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The Road is Hard

 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:13-14

This teaching calls to mind the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. One or more of these cardinal “sins” come easily to most of us. Jesus says, “…the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction.” Many agree that these sins lead to destruction, at least in the sense of bringing negative consequences. The unfortunate results impact both the person committing them and those with connected lives.

As if succumbing to one or more of the deadly sins is not easy enough, our society encourages and rewards many of these behaviors. We are told to take pride in our accomplishments; yet, there is a fine line between feeling proud of something we participated in and displaying an arrogant superiority over others. We are forever tempted to consume beyond our needs or means, leading to the sin of greed. “Sex sells” in advertising, but it is not the sort of sex that occurs as a healthy expression of a long-term, loving relationship. Lust is what sells products. Envy, gluttony, and wrath are center stage in movies and television. Sloth, or laziness, is a constant temptation for me on weekends when I often prefer stretching out for a nap to doing whatever else may need to be done. Jesus tells us that, easy as these behavioral choices may be, they lead to “destruction.” In the current context, this means they do not put us on “the road that leads to life.”

Most of us who have lived beyond middle age can attest that few thing in life worth having come easily, quickly, or without disciplined effort. Often, we must sacrifice a short-term reward in order to receive a greater reward over the longer term. This may be what Jesus refers to when he says, “…the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.” He adds, “…and there are few who find it.” This means, in my paraphrase, that many people do not apply the contemplative intentionality required to build a life worth living throughout its course. The alternative way is simply too easy and enticing. As we grow older, there is often an element of regret for the “sins” of our past. We may wish we had lived more beneath our means, saving more for our later years. On the other hand, we may wish we had enjoyed our resources more freely, instead of being overly miserly. Certainly, we may wish we had spent fewer hours at work and more with family and friends. We make choices about our lives every day, and Jesus’ warning about the wide and narrow gates is encouragement to make our choices consciously.

Am I suggesting that Jesus does not want us to enjoy our lives on earth, that we should always seek the more restrictive and less pleasurable path, or that we should never just relax? Certainly not! I suspect what Jesus has in mind is to practice a more contemplative approach to our choices in life, gazing beyond the single step in front of us to assess where that particular step is likely to lead. A few chapters after this passage, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30). Following Jesus should not be tortuous, but we may have to exchange certain forms of gratification today for more wholesome rewards tomorrow. As we learn to find joy in the simple pleasures offered each moment, the road becomes easier.

The road that leads to life is hard, but not because it was created that way. The good road is hard because we so easily fall prey to get rich quick schemes, lose weight without diet or exercise programs, and sin without consequence temptations. The ecological maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch is as true today as it ever has been, but only because an acceptable lunch today is so expensive in terms of its long-term consequences. Free graces abound in every moment for those with eyes to see the road that leads to life.

This is the 26th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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By Bread Alone

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”   Luke 4:1-4

Accounts of the temptation of Jesus are recorded in Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), and Luke (4:1-13). After Jesus had been baptized by John, he went into the wilderness for 40 days. Matthew and Luke record that Jesus was fasting during that time. The devil met Jesus there and issued three temptations when Jesus was at his weakest from the extended fast. The first challenge was to turn a stone into bread. The second was to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshiping the devil. Finally, Jesus was encouraged to throw himself onto the rocks from the pinnacle of the Temple, knowing that God would protect him. Jesus refused each of the temptations, left the wilderness, and began his public ministry.

Whether one reads this account as a factual or a metaphorical account is beyond the purpose of this Life Note. What I address here is how the temptations of Jesus are about the use of personal power, and how these are temptations we too face, in endless variations, throughout our lives. If the life of Jesus is the standard for our life, we have much to learn from how he used, and refused to use, the power at his disposal.

Although scripture does not give a reason for the fast, it seems safe to assume it was a part of Jesus’ preparation for his ministry. The first challenge was to use his power to turn a stone into bread and end his fast. On the one hand, if I were hungry and had such power, it would be difficult not to use it in that way. Unfortunately, that would betray his purpose for fasting and nullify the benefits from the difficulties he had already endured. Jesus’ response is “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).

The second temptation was to betray his lineage, as revealed by God at his baptism (“You are my son, the Beloved”). By reflecting anything less than the Father, Jesus could not fulfill his purpose of making God known to us. We are frequently encouraged to settle for something less than what we strive for, and we are given the power to settle through our free will. It is not that God will no longer love us if we settle for less, it is that we will disappoint ourselves for giving in, as well as failing to accomplish that which we set out to achieve. Jesus’ response is “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Luke 4:8).

The third temptation was to do damage to his physical body on the assumption God would keep him safe. After all, God had a huge purpose for Jesus in the world. We know God takes us where we are, in whatever shape we are in, and uses us for purposes beyond our comprehension. Even if angels did not save Jesus from the rocks below, surely God would find a way to use him. This temptation was about showing how low we can sink and still have God lift us up. Jesus’ response is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:13).

It is in our most vulnerable moments when we are tempted to use whatever means are available to ease our suffering, regardless of whether we believe we are tempted by the devil, by human nature, or our own personal weakness. The end does not justify the means when it comes to personal holiness. Patience, trust, and faith are required. The way out is by going through the difficulty, not by taking shortcuts around it. Inevitably, at some point or points in our lives, we will find ourselves in a metaphorical wilderness: hungry, alone, and tempted. In our weakest moments, it is helpful to remember how Jesus handled temptation: by persisting after our prayerfully-determined aims, by being as faithful to God as God is to us, and by treating our bodies as God’s temple. God’s strength manifests in our weakness.

This is the 9th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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