The Choice Is Yours
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)
. . . the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Imagine that hillside in Galilee. Jesus is seated, surrounded by his disciples, a huge crowd circled around them. Perhaps it’s the rhythm and tone of his voice. Maybe it’s the pace of his words. Somehow they know he is building towards a climax, a moment of decision. He presents a series of vivid images, all in pairs.
First, there are two gates, opening to two roads. We can’t travel both. One, he says, is broad and smooth like a Roman highway. It leads to destruction. One is narrow and rocky like a mountain path. It leads to life. ‘Go along with the crowd,’ Jesus implies, ‘and you’ll end up in disaster. But dare to be different, dare to follow a new and different path, and you’ll learn what it means to be alive.’
Next, there are two vines or two trees producing two different kinds of fruit, each representing aliveness. One approach to life produces thorns, briars and thistles; another approach produces luscious fruits. Get your inner identity straight, he tells them, and your life will be fruitful.
Next there are two groups of people, one entering Jesus’ presence, the other going away. One group may boast of all its religious credentials, but Jesus isn’t impressed by talk. He’s looking for people he knows, people he recognises – people, we might say, who ‘get’ him and understand what he’s about. We can identify them because they translate their understanding into action.
Finally there are two builders building two houses, one on sand, one on rock. They both represent people who hear Jesus’ message. They both experience falling rain, rising floodwaters and buffeting winds. The big difference? The person who builds on the solid foundation, whose structure withstands the storm, doesn’t just hear Jesus’ message; he translates it into action.
Each pair of images challenges us to move beyond mere interest and agreement to commitment and action. And what is the desired action? To take everything Jesus has taught us – all we have considered as we have listened to him here on this hillside – and translate it into our way of living, our way of being alive.
It makes sense, then, to go back and review the substance of Jesus’ teaching:
Be among the lowly in spirit, remain sensitive to pain and loss, live in the power of gentleness, hunger and thirst for true righteousness, show mercy to everyone rather than harshness, don’t hide hypocrisy or duplicity in your heart, work for peace, be willing to joyfully suffer persecution and insult for doing what is right.
Dare to be a non-conformist by being boldly different, like salt and light in the world. Demonstrate your differentness through works of generosity and beauty.
Reject both mindless conformity to tradition and rebellious rejection of it. Instead, discern the true intent of tradition and pursue that intent into new territory.
Never hate, hold grudges or indulge in anger, but instead, aim to be the first to reach out a hand in reconciliation.
Do not nurture secret fantasies to be sexually unfaithful to your spouse. Ensure fidelity by monitoring your desires – the way you see (symbolised by the eye) and grasp (symbolised by the hand) for pleasure. And do not settle for maintaining the appearance of legality and propriety; aspire to true fidelity in your heart.
Avoid ‘word inflation’ when making vows. Instead, practise clear, straight speech, so simple words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ retain their full value.
Reject revenge. Instead, pursue creative and non-violent ways to overcome wrongs done to you.
Love your enemies as well as your friends, and so imitate God’s big, generous heart for all creatures.
Cultivate a hidden life of goodness by giving, praying and fasting secretly.
Pray in secret through four movements of your heart. First, orient yourself towards a caring yet mysterious God. Second, align your desires with God’s great desire for a just and compassionate world. Third, bring to God your needs and concerns – both physical and spiritual. Finally, prepare to re-enter the public world of temptation and oppression, trusting God to guide you and strengthen you.
Remember that God isn’t setting up a forgiveness market but is building a whole forgiveness economy.
Don’t let greed cloud your outlook on life, but store up true wealth by investing in a growing portfolio of generosity and kindness.
Be especially vigilant about money becoming your slave-master.
Don’t let anxiety run and ruin your life, but instead trust yourself to God’s gracious and parental care, and seek first and foremost to build the just and generous society that would fulfil God’s best dreams for humanity.
Don’t develop a sharp eye for the faults and failures of others, but instead first work on your own blindness to your own faults and failures.
Don’t push on people treasures they are not yet ready for or can’t yet appreciate the value of.
Go to God with all your needs, and don’t be discouraged if you face long delays. Remember that God loves you as a faithful, caring parent and will come through in due time.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Realise that aliveness includes tough choices, and that thriving includes suffering.
Don’t be misled by religious talk; what counts is actually living by Jesus’ teaching.
Some may claim that God is angry and needs to be appeased through sacrifice. Some may claim that God is harsh and demanding, requiring humans to earn God’s favour through scrupulous religious rule keeping. Some may claim that God scrutinises our brains and speech for perfect doctrinal correctness. But Jesus, like the prophets before him, proclaims a different vision of God. Based on what Jesus has told us today, God is gracious and compassionate and does not need to be appeased through sacrifice. God’s love is freely given and does not have to be earned. What God desires most is that we seek God’s commonwealth of justice, live with generosity and kindness, and walk humbly – and secretly – with God.
If you were there that day on the Galilean hillside, what would your decision have been? No doubt you would have been impressed, but would you have said ‘yes’?
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a fork in the road that you faced, where you made a life-changing choice.
3. How do you respond to the summary of Jesus’ sermon?
4. For children: What do you think of this as a basic rule for life: ‘Treat other people the way you wish they would treat you’?
5. Activate: Choose one of the summary statements of Jesus’ teaching that you think you most need to focus on. Write it down, or e-mail it to yourself, or put it on your calendar, or in some other way make sure you will be reminded of it several times each day this week.
6. Meditate: After a few moments of holding the image of a house standing strong in a storm, ask God to help you develop this kind of strength as a disciple of Jesus.