“‘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. 15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? 17 So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.’”
With this section and the following, we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In these two sections Jesus warns His listeners against following other teachings besides what He Himself has been teaching them. He uses a variety of images to help them—2 different ways, trees and fruit, and building a house on a good foundation.
Jesus is warning His listeners to be on their guard against false teaching. He is clearly comparing His own teaching with other teachings they have encountered or will encounter. Actually this is not the first time in this sermon that Jesus has compared what He teaches with teaching they have already heard. He begins several sections comparing “you have heard that it was said…” with “but I say…” He warned against being like the Pharisees or the Gentiles in their practice of piety.
Jesus is helping His listeners to compare His teaching with any other that they may encounter. But in the context of the Sermon, it seems that the false prophets Jesus is primarily warning them about are the Pharisees. Toward the beginning of the Sermon, Jesus tells His listeners that He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (which they may have been tempted to believe on hearing Him) but to fulfill them. It is in this section that He first uses the idea of entering the kingdom of heaven. In 5:20 he says, “’For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the scribes you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” He then gives 6 comparisons of what they have heard said with what He now says to them. Clearly He is comparing what the Pharisees have taught and practiced of righteousness and what is the righteousness that exceeds them. In the next section, when He speaks of the various aspects of piety, He refers to the Pharisees as hypocrites and tells His listeners not to be like them.
Because of this emphasis that we have already seen in the Sermon, it makes sense that the most immediate teaching Jesus is warning His listeners about is the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees. With this in mind, let’s look at what Jesus says here. First, he admonishes His listeners to “’Enter by the narrow gate’” and then draws a comparison between two ways, each with a gate one must go through to enter them. The broad and easy way, with the wide gate is a teaching that many are entering (the Greek verb here is present tense). It is the more known or seemingly self-evident path, so it appears popular, well-traveled and easier. However, though the going sounds pleasant, its end is destruction. So it is deceptive—it may appear broad, but it narrows down to death! The narrow gate puts you on a way that is hard, not as obvious, for those who are finding it are few. But though it is difficult and narrower, this way broadens out to its endpoint, which is life.
Before we explore further the implications of this section let’s look at the rest of the passage. Jesus now warns His listeners against false prophets. It would make sense that these are the teachers of the broad way that leads to destruction. They appear to be sheep, belonging to the flock, but are actually “’ravenous wolves’”. This image supports the idea that Jesus is thinking primarily of the Jewish teachers that His audience is very familiar with. His description of the false prophets and their treatment of the sheep reminds me of Ezekiel 34, where God speaks against the shepherds of Israel, “You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.’” He goes on in this chapter to say that He will replace these false shepherds with Himself, He will be the true shepherd of the sheep.
How are His listeners to know who these false prophets are? Jesus says, twice, that they will be known by their fruits. He explains that the fruits of a plant give an accurate picture of the true nature and health of that plant. Fruit can’t lie, either in reference to plants or, as it turns out, to the true direction, truth, and health of a person’s life, teaching, and work.
It must have been shocking for those listening to Jesus to hear the way of the Pharisees described as broad, wide, and easy. After all, they were the ones who were scrupulously following the laws of God, were they not? But then, Jesus’ whole sermon up to this point has already been earthshaking. This is a continuation of what He has already been teaching on God’s rule and the nature of true righteousness, which He has come to fulfill and complete in Himself. The Pharisees had come to trust in their own observance of the law as a way to make themselves righteous, acceptable to God. They believed that they could achieve a righteousness on their own. But their righteousness was not a right relationship with the God of the Torah, with their heavenly Father. They did not seek the reward of their heavenly Father who sees in secret. They followed an outward conformity to the Law and believed it was enough, not recognizing that God’s will is that we are pure like Jesus from the inside out. And this scrupulous observance of the Law led them to believe themselves in good standing before God, led them to view themselves rich in spirit compared to others, even led them to judge others in such a way as to pass the final word on them.
But Jesus warns that this way is the easy, broad way that only leads to death. To see the truth of this more fully, lets go back to the passage already cited in chapter 5. Jesus has already stated that He has come to be the One who truly fulfills the ways of God, to be the One true righteousness, because righteousness goes beyond mere right standing before God, to being truly set right and in right relationship with God. God’s intentions for us are to be made right all the way down to our hearts, to be transformed and so able to have a right relationship with our heavenly Father. Jesus fulfills God’s intentions for us in Himself. By becoming one with our sinful flesh, He gives the righteous human response to His Father, trusting in his Father's faithfulness, a response we are truly unable to give ourselves. His righteousness of trusting, holy love for his Father is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes and we can only have that righteousness of loving and faith-full relationship by receiving it from Him.
This is why it is blessed to be poor in spirit, to be hungering for righteousness, to be mourning. In our acknowledgment of our spiritual poverty we recognize our true state before God. We are those who lack the ability to truly give ourselves the life that comes from being in communion with our creator God. So, we recognize our need to receive what He is so willing to give us in Jesus. And we remain in that place of poverty in our own spirits, continuing to depend on Jesus to share His right relationship with the Father, to make us who we were created to be—children of our heavenly Father.
The way is hard. We want a set of principles, rule, practices that we can follow that will earn us some righteous standing before God, either so we can get Him to give us what we want or so we can keep Him off our backs. Many of the Pharisees had reduced the Torah of a totally trusting relationship with God fulfilled in Jesus to mere legal requirements with its rewards for conforming and penalties for disregarding them. They made their covenantal relation of love with God into a mere contractual relationship when they earned merits by “obedience” and calculated de-merits for disobedience. And we are tempted to do the same over and over again. We either hope that our efforts at righteousness make the difference with God, or we fear that He is really waiting for us to get ourselves righteous and we see that we cannot succeed and yet go on trying.
Jesus is warning against teaching a religion without relationship with Him, the teaching many of the Pharisees had fallen into and teaching that can still be found today. We hear that God is counting on us to do His work, or we are led to believe that to be truly righteous we should be fulfilling certain roles for the church and in the world. We are tempted to believe that God is not fully satisfied with us and that the gap between who we are now and who we should be is a breach He is waiting for us to close. This teaching of the Pharisees can sound so right. We are tempted to think we can get righteous on our own—if we just follow these steps, enter this program, pray with these formulas.
But it is a teaching that devours us, and leads not to the life of God but away from it. Because in depending on ourselves, either in hope or in fear, we close our hands to receiving from the God who is giving us His kingdom in Jesus. How foolish we are when we think that God is impressed with what we are doing “for” Him, but we don’t live in thankful gratefulness and trust in Him as the giving, good Father that He is. We do not glorify God with good works that don't come from receiving our very lives and identities continually from Him.
The fruit of religious observances like the Pharisees is a hypocritical life, one where we do things so that others will be impressed and praise us. Good works that do not come out of a dependence on God point to ourselves, and we become focused on mere external obedience rather than giving God room to transform us from the inside out. The good works of the Pharisees are not such that others see and glorify the heavenly Father (5:16), but that others see and glorify the Pharisees.
The hard and narrow way is Jesus Himself and only Him. We place ourselves and our trust in Him alone and in His righteousness—all our strings attached to Him. We often struggle with looking for an easier way, one where we are not so fully dependent on the triune God, but God’s intentions will not stop at a partial righteousness. His intention is for our perfection in Him. C.S. Lewis once said, “When he said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad …” (Mere Christianity, bk 4, ch. 8)
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