Friday, April 29, 2011

A Musing about the Difference between Fact and Truth

In conjunction with the work that I have done on hesychast epistemology, my mind has been continually drawn back to the question of truth: what is truth and, particularly, what distinguishes truth from fact? Several possible answers come to mind, the most obvious of which is that there is no substantial difference. If something is factually accurate than it is true. If something is a fact than it is also the truth. This certainly accords with our everyday usage of the term. A truth is the opposite of a lie, any statement which is not factually accurate. There is a sense, however, in which this understanding of a lie is dependent on this assumed definition of truth. Another option, which also finds expression in common speech, is to understand truth as that macro-reality which is the accumulation of particular facts. All the individual scientific facts which point away from an intelligent creator and toward total human autonomy make the conclusions of secular humanism true.

A decidedly less modern view of the relationships between facts and truth makes the former the common bricks of a personal or cultural paradigm and the latter the appropriation of them. The translation into the vernacular would be “what is true for you is not necessarily true for me.” Few, if any, dispute the fact that the earth is round, that gravity keeps us bound to it, and that death is the inevitable end of all. How those facts are incorporated into one another in order to shape a picture of the world shared by an ethnicity, a community, or even kept private is what constitutes truth. What is true for me in my rendering of facts is truth.

While we toy with and borrow from both the scientific and the post-scientific mindsets described above, Christians cannot draw a meaningful conception of truth from any of these suggestions. With these as our tools, how are we to meaningfully understand Jesus famous declaration in John 14:6? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Is he the truth merely because he preached only that which was factually accurate, that which corresponded to reality? Or is he the truth because what he preached and who he was functioned for those societies, communities, and individuals who have elected to have faith in him? If he were talking to A. C. Grayling would he be forced to say, “For someone else, I am the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t work for you.”

The temptation when reading John 14 is to treat the three terms as referring to three complimentary aspects or qualities of Jesus. Undoubtedly hundreds of excellent three-point sermons have been based on this reading. After reading the hesychasts, however, I am inclined to think that all three terms are ultimate futile attempts to describe a single, ineffable reality. Jesus is not the truth because he always speaks the truth. Jesus is not the way because he is the means for getting where we are going. Jesus is not the life because he brings with him the promise of eternal life. That makes for a nice Sunday morning soporific but it ultimately trivializes the nature of Jesus. Those may be factual representations of what Jesus does but they do not get to the nature of the thing being commented on, namely what Jesus is.

Here then, is my proposal, for what the triad of epithets means, admitting beforehand that just as language proved inadequate for Jesus to convey his meaning to his disciples my own language is more feeble still. When Jesus declares that he is the truth (and all the correlative terms which aim toward the same reality), he is revealing the mystery that God, in the self-giving act of Incarnation and redemption, is the normative Reality on which all other reality is contingent for whatever truth content it may possess. Jesus is the way not because he is the means to the appropriate end but because he constitutes means themselves. Jesus is life because everything apart from the self-giving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing God who enfleshes himself is dead. It may have a heartbeat. It may have neurons firing. It is dead nevertheless. Jesus defines what life is, and his use of the term is less an accommodation to our language than it is a corrective for it.

Thus, when Jesus makes the definitive declaration about his character and claims exclusivity (“no one comes to the Father except through me”), he clues us in to the absolute and transcendent nature of these claims. Gregory Palamas rights that terms like truth “would not, properly speaking, apply to [God], or else would properly apply to [God] alone.” This is because,

Every nature is utterly remote and absolutely estranged from the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature, but if each of the other things is nature, he is not nature: just as he is not a being, if others are beings; and if he is a being, the others are not being. If you accept this as true also for wisdom and goodness and generally all the things around God or said about God, then your theology will be correct and in accord with the saints.

When we admit that Jesus is the truth and that there are no other truths, it is not merely a rejection of religious pluralism. It is a rejection of idolatry in any form. Whatever we do is either true because it imbibes of the Truth, because the Truth works in us and through us or it is a lie. In every moment we are either alive because we partake of the Life, because Life enlivens us or we are dead. For every end, we achieve through the Way because there is only the Way or our means are in fact anti-means which achieve nothing. All other grounds for all other absolutes are illusory. Only in this way does Jesus declaration fully and appropriately answer Thomas’ question, “We don’t even know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Thomas missed the mark. He was looking for a contingent means to a finite end, much in the way we often understand faith as a concert ticket into heaven. Thomas didn’t know the way, but only because he did not yet know Jesus. To know Jesus is to know the way. To know Jesus is to know truth and to make all the facts known true.

This then is my conclusion. If we take the essentially tautological (and Socratic) definition that truth is that normative reality by which all true things are true and translate it into the Christian terminology above, we are left with this: the loving, saving, self-emptying God is that normative reality by which all things-factual or not, rational or not, scientific or not, pleasant or not-are true. Facts may be correct but they can be declared true only from the perspective of the One who created them and defined their content and purpose.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Just How Violent Is Jesus?

Someone recently directed me to this article, which is just nonsensical enough to be dangerous. The question posed is whether or not the typical representation of Jesus as a peaceful prophet and Muhammad as a violent prophet is accurate. The conclusion: Jesus is perhaps the most violent religious figure of all time.

Let me begin by stating that I do not believe that Muhammad was especially violent. The article suggests that the demonization of Muhammad relies on the depiction of him as particularly bloodthirsty. If there are those who believe that, I think that is a deeply unfounded view of history. The fact that the author of the article turns around and attempts to demonize Old Testament figures is hypocritical and equally misguided. Muhammad was not especially violent and neither was Moses or Joshua or David. They were all a quite typical level of violent for warlords or kings of their periods. (I will not go into here the hermeneutics necessary to understand the violence of Old Testament figures, as the post is primarily an issue about Jesus.) Muhammad, had he been a simple king and not a religious figure, would probably be remembered as the military and political genius who inaugurated one of the great empires in medieval if not world history. So the author is right to oppose historical misrepresentations of Muhammad.

When addressing the question of whether or not Jesus is a more violent figure, however, the author leaves the bounds of his own investigation in an attempt to make his case. It is here that the argument falls woefully short. He wants to compare the past historical actuality of Muhammad’s actions to the prophesied eschatological judgment which has Jesus as its agent. An intellectually honest answer to the question of which religious leader was in fact more peaceful requires a direct comparison with corresponding parameters. Islam, no less than Christianity, understands God to be a just God who will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. If we compare the religions in terms of their eschatological picture of the fate of the enemies of God, both are “violent” (if we want to use that word in a superficial way). If we really want to get to the root of each teacher’s character, however, then it is appropriate to confine ourselves to the actual evidence relevant to the question: the behavior and teaching, between birth and death, of each man.

These, in a brief and inadequate way, are the actual facts:

  • Muhammad was a political leader who ordered, endorsed, and conducted military campaigns. He gave his disciples a framework for a future philosophy of violence which set boundaries on its appropriate use. His life and teaching led immediately to an expansive empire founded on military conquest.

  • Jesus was a political pariah who never attacked another person, never endorsed attacking another person, and who ultimately died in peaceful submission both to God and the political authorities. He explicitly forbade violence of any kind, never retaliating for any physical affront and never intervening violently to prevent affronts against others. When his apostles behaved violently anyway, he rebuked them and corrected the damage caused. The church, adopting this teaching, was led to centuries of voluntary persecution.

Those facts cannot be disputed and are not disputed by the article. Instead, the author tries to draw deeply flawed parallels between the temporal life of Muhammad and the eschatological destiny of Jesus. The parallel becomes particularly weak when the difference between the way the two figures function in their respective religions is observed. Muhammad is believed to be the culmination of a line of prophets; Jesus is believed to be God. Acting as God in the final judgment, he is the agent of divine wrath and will naturally be presented in a way which enacts judgment on evildoers in a way roughly analogous to the way the just God of Islam will dole out justice.

As a human agent, however, the career of Jesus could not be more distinct from that of Muhammad. Only by fundamentally altering the rules of engagement can the author even begin to depict Jesus as more violent than Muhammad. Even the suggestion that Jesus’ pacifism could be a product of his political situation patently contradicts the narrative in the Gospels. Jesus is expected by his disciples to seize power and at one point a mob even tries to make him king. At every turn he rejects the possibility of political authority, finally concluding before Pilate that “if my kingdom were of this world, my followers would fight.” He redefines rather than conforms to the militaristic messianic expectations of contemporary Jews.

Ultimately, the linked article represents the same ugly polemic that “Islamophobes” use to try to discredit Islam. It is methodologically flawed and transparent in its motivation. It is possible to admit that the historical person of Muhammad was violent in a way typical and even necessary of political leaders and to realize that Jesus was nonviolent and eschewed political power without being an “anti-Muslim ideologue.” A calm, cool examination of the facts will reveal that eschatologically, Islam and Christianity have similar conceptions of God’s justice (which, in Christianity, includes the agency of Christ as a member of the Trinity) but that the actual careers of their “founders” are profoundly different on the question of violence.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Christ is risen!

Easter is always a bittersweet time for me. Just as, paradoxically, the beginning of Lent is always a happy occurrence so with Easter there is a tinge of sorrow. It marks the end of the great fast and my favorite time of year, liturgically. The various Christian bodies will go off to observe their separate traditions (or ignore tradition altogether) and the spiritual unanimity of the paschal season will be lost. This is particularly true now because it will be several years yet before the Eastern and Western Easter calendars align again like they have for the past two years.

The real bitterness, though, is in reflection on my own spiritual state at the end of the fast. Easter and its magnificence throws into sharp relief all my own short comings of the past six weeks. Every time I may have broken fast or neglected the spirit of the fast or even every time I didn’t anoint my head with oil. Recently, I had focused so much of my concern on persevering until the end, that I overlooked the startling craftiness of the devil. The real trial of fasting is not that we might grow weary of it but that we shouldn’t. In our weariness, we meet God. He has a heart for the broken, the weak, and the longing. The real snare that our enemy sets for us is arrogance, the confidence that we can persevere. We become so comfortable in our deprivation that we forget that our success depends on God or else we allow our resolve to slip into the background and begin to fill the void we have created by fasting with a substitute both for the object or behavior we are abstaining from and for the God who ought to be our satisfaction in its stead.

And yet wonderfully, mystically, beautifully therein lies the indomitable joy of Easter. It came anyway. It didn’t matter that I failed on so many levels. It didn’t matter that beneath all the apparent unity in our Christian observance there lingered seeds of discord. It didn’t matter that some didn’t fast and never fast. None of it mattered. None of our sins were ever enough to keep Christ in the grave. Before time and outside of time he knew just how pathetic I would be, but he still created me, still came for me, still died for me, and still rose then and today as a conqueror over the darkness that I am inadequate to overcome.

The veil has been torn, the stone has been rolled away, death has been swallowed up in victory, and Jesus Christ--praise to his name--is risen.

And the church said: amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday

A Spanish court has denied atheists the opportunity to hold an alternative Holy Thursday procession today on the grounds that it would be offensive to Catholics and negative for tourism. One of the atheist groups organizing the march commented that:

the ban shows there is no separation of church and state in Spain

Sure...because I bet the pope loves the Spanish stance on the rights of homosexuals or the fact that only three percent of the population considers religion as a value of primary importance. Sounds like a regular theocracy to me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Repentance

The story of St. Mary of Egypt offers us an exemplar of penitence, and the story of the Passion which we are about to relive is the ultimate call to that repentance. John dedicates an entire chapter, Step 5 of his thirty step ladder, to the subject and he allots it a considerable amount of space to the subject. He defines repentance thus:

Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. (The penitent stands guilty—but undisgraced.) Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction.

Understood in this way, repentance was the continual duty of Christians. It was not the occasional response to noticeable sins but a perpetual disposition born from our persistent sinfulness. He warns:

We ought to be on our guard, in case our conscience has stopped troubling us, not so much because of its being clear but because of its being immersed in sin.

A true reflection on the degree to which we sin ought, according to John, drive repentance. In fact, if we were truly aware of just how grievous our sins (or our sinfulness) was, John insists that we would have no trouble repenting continuously.

He who really keeps track of what he has done will consider as lost every day during which he did not mourn, regardless of whatever good he may happen to have done.

Such an inordinate focus on our sinfulness might ultimately lead to despair, although John has already specifically said that the essence of penance is hope and not despair. To answer this, John offers a story that, while it may not inspire confidence, does model an appropriate attitude of penitence as we seek to approach God. John tells of a group of monks who strove to repent of their sins, tried desperately to conquer the passions, and prayed constantly for forgiveness. Like so many of us, however, they were plagued constantly with doubt. He writes:

With failing confidence, they would often speak to one another as follows: “brothers, are we getting anywhere? Will we be granted what we ask? Will the Lord accept us once more? Will He open up to us? Others would answer: “As our brothers the Ninevites said, ‘Who knows if God will change His mind and deliver us from mighty punishment?’ Let us do what we can. If He opens the door, well and good; if not, then blessed be the Lord God Who in His justice has shut the door on us. At least we should continue to knock at the door as long as we live. Maybe He will open to us on account of our persistence.”

I think there is in this a good, biblical model for repentance: one that acknowledges human depravity, recognizes human ignorance, and throws the soul continually at the feet of a loving God, knowing that it is not our merit but His mercy that makes salvation possible.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Orthodox Serbs reach out to Albanian Muslims

I'm not entirely sure what to think of this. Is it a tremendous act of Christian charity and a preperation for evangelism or is it a capitulation to pluralism and the human impulse toward idolatry?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt


Matthew 20:1-15

For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went.

Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.

And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”

And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

Proverbs 28:13

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.


Ambrose, On Repentance, II.1.2,5

For repentance must be taken in hand not only anxiously, but also quickly, lest perchance that father of the house in the Gospel who planted a fig-tree in his vineyard should come and seek fruit on it, and finding none, say to the vine-dresser: “Cut it down, why doth it cumber the ground?”

Let us then not be ashamed to confess our sins unto the Lord. Shame indeed there is when each makes known his sins, but that shame, as it were, ploughs his land, removes the ever-recurring brambles, prunes the thorns, and gives life to the fruits which he believed were dead. Follow him who, by diligently ploughing his field, sought for eternal fruit: “Being reviled we bless, being persecuted we endure, being defamed we entreat, we are made as the offscouring of the world.” If you plough after this fashion you will sow spiritual seed. Plough that you may get rid of sin and gain fruit. He ploughed so as to destroy in himself the last tendency to persecution. What more could Christ give to lead us on to the pursuit of perfection, than to convert and then give us for a teacher one who was a persecutor?


The life of St. Mary of Egypt is the embodiment of the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 20. The story goes that Mary ran away from her parents when she hit puberty in order to pursue a life of decadent sensual pleasure. For seventeen years, she lived as a “prostitute.” I put that in quotes, because she supposedly refused to ask for compensation for her services. She begged to make a living and offered up her body purely for the joy of it. When she encountered a group of pilgrims going to Jerusalem, she joined them on their journey and planned to seduce them for sport. When the group arrived in Jerusalem, an invisible force prevented Mary from following the men into the church. She tried three times, but could not enter the church to venerate the True Cross. This event inspired a profound conversion in her, and she spent the last forty seven years of her life as an ascetic trying to conquer the passions.

Characters like Mary, or like Paul, ought to give us hope. After all, there are few among us so depraved that we can number among our past sins joining a pilgrimage for the purpose of seducing holy men. Fewer still will find any analogy to Paul and his vigorous attempts to exterminate the Christian religion by force. Like workers who have spoiled away most of the day, we can look to these great pillars of faith and know that God is more concerned that we make it to Him than with how long it took to get there.

At the same time, such figures ought to both convict and inspire us. After all, while few of us have been so evil as Mary or Paul, fewer still have been so righteous. We are not great evangelists or great ascetics, and I am not suggesting that we need to be. There are, however, expectations on us as we come to God. If we are called to labor in a vineyard, simply coming will not merit us our wages. We must work in the time that we have. We cannot be, as Ambrose notes, trees which do not bear fruit.

As Lent draws to a close, let us confess and repent of all the times when we have fallen short of the ideals we hoped to exemplify when we set upon this fast so many weeks ago. Then we can find peace in the hope that the loving arms of God are not closed to us, even now.


Our Father, who art in heaven, remit and forgive our debts, for Thou alone art compassionate.
--Orthodox prayer

The Church in China

Perhaps it is an appropriate time, as we prepare to head off to our various Sunday gatherings, to remember how easy we have it (though not necessarily "how fortunate we are"). This morning in China, a house church which was forced to relocate was preempted by the Chinese government. Their minister was placed under house arrest, the area where they planned to meet was taped off, and any members who arrived were detained.

A church member who went to the gathering spot for services and managed to evade police told The Associated Press that about 200 people were taken away and were being held at a local school. Their cellphones were confiscated, said the man, who would give only his English name, Kane, for fear of police reprisals.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cow News

My heart skipped a beat, maybe two, when I saw a picture of a girl saddled into a cow jumping hurdles. If you haven't heard of Regina Mayer and her cow Luna, then you need to look them up. Mayer is a German teenager who desperately wanted a jumping horse. When her parents refused to get her one, she went to the next best thing (or in my opinion the best possible thing): her cow. She started working with her at a very young age and now has her "trained." I put that in quotes because you needn't have even spent much time around cows to know that cows are about as trainable as cats--though infinitely cuter of course. This amusing quote from Mayer gives a fuller picture of the setup:
Now, Luna understands commands such as ‘go’, ‘stand’ and ‘gallop’ — when she feels like it. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it. When she wants to do something she does it, when she doesn’t, she doesn’t. And she is often very headstrong but can also be really adorable.
So, without further ado, here is Regina Mayer and Luna, her jumping cow:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In Other News

Recently, Congressman Ron Paul has made the audacious suggestion that people ought to be able to pay for things with precious metal coins, which have intrinsic worth, instead of the US dollar, which is fundamentally worthless. Congress will likely ignore such ludacris suggestions as they have in the past.

In other quarters, a twelve-year-old in New York City is being charged with a hate crime and faces serious jail time for flirting with one of his classmates. The sixth grader, himself a Muslim, is being accused of taunting and roughing up a Muslim girl in a fit of anti-Muslim fervor. The prosecuting attorney has been quoted as saying, "We want to make it clear: the District Attorney's office is tough on schoolyard antics."

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: The Two Paths

How fortunate that we should get a double dose of John of Sinai this week. On the Sunday of St. John of Sinai, the post focused on struggle, working out our salvation, pursuing God in love, and entering through the narrow door. It is with special regard for this last image that I select the passages below.

John begins his great spiritual work by dividing Christianity into two kinds of servants:

His true servants are all those who have done and are doing His will without hesitation or pause. His useless servants are those who think of themselves as having been worthy of the gift of baptism, but have not at all guarded their covenant with Him.

This indictment of nominal Christians (to borrow a modern term) becomes even more acute when we consider precisely what true service to God looks like in John's reckoning. Certainly, the image will seem like the extreme of acesis to us, but at the same time it would be dishonest if we tried to deny that this describes not only the life of Christ but also of the overwhelming majority of Christians saints from whom we draw inspiration.

We should be careful in case it should happen to us that while talking of journeying along the narrow and hard road we may actually wander onto the broad and wide highway.

Mortification of the appetite, nightlong toil, a ration of water, a short measure of bread, the bitter cup of dishonor--these will show you the narrow way. Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned. Happy are those who follow this road and avoid other highways. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday of St. John of Sinai


Luke 13:22-30

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"

And he said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!'

In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

Genesis 15:29-30

Then Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?"

Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel."

Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me."

So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed." So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!

And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?"

Laban said, "It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years."

Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.


John of Sinai, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 15

The place of temptation is the place where we find ourselves having to put up a bitter fight against the enemy, and wherever we are not involved in a struggle is surely the place where the enemy is posing as a friend.


St. John of Sinai’s Ladder of Divine Ascent is a mystical-ascetical guide to ascending to God. It lays out step-by-step the means for overcoming vice and acquiring virtue. It is a struggle to transcend and, in transcending, to actualize our humanity as God intended it to be. It is this struggle for good, and thus for God, that has historically been the theme of this Sunday.

Jesus’ warning about the narrow door as given in Luke is significantly more ominous in tone than the corresponding teaching in Matthew 7. In Matthew, the teaching has a more distant, didactic tone, but in Luke Jesus paints for us a vivid picture. It is a narrative of those who struggle to do what they believe is right and nevertheless fail. They are left outside confused and isolated, not understanding why they have been excluded.

Yet it is clear that Jesus’ purpose is not to invite doubt but to inspire action. His story begins with the clear exhortation that we are to strive to enter the narrow gate. In Matthew, the passage comes at the end of the greatest arrangement of moral teaching in the Gospels. We are exhorted to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. When we think about the narrow gate, we are not invited to despair but to renew our vigor. We must maintain a vigilant struggle because, as John so aptly notes, peace is often complacency in disguise.

The constant struggle, however, need not be a burden to us. Elsewhere, John will write, “Lucky the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved.” In this, we may take a lesson from Jacob, whose seven years of labor seemed to him like only a week because of his deep love for Rachel. Even when he was duped, he gladly endured another seven years of servitude once Rachel had been given to him. Let us be so ready to undertake the difficult task of striving for our salvation, and—like Jacob, when he received Rachel—be even more ready to struggle to preserve what has been given to us.


The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labour for.
--Thomas More