St Cyril of Alexander, in his commentary, remarks that instead of answering the question, Jesus explains to the man the way whereby he might be saved himself. He does not answer the ‘useless question’, but speaks of what is ‘essential’, namely ‘of the knowledge necessary for the performance of those duties by which people can enter the narrow door’. That door is necessarily narrow because those who wish to enter by it ‘must first before everything else possess an upright and uncorrupted faith and then a spotless morality, in which there is no possibility of blame, according to the measure of human righteousness’.
What is the wide door? It refers to ‘an unrestrained tendency toward carnal lust and a shameful and pleasure-loving life’. A stubborn mind will not bow to God’s Law, and wealth, vices, scorn and ‘earthly pride’ are the results; those seeking the narrow gate must abandon these things.
In Sermon 308, St Augustine tells us that ‘all who live unjust and irreligious lives are Christ’s enemies, even if they are signed with his name and are called Christians’. St Cyril agrees, calling these people those who attend church and hear the doctrines of the church and remember nothing of them; them outwardly observe virtuous practice, but their hearts are barren of spiritual fruit; such as these will in no wise enter the kingdom.
St Cyril points out that this foreshadows what will happen to the Jews. They are about to forfeit their place as Gods Chosen people, and their place will be given to those Jews and Gentiles who follow Christ’s call.
St Bede comments that many, at first conversion, burn with zeal, but afterward grow cold; others, at first lukewarm, grow more ardent; many who are despised in this world, will be glorified in that to come, whilst many renowned among men will, at the last suffer condemnation.
One is reminded of the occasion on which the Rev Ian Paisley is supposed to have preached on this text, and an old woman asking him what about those with false teeth, to which he is said to have responded: ‘Teeth will be provided.’
St Cyril is right to note that Our Lord does not answer the question ‘how many?’ We should take care not to substitute our answer for the one He did not provide. The Gate is indeed narrow, and that alone should give us pause for thought.
A priest I know tells a good story which he adds to his sermon on this text. A grand lady, having died and gone to Heaven, is shown to her celestial abode by an angel. At each grand mansion they pass, she is sure this one is for her, but they pass by them all until they come to something which is just a hut. “I cannot live in that”, says the grand lady. “But I am afraid, madam’, say the angel, “that was all we could build with the material you have provided.”