Only Two Paths
Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken' captures the imagination with the image of a traveller standing at a fork in the road. Frost describes the dilemma by say, 'long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth...' The captivating part of the poem is that this imagery succinctly expresses our dilemma as travelers on the road of life. Each day, two paths emerge before us, and at the end of the day, we will look back and exclaim with Frost that the path we have chosen 'has made all the difference,' for better or worse. Two paths loom before us each day - and these paths have been spoken of and used as a vital teaching tool in the Church for more than 2000 years. In fact, in the early days of the Church (and even before that, as we will see) this teaching tool known as 'The Two Paths/Ways' was the primary method of discipling in the Church.
I first recognized this method of teaching as I was studying a little-known work of John Wesley's, what turned out to be, in essence, his own version of a catechism. Wesley produced a work called 'Instructions for Children' which he began to disburse to his field preachers to distribute among the Methodist connections scattered around England. This thin little work (about 36 pages) was also used to teach reading and discipleship to the children at Wesley's Kingswood school, a school he created to educate the children of the miners who lived in the rough suburb of Bristol, England. In his 'Instructions for Children' I noticed a pattern emerging. Wesley continually made sharp contrasts between wisdom and foolishness, darkness and light, God's way and the way of destruction - over and over again he would hold up two opposites for the consideration of his audience. And he was always very clear about the consequences and eventual destination of each path.
As I studied Wesley's 'Instructions for Children' I began to realize that he was tapping into a deeper tradition, and I followed the trail back through the history of the Church. I found that St. Augustine taught using a clear Two-Path model, suggesting that the things we love will dictate the direction of our lives, the path we will take. Other great thinkers of the early Church such as Clement of Alexandria and Ignatius of Antioch used a Two-Path format in their teaching and instruction of young disciples. And three of the most important documents in the early Church (the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas) all employed the Two-Path format for large portions of their content. Continuing our march back to the core of Christianity, many scholars point to a number of similarities between the Didache and the Gospel of Matthew. While there may not be a direct connection between the two, scholars point to 'a number' of shared 'traditions' or sources between the two books. And of course, Matthew has given us the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus declares, 'Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.' (Matthew 7:13-14)
One of the clearest examples of the Two-Ways formula may be found in the numerous virtue and vice lists seen scattered through the New Testament, such as the one in Colossians 3:5-14 where Paul clearly describes Two Ways of life: 'Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)...now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self...As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.' This pattern of Two Ways of life is also seen throughout the Old Testament, featured prominently in passages like Psalm 1, Ps 16, Ps. 119, Deuteronomy 5, Joshua 22, Proverbs 8, Jeremiah 21 and Zechariah 1.
All of this leaves me with questions. Why has this simplistic method been used so often? Why has the Church put so much faith in an educational delivery system this bland and homely? Aren't there other, more sophisticated methods of delivering knowledge, of forming and shaping people? Well, maybe there are, but this fact remains - this model continues to surface in the Church, thousands of years after the Psalmist instructed us about the Righteous and the Wicked, the diverging paths of Trees and chaff, and there must be a reason for that. Is it possible that the main reason is because, if we were honest, we all long for a third path? Isn't it feasible that God knows us so well, knows that given our choice, we'd create a third way - one that
wouldn't really be all that evil, wouldn't really hurt us or anyone else, it would just allow us to kind of interpret what God wanted us to do, and maybe lighten the load a bit, loosen the restraints just an inch. Would that really be so bad? Doesn't that kind of argument sound familiar? Perhaps God is right, maybe two paths are enough. And maybe Robert Frost is right too - the path we take makes all the difference in where we end up and what kinds of people we become. Lord, make our paths straight, and lead us in the way Everlasting, Amen.