us to love people who want to kill us and in the Gospel of Matthew he appears to contradict himself. But does he really?

First, Jesus says, "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)

Then later on in Matthew he says something that sounds contradictory like, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

So, which is it? Is following Jesus easy, or is it difficult? Let's see if we can make sense of what Jesus is teaching us here.

Starting in Matthew 7:13-14 we see that Jesus tells us that following him will not be an easy thing to do. This by itself can be confusing to a lot church-goers since pastors and evangelists have been teaching for years that all we have to do to escape judgment is to believe in Jesus and we’ll be saved. What could be easier than that?

Yet, Jesus is adamant here that it is certainly not an easy thing to find the narrow gate and to enter it and to walk in that path. What is easy? The wide gate. This is wide and easy to see and – look – so many other people are walking in that direction already! How can it be the wrong way to go?

Jesus affirms that the way that leads to life is hard to find. Not only that, once we find it we will soon discover that the way is difficult and not many people will come with us.

What is he talking about?

I think there are a few different things going on here. First, I believe that Jesus is warning us that "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Proverbs 14:12 ; Proverbs 16:25).

Basically, if we ask most people if they believe in God they will say "Yes". Every national poll for the last 50 years has confirmed this truth. Most people, in general, believe that God exists. Most people also believe that if they live a good life and don’t kill anyone that they will go heaven when they die.

Of course, all of this simply human wisdom. It does not take into account that none of us is "good enough" to earn heaven. If we were, then Jesus was the dumbest messiah ever because he came and suffered in our place for no reason whatsoever. This human wisdom also doesn't take into account that going to heaven when we die isn’t really the issue. It's who we will put our trust in now – today – while we are still living.

Jesus never invited anyone to believe in him so they could go to heaven. He always asked people to follow him, and he always talked about one thing: The Kingdom of God.

The most famous passage that people gravitate towards is, of course, John 3:16. But if you read the entire chapter you'll see that the conversation was all about the Kingdom and who could enter the Kingdom of God (v.3). Those who are able to become like little children and who are willing to start over again with God as their Father (i.e. – “Born Again”) are capable of entering the Kingdom. They must receive a spiritual birth (v.6) in order to receive the new life of the Kingdom.

This is why the "gate...that leads to life" is narrow and "few (people) find it"; because without Jesus we cannot see it or understand it. In fact, you cannot live in a Kingdom unless you submit to the King. That is why many miss the narrow path; because they are unwilling to submit their lives to the King and live under His rule and reign. They want life on their own terms.

This is what the "wide gate" is all about. It's about the American Dream. It's having your plans succeed and your dreams come true – usually at the expense of others – and certainly without compromise. The shocking thing is that Jesus says that this way "leads to destruction" and that "many go this way". Why? Are they stupid? Of course not. No one would continue driving down a road marked "certain death" no matter how well-paved it might be. People gladly travel down the wide path because it promises the happiness that everyone craves.

The wide path is the one you see advertised on Television. It's what the Paparazzi chase with their cameras. It's what drives big business, and fashion, and celebrity, and the Lottery. It's a willful submission to the promise of a Me-centered reality. It's about a Kingdom of comfort where the only King is you.

Now, how do we reconcile this teaching with the passage where Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)?

Which is it? Is following Jesus difficult, or is it easy and light? This is confusing stuff.

In this passage, Jesus contrasts his "yoke" with the one that the world gives us. The yoke of the world isn't gentle. It is not rooted in humility but in pride. The yoke of the world isn't about rest. It’s not "easy" or "light". The world's yoke uses us up, exploits us, and spits us out. In fact, the world leverages the empty promise of the Wide Gate and puts us on the treadmill where we can chase the carrot dangling just out of reach. If we ever actually succeed, we'll find out that it was all a lie. But most of us never realize our dream for fame or riches, and so we continue to run the race that leads to nowhere.

Elsewhere, Jesus also tells us that "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

So, we know that while we are in the World we will have trouble. The yoke of the World is burdensome and does not lead us to peace. The Narrow Path (following Jesus) is difficult (because it requires us to leave our comfort zones), but Jesus has already overcome the World and has shown us that it is possible to walk the Narrow Path successfully if we trust in (believe in) Him to show us how – day by day.

When Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14 that the way is difficult he doesn’t mean that it takes work to be saved. So, what does he mean? He means that the way is difficult because it challenges our sinful nature. As we read in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks us to do some pretty difficult things: Loving our enemies, forgiving people, not worrying, going the extra mile, not lusting, not being angry, etc. All of these are difficult things for us to do because they are not our natural tendencies. However, if we can let go of everything we think we know and submit ourselves fully to the King, then He will empower us to walk in the narrow path and to enjoy the peace of a light and easy yoke. In fact, he will walk beside us along the path and show us how it’s done because He’s already walked down this way many times before.


Three things Jesus tells us about the Narrow Gate:
1. It’s the path of life. (Jesus is the gate and His teachings show us how to live an abundant life which eventually leads us to eternal life with Him)

2. It is difficult. (It involves a willingness to do things that are not easy for us to do but that are good for us in the long run)

3. Not many people chose this path. (But those who do will discover the real life that the other path can only promise)

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