The Narrowness of Christ – Charles E. Jefferson (historic sermon 1860-1937)
“Narrow is the way.” Matt. 7:14
Let us think about the narrowness of Jesus. I know it is a disparaging word in our modern speech and damaging to a person’s reputation. We often hear it used in a sinister and condemning sense, we sometimes use it so ourselves. We say, “Oh, yes, he is narrow,” meaning that one side of his nature has been blighted, blasted. His mind is not full orbed. His heart is not full grown. He is a dwarfed and stunted man, cramped by a defective education or squeezed out of shape by a narrowing environment. In no such sense as this was the man of Galilee narrow. But what word will better express one of the conspicuous traits of Jesus than just this word “narrowness”? He set definite boundaries for himself, he shut himself up within contracted limits; in this sense he was narrow.
How narrow was the circle inside of which he did all his work! He lived his life in Palestine, a little country no larger than Connecticut. It was not a prominent country either, but only a little province tributary to mighty Rome. It cut no figure in the eye of the worlds and the lords and ladies of the world’s capitals knew little of it and cared less. It was an obscure and rural country, small in territory and insignificant in prestige, and yet the Prince of Glory confined himself to this little corner of the earth. He might have traveled across the world as many an illustrious teacher had done before his day. He might have taught in Athens and lifted up his voice in the streets of the Eternal City. He might have given his message to a wide circle of men whose influence covered many lands; but he rather chose to stay at home, to give his time to the cities of Galilee, to pour out his strength on the villages of Judea. For thirty years he remained in the dingy obscurity of a carpenter’s shop, and the country upon which he poured out the full wealth of his brain and heart was only a carpenter’s shop among the palaces of the earth.
If his field was contracted, so also was the character of his work. He only tried to do one thing. There were a thousand good things which a good man in Palestine might have done, but he left nine hundred and ninety-nine of them unattempted and confined himself to the one thing which he believed his Heavenly Father had given him to do. Men did not understand such narrowness. They were always urging him to swing into a wider orbit and do something which would create a greater stir. A man one day interrupted him while he was speaking, saying, “Make my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But his reply was, “That lies outside my province–come and listen to me and I will do for you the service which God has appointed me to do.” It was a noble piece of work which this interrupter asked the prophet of Nazareth to perform. An injustice had been perpetrated, and what is nobler in this world than the redressing of a wrong? Wrongs ought to be righted and injustices ought to give way to justice. It was a righteous piece of work which the man wanted to have done, but it was not Christ’s work, and therefore he would not do it. No one man can do everything, no one man should attempt everything. There are a thousand things which need to be done and yet which no man however industrious and noble can perform.
Jesus set limits to his activity, and beyond those limits no man ever persuaded him to go. One day his brothers wanted him to go to Jerusalem and make an impression on the big men there, but he refused to listen to their exhortation, telling them that they might go any time they chose, but that it was different with him. He could not go until it was time for him to go, until his work compelled him to go. He could not go until his hour had come. When the hour arrived he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem. All along the way men tried to divert him, but he could not be diverted, to Jerusalem he must go. He had a baptism to be baptized with and he was pressed in on both sides and there was no relief until his work had been accomplished. He always speaks like a man whose feet are on a narrow path. Men all around him have the enjoyment of large liberty. They wander hither and thither, going whithersoever they wish, but it was not so with him. He could not dissipate his energy, he could not waste a single hour. It was always, “I must,” “I must,” “I must.” There were broad roads on his right and left, and along these roads thousands of his countrymen were travelling, but he could not go with them. It was for him to walk along the narrow path, for this alone led to the glorious life which was to cheer and save the world. When he talks to men about the two ways, one of them narrow and the other one broad, he is speaking out of his own experience; and when he urges men to choose the narrow one in preference to the one which is broad, he is only saying, “Follow me!”
In the realm of the intellect he chose the way which was narrow. There is a feeling now prevalent that it is unwise for a man to confine himself to any one religion or any one particular statement of belief. It is better—so men say—not to pin your faith to the sleeve of any one idea or truth, but hold yourself in readiness to accept every idea which may come your way. Keep the windows and doors of your mind wide open and let everything blow through which the winds may be able to catch up, but do not settle down upon any definite conceptions of God or the soul, of duty or destiny, because in so doing you narrow yourself and may ultimately degenerate into a bigot. With this sort of philosophy Jesus of Nazareth had no sympathy. To him certain conceptions of God were true and others were false, certain estimates of man were correct and others erroneous, certain standards of duty were uplifting and others degrading, and with all his mind and soul and strength he clang to the true and combated the false. He never shrank from holding clean-cut opinions and from expressing them with vigor and emphasis. He was not afraid of being called intolerant or a bigot. He made a distinction between falsehood and truth, and was not ashamed to stamp upon the former and proclaim boldly the latter. Errors he struck no matter who held them, and hallucinations he repudiated no matter by how many accepted. In many a modern circle he would have been counted a narrow man, for he made no compromises, and he would not bend, and he maintained with unflinching persistency the things which his heart knew to be true and good.
If to be dogmatic is to be positive, then he was the most dogmatic teacher who ever brought men to his feet. He swept other leaders and teachers out of the way with gorgeous sweeps of scorn. “Other men,” he said, “have taught you this and that, but I say unto you,” And when his hearers, amazed by the boldness of his speech, lifted their eyes, they saw that he had placed himself above even Moses and the prophets. He would not allow his followers to roam at their will through the realms of thought, accepting everything or nothing at their own whim or fancy; but he taught them day after day certain definite, and positive conceptions and principles to which they must cling or else lose their souls. He came to bear witness to the truth, and for that reason he was not broad enough to give a place in his heart to falsehood.
This same narrowness comes out again in the limited range of his approbations. There were some things he could praise and there were other things he was obliged to condemn. There were some men he could eulogize, and there were other men fit for nothing but burning condemnation. He did not wear a irreversible smile. He did not group men together as though they were all alike. He made distinctions, and he taught other men to make them too. There is a weak and sentimental way of lumping men together and trying to make it appear that men are all substantially alike and that one is not so much better after all than another. Jesus’ estimate was the product of severe discrimination. He had eyes which saw through the exterior of men’s hearts, and he judged them with a fearlessness which made them crouch in terror. The gang of thieves who carried on their business in the temple were driven out in bewilderment and consternation. To some of the most influential men of Jerusalem he said, “You are fools and blind men, you are serpents, you, are vipers.” Between some men and other men there was a great gulf fixed. He did not minimize the heinousness of sin by treating all men alike. It makes no difference to some of us whether men are honest or not, or whether they live filthy lives or not; but it made a difference to Jesus. No mean and contemptible scoundrel ever felt in Jesus’ presence like holding up his head. He was so narrow in his judgments he refused to let bad men feel that they were good. In all his judgments on the lives and homes of men he pursued the narrow way.
It is in his habit of drawing distinctions and setting boundaries that we are to find the cause of many things which might otherwise remain inexplicable. One of the notes of Jesus’ life was joy. He was a man acquainted with grief, and yet his joy was without measure. It was one of the things he had so much of that he could bequeath it to his disciples. Could he have been happy had he not walked within narrow limits? What period in any man’s life is so wretched as that which lies in the later teens or early twenties in which he does not know what he is going to do? The big wide world lies stretched out before him with unlimited possibilities, and the young man full of vigor and ambition, capable of doing a hundred different things, is wretched. There are a hundred doors which he can open, but he does not know which one to try.
There are a hundred fields in which he can expend his strength, but he cannot decide which field to enter. There are a hundred enterprises he feels sure he could lead. to victory, but he cannot decide which one is most worthy of his leadership. And of all mortals such a youth is most miserable. No man can be happy with an entire world to roam over. It is only when a man picks out some particular little sphere and says, “Inside of this I purpose to work,” that real life begins and his heart learns the art of singing. So long as the world’s work lies in a mountain mass, there is only depression and hopelessness ; it is when a man picks up in his hand a definite, tiny task and says, ”This is the thing to which I shall devote my life,” that the shadows vanish and life becomes worth living. It is the narrow path that leads to life. Jesus’ work was definite. At twelve he knew the business to which he must give himself. There never was a day on which he allowed himself to be inveigled into doing something else. Right here is where we are prone to blunder, and it is at this point that we should look for the root cause of much of the disquiet in our souls. We start out to do a certain work and immediately people begin to say: “Why don’t you do this?” “Come and do this!” and before we are aware of our folly we have dissipated our energy in trying to do things which God never intended us to attempt. It is here that we blunder in our benevolences. We try to give to many causes, and the result is we have little joy as the result of our giving. It is no man’s duty to contribute to every good cause that passes his way, and it is only when we draw a circle around our beneficence that we become what God likes to see—a cheerful giver. If you want to see a man who sings at his work, look for him inside of a narrow circle.
Not only was Jesus joyful, but he was mighty. He made an impression because he stayed in one place, and hit the same nail on the head until it was driven completely in. Had he wandered over the earth speaking his parables, they would have fallen into more ears but would have molded fewer hearts. By staying in Palestine and keeping his heart close to a few chosen hearts, he became increasingly influential so that the authorities were frightened, fearing that he might overturn the nation. The men who were the nearest to him became so passionately in love with him that they were ready to die for him. He made himself thus mighty by limiting himself. It is with men as it is with rivers: a river becomes a river only by the assistance of its banks. The difference between a river and a swamp is that a river has banks and a swamp has none. Take away its banks and the river becomes a swamp. Many a river becomes mightier and more majestic because the mountains press in upon it. Left to sprawl out over the plains it had become shallow, muddy, feeble; but when the mountains pressed in upon it, narrowing its channel and crowding the waters in upon themselves, the river took on a new depth and strength of current, girding itself as it were to turn the wheels of mighty mills and to carry the ships of commerce to the sea. “Thou hast enlarged me when I was m distress,” the Hebrew poet cries, and many a man can say the same. It is when our life by some sorrow or calamity or fresh responsibilities is compressed within a narrower channel that it takes on interior richness and gains a significance which it never had before.
By limiting himself our Lord came off conqueror. He succeeded. What is it to succeed? It is to do the thing for which we were created. The most galling of all experiences is the failure to do that which is most worth while. Jesus attempted to do one thing only, and that was to perform the work which his Father had given him to do. At the end of his life he could look into his Father’s face and say, “I have finished the work which thou gave me to do.” It was indeed time that the Father should glorify the Son ! Jesus’ life on earth covered only thirty-three brief years, and yet he did the greatest piece of work ever accomplished on the earth. It is wonderful what a stupendous task can be accomplished in a little time if a man is only willing to keep at it. We mourn unwisely when we mourn disconsolately over lives that seem to be cut off at noon. Let a man strive not to live long but to do his work, and if he does it why should we lament because he dies at noon?
We have been touching upon a great principle—the principle which lies at the basis of all the fine arts. The arts which are called fine become fine because of the narrowness of the limitations which they impose. They all subject the soul to a discipline which is severe, and insist upon a bondage which cannot be broken through. In music there is no leeway left to the singer. He cannot sing a little sharp or a little flat and still produce music. In music everything is precise, exact, severe, and all the tones must take accurately the precise points assigned them by the master, else the music does not have in it that indescribable power which lifts and entrances the soul. The artist cannot dip his brush as he pleases into this color or that, careless as to how much of this or how little of that he spreads on the canvas. He is held in the grip of laws which he cannot violate even a little without marring the picture. It is the narrow way on which artists must forever walk. Why is it so much more difficult to write poetry than prose? It is because poetry subjects the soul to a severer bondage. The poet must submit to a discipline of which the prose writer knows nothing. The rules of accent and rhythm and melody are inexorable and only genius has strength enough to obey them all. Poets must walk the narrow path. But the most difficult of all the fine arts is the high art of living as God would have a mortal to live. Singing is easy and so is painting compared with this exacting, soul-taxing art of living. One cannot think anything he pleases, or feel as he wants to, or act as he is inclined to. He must walk the narrow path.
Jesus walked it, and he calls men everywhere to become his followers. He is rigorous in his demands. He is inexorable in his commands. He is despotic in the limitations which he imposes. He says, “Come unto me!” We ask, cannot we go to others? His reply is, There are no others. Come to me! And when we come he says, “Follow me!” We hesitate and ask, “Is this really necessary, can we not choose an easier way?” His reply is: “Follow me.” “If you do not take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” He says, “Abide in me!” and we demur and wonder if after all it is necessary to shut ourselves up in what seems to be so narrow and limited a sphere. But he says to us with that strange, dogmatic, compelling accent which stirred the hearts of the people long ago in Galilee, “Verily I say imto you, unless you abide in me, you have no life at all in you.” This, then, is the narrowness of Jesus. He is narrow for a purpose. He limited himself, emptied himself of his divine glory, was formed in the fashion of a man, walked the narrow path which led from the carpenter’s shop to Golgotha, all because of his great love for us, and in order that we might each one of us have life and have it more abundantly.