“Few” Is Not “None,” “Rarely” Is Not “Never”

I confess discomfort with the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14, a section of a group of teachings commonly known as “the Sermon on the Mount:”

“Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, New International Version)

While other Bible translations may tweak the words slightly, the common-sense meanings of the passage in different translations are very similar.  I have found the Matthew Henry Commentary (written in 1710) to be nourishing to my soul.

His commentary on this passage is too long to quote, but could be summarized as saying, “The wide gate doesn’t require you to restrain your appetites.  The broad road doesn’t require you to control your impulses.  If you knew where the crowd was headed, you wouldn’t follow the crowd.  There’s no point in trying to blink the fact or dodge the issue. Do you want life?  Jesus tells you how to find it.  The multitudes unwilling (for whatever reason) to follow his instructions are making an insane, unfortunate choice.”

There is a similar idea in this poem of Kabir, 15th Century poet of India, translated by Rabindranath Tagore:

TELL me, Brother, how can I renounce Maya?
When I give up the tying of ribbons, still I tied my garment about me:
When I gave up tying my garment, still I covered my body in its folds.
So, when I give up passion, I see that anger remains;
And when I renounce anger, greed is with me still;
And when greed is vanquished, pride and vainglory remain;
When the mind is detached and casts Maya away, still it clings to the letter.
Kabir says, “Listen to me, dear Sadhu!  the true path is rarely found.”

My discomfort comes from the word “few” in “only a few find it” in Matthew 7:14.  I have a similar discomfort from the word “rarely” in “the true path is rarely found.”  Matthew Henry tells me to get over it, saying “This [the idea that only a few find the road that leads to life] discourages many: they are loath to be singular, to be solitary; but instead of stumbling at this, say rather, If so few are going to heaven, there shall be one the more for me.”

I take comfort in the fact that over the course of human history, there seem to be people who have found the road that leads to life.  There seem to be people who have found the true path.  These people are often called saints.  Steps to Knowledge calls them “people who have reached Knowledge.”

“There is a way to Knowledge. It requires skill and desire. Both will take time to develop.You must learn to value the true and not to value the false, and it takes time to learn to separate the two and to recognize them. It takes time to learn that the false does not satisfy you and that the true does satisfy you. This must be learned through trial and error and through contrast. As you approach Knowledge, your life becomes more full, more certain and more direct. As you go away from it, you reenter confusion, frustration and anger.” (Steps to Knowledge, Step 37, “There is a way to Knowledge”)

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