LIFE AT THE CROSS-ROADS
Go in through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the road which leads to ruin, and there are many who go in through it. Narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
There is always a certain dramatic quality about life, for, as it has been said, “all life concentrates on man at the cross-roads.” In every action of life man is confronted with a choice; and he can never evade the choice, because he can never stand still. He must always take one way or the other. Because of that, it has always been one of the supreme functions of the great men of history that they should confront men with that inevitable choice. As the end drew near, Moses spoke to the people: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil…. Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut.30:15-20). When Joshua was laying down the leadership of the nation at the end of his life, he presented them with the same choice: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh.24:15). Jeremiah heard the voice of God saying to him, “And to this people you will say, Thus says the Lord: Behold I set before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jer.21:8). John Oxenham wrote:
“To every man there openeth A way and ways and a way; And the high soul treads the high way, And the low soul gropes the low; And in between on the misty flats The rest drift to and fro; But to every man there openeth A high way and a low, And every man decideth The way his soul shall go.”
That is the choice with which Jesus is confronting men in this passage. There is a broad and an easy way, and there are many who take it; but the end of it is ruin. There is a narrow and a hard way, and there are few who take it; but the end of it is life. Cebes, the disciple of Socrates, writes in the Tabula: “Dost thou see a little door, and a way in front of the door, which is not much crowded, but the travellers are few? That is the way that leadeth to true instruction.” Let us examine the difference between the two ways.
(i) It is the difference between the hard and the easy way. There is never any easy way to greatness; greatness is always the product of toil. Hesiod, the old Greek poet, writes, “Wickedness can be had in abundance easily; smooth is the road, and very nigh she dwells; but in front of virtue the gods immortal have put sweat.” Epicharmus said, “The gods demand of us toil as the price of all good things.” “Knave,” he warns, “yearn not for the soft things, lest thou earn the hard.”
Once Edmund Burke made a great speech in the House of Commons. Afterwards his brother Richard Burke was observed deep in thought. He was asked what he was thinking about, and answered, “I have been wondering how it has come about that Ned has contrived to monopolise all the talents of our family; but then again I remember that, when we were at play, he was always at work.” Even when a thing is done with an appearance of ease, that ease is the product of unremitting toil. The skill of the master executant on the piano, or the champion player on the golf course did not come without sweat. There never has been any other way to greatness than the way of toil, and anything else which promises such a way is a delusion and a snare.
(ii) It is the difference between the long and the short way. Very rarely something may emerge complete and perfect in a flash, but far oftener greatness is the result of long labour and constant attention to detail. Horace in The Art of Poetry? advises Piso, when he has written something, to keep it beside him for nine years before he publishes it. He tells how a pupil used to take exercises to Quintilius, the famous critic. Quintilius would say, “Scratch it out; the work has been badly turned; send it back to the fire and the anvil.” Virgil’s Aneid occupied the last ten years of Virgil’s life; and. as he was dying, he would have destroyed it, because he thought it so imperfect, if his friends had not stopped him. Plato’s Republic begins with a simple sentence: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, that I might otter up prayer to the goddess.” On Plato’s own manuscript, in his own handwriting, there were no fewer than thirteen different versions of that opening sentence. The master writer had laboured at arrangement after arrangement that he might get the cadences exactly right. Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard is one of the immortal poems. It was begun in the summer of 1742; it was finally privately circulated on 12th June, 1750. Its lapidary perfection had taken eight years to produce. No one ever arrived at a masterpiece by a short-cut. In this world we are constantly faced with the short way, which promises immediate results, and the long way, of which the results are in the far distance. But the lasting things never come quickly; the long way is the best way in the end.
(iii) It is the difference between the disciplined and the undisciplined way. Nothing was ever achieved without discipline; and many an athlete and many a man has been ruined because he abandoned discipline and let himself grow slack. Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline. Never did so great a mind produce so little. He left Cambridge University to join the army; he left the army because, in spite of all his erudition, he could not rub down a horse; he returned to Oxford and left without a degree. He began a paper called The Watchman which lived for ten numbers and then died. It has been said of him: “He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done. Coleridge had every poetic gift but one–the gift of sustained and concentrated effort.” In his head and in his mind he had all kinds of books, as he said, himself, “completed save for transcription.” “I am on the eve,” he says, “of sending to the press two octave volumes.” But the books were never composed outside Coleridge’s mind, because. he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out. No one ever reached any eminence, and no one having reached it ever maintained it, without discipline.
(iv) It is the difference between the thoughtful and the thoughtless way. Here we come to the heart of the matter. No one would ever take the easy, the short, the undisciplined way, if he only thought. Everything in this world has two aspects– how it looks at the moment, and how it will look in the time to come. The easy way may look very inviting at the moment, and the hard way may look very daunting. The only way to get our values right is to see, not the beginning, but the end of the way, to see things, not in the light of time, but in the light of eternity.
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