Soul Seeds: Hard Paths
“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.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Jesus lived in a Hebrew culture, based largely on what we know today as the Aramaic language. Though they referred to it as “Hebrew,” it was not exactly the Hebrew used in most of the Old Testament, but similar. Old Hebrew texts read aloud in public were quite difficult to follow for the average Jew of the first century AD. It was common to have an interpreter on hand for such readings to translate. They usually rendered it somewhat less than literally, though they were supposed to be careful about too freely departing from the Hebrew text (Nehemiah 8:1-8; note especially verse 8: “giving the sense”). The practice was known as targum — to paraphrase or interpret.
The New Testament was published entirely in Greek, and for the most part it appears the writers used Greek in composing the material. For some, that would be rather challenging. Greek scholars tell us John’s Gospel was written in good, grade-school level Greek. His grammar was correct, but simple. At the other end of the scale, Paul’s mastery of Greek was legendary. He knew it well enough to make up his own words by combining other words and they would be understood quite clearly.
Matthew may well have composed his first draft in Aramaic, since his approach was to appeal to Jewish minds. Yet, there were so very many Jews born in foreign countries, who grew up speaking some other local language. Since they knew only a smattering of Aramaic ritual terms, his Gospel would have a far better distribution in Greek. Greek was at least the second language everyone learned in that part of the world, if not their native tongue. There is no reason to believe Matthew had to have help translating his Gospel. Romans had long since learned to use Greek as an official language, since most of their empire had learned it under the aggressive tutelage of their predecessors, the Greeks who conquered under Alexander the Great. It was much more convenient simply to use the current common speech of their empire than to demand everyone learn Latin. Doing business with Roman bureaucrats would require a knowledge of Greek, and Matthew had been a tax-collector for Rome, one of the hated publicans.
Still, we are on somewhat shaky ground if we try making too much of the precise words which appear in our Greek text of Matthew, especially where the words of Jesus are recorded. We are reading a targum. Some scholars have attempted to translate back into Aramaic, but I believe they would be on even shakier ground, for the most part. This has nothing to do with assumptions about the quality of the textual sources themselves. Such questions deserve whole books, or at least whole websites (and there are several).
With all that in mind, we are still generally safe in assuming Matthew did very conscientiously apply himself to the task of expressing in Greek his best understanding of what Jesus had said in Aramaic. I am firmly convinced what we have is what God intended, remembering that it was further translated into our English.
Jesus was giving an image of how His followers should live. They ought to pass through as a habit the gate which is tight and narrow. This is no call to asceticism, wherein the principle is always to make things harder than they have to be. Rather, it is a warning of comparison. If the path is all too easy, making no demands on the one who passes through, then it’s suspect. If everyone is doing it, that’s a sure sign it’s probably wrong.
Human nature is to take the path of least resistance. Following God surely puts demands on you, and requires you often do what does not come naturally. So stop and think; take a look at where your spiritual steps are carrying you. Don’t ever completely relax on this issue. Examine everything in light of God’s calling on your life. Acting reflexively can destroy everything God wants for you. Accepting the discomfort — and sometimes, downright weirdness — of what comes from following Jesus should become our norm.
Those who read in this verse a strong pronouncement condemning the majority of humanity to Hell are missing the point. The concept of the masses is not the focus, but their presence is a symptom of the problem. This is about making the difficult choices every day, and getting used to being different from the folks around you. Don’t revel in the difference; don’t gloat at their stupidity. Take your alternate path with joy and peaceful humility, knowing some will see your joy and consider joining you.