I would have to say that the first time I decided to run a marathon, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. First of all, I did it mainly to be supportive of my wife. She wanted to run a marathon and I encouraged her to do it. So I said I would do it with her. Now I like to think I’m a good husband and all, but I have to tell you, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Had I known, I might not have been such a supportive husband.
We joined L.A. Roadrunners. Over 98% of everyone who trains with them finishes the race. They’re a great group. We trained for six months. The training was tough. But it was nothing compared to the actual race. Oh, the beginning of the marathon was fun and exciting. The music, the crowds, the cheers, all made those first few miles fall like quail when Dick Cheney is hunting. But after I ran a few miles uphill, the tide of joy for the race sort of ebbed a little. And by the time I got to mile twenty, Ijust wanted to scream. Every muscle in my body was screaming at that point.
My wife could run a lot faster than I could. So, of course, I encouraged her to run on ahead. I wanted her to turn in the best time she could. So I was running alone, just me and my Walkman. And, by the way, the third or fourth time you hear that song, you just want it all to be over. But after I crossed that finish line, and the volunteer placed that finisher’s medal over my head, tears came to my eyes. They were not tears of pain either. I had done it. I had finished. In that moment, I knew. It was worth all the pain of the training. It was worth all the pain of that day.
It was some kind of journey, I can tell you that. Life is often compared to a journey. Thanks to the Greeks, we see life is a very linear way. You start out being born, and you continue until you die, right? It’s very linear. The Middle East and Asia, not to mention James Earl Jones, tend to see life as more of a circle, and endless cycle of cycles, Spring to Winter and again and again. Birth and rebirth. The marathon was, at that time, a circle. It ended where it started. And when you think about it, most journeys are circles. That is, you go some place, but you come home again, don’t you? That’s the way it usually happens.
Literature loves to use the journey as a metaphor for life and learning. The Bible is full of journeys. The life of Jesus was one long journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The story of the Good Samaritan takes place during a journey. That’s how you learn things. You have to relate what you learn to something you already know. In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem when this happens:
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying,‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.” (Luke, Chapter 13)
The Bible thumpers love to use this story to scare the hell out of people. You better get your life straight ‘cause you ain’t gonna make it, boy. You ain’t gettin’ through no Pearly Gates ‘cause straaaaaaight is the path and narrrrroooow is the gate, and few there be that find it! It doesn’t jive well for me with the image of a loving forgiving father-God that Jesus usually describes.
Jesus constantly refers to God as father, even from the cross. Nobody wants to live in fear of Dad. That would certainly be an abusive father. No, it’s not about that. That’s just crazy talk. There are several things at play in this story.
First of all, clearly Jesus gets straight to the point in this story. He is asked if only a few people will be saved. The word translated as “saved” in Greek means “to be rescued”, or “kept from destruction”.
Jesus never answers that question, however. He does not answer that question because that is not the point. What the questioner wants to know is not how many will be saved. What the questioner wants to know is whether HE will be saved. That’s what really matters, isn’t it? Who cares how many are going to make it if you aren’t.
So Jesus tells him to “strive for the narrow gate.” In other words, he’s saying that attaining enlightenment is going to take work. Well….duh! The Jewish people at that time believed that, being God’s “chosen people”, they had a in with the all mighty. Jesus was telling the young man that you don’t get an easy way out just because somebody cut the end off your penis. That isn’t how it works.
And won’t you be surprised to see a bunch of the people you thought were nobodies there in Heaven with all those famous dudes from your culture like Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac. Jesus is saying that God loves everybody. If God is a parent/God, then S/He must recognize that, like all children, people seem to want to be the favorite child. It isn’t enough for us to be loved, we want to be loved to the exclusion of everybody else.
Finding the way to God, the Tao, the Atman, the Great Spirit, or whatever you want to call that power, is not easy. One look at the lives of any of the people we think of as holy should tell you that. But people are basically lazy. I know I am. And they want to be assured that they can make it into heaven simply be virtue of being circumcised, or baptized, or because they have magic underwear, or something like that.
But when you look at the word “saved”, you have to ask yourself, “saved from what?” People assume that this passage is about being saved from eternal damnation. But I don’t think it is hell from which people are to be saved, not from the point of view of Jesus. It is fear.
What we experience here in this life is fear. That is why the question is asked. How many will be saved? Will I be saved? The question is asked because the questioner is afraid. The questioner is thinking about death, or hell, or something like that. Jesus seems to make it clear again and again that God loves us all and forgives us all and will take care of us all. We are all heirs to the kingdom. The weeping and wailing Jesus talks about isn’t the weeping and wailing of hell. It is the weeping and wailing of fear.
One way or the other, there is no death. But you can’t let go of the fear of death until you understand that death is an illusion. And that takes work, as anybody who has ever conquered a fear of anything can tell you.
The only way to lose that fear and anxiety is to have faith in a loving spirit God. Remember, in Greek, “faith” is a verb. It is not something you have. It is something you do. And that will take some work. It takes prayer and meditation. It means taking care of one another. It means loving people you don’t particularly feel like loving. It takes thought—and no thought (as the Zen masters have come to understand).
You don’t gain that understanding by birth right. You don’t gain it by having a little water thrown over your head. You don’t gain it by taking some magic pill. Finding a path to enlightenment reminds us that it is a path, a journey. Robert Frost, in his poem, “The Road Not Taken”, said:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
We all learned in high school what he meant by that. But there is a reason the road not taken is “less traveled by”. It is a hard freakin’ road to take. If it were easy, everybody would take it. We’ve all taken difficult roads in life. Sometimes we took them on purpose. I know the best choices I ever made in life were the ones most difficult, having kids, going to college, studying kung fu, learning the guitar.
And sometimes we take those difficult roads by accident. I don’t think I would have run a marathon had I know how difficult it would be. But I did. Six times. Either way, you gain a lot from those difficult paths you choose. I will say this. I am certainly glad that Jesus said that the last shall be first, because that is about where I came in on that first marathon—last. Well, maybe not last, but it sure felt like it. It will be nice to come in first for a change.