Those of you of a certain age will remember a very popular ad campaign from a few decades ago. For over twenty years we saw commercial after commercial showing men and women in uniform performing all sorts of challenging tasks – both physical and technical. And while we watched these images a song played in the background – a song that contained one of the most famous slogans in advertising history. Do you remember what it is?
Be . . . all that you can be . . . in the army!
(You can find it on YouTube)
If you hadn’t thought of that song in a long time, you will soon forget it. On the surface it might seem that that particular phrase is too simple, too trite – maybe even a little corny. But on another level, it works. Really works. The combination of the visual images and the song makes a tangible connection between high achievement and service in the army. They’re not saying the army is easy. They’re not saying it is “fun”. And they’re not saying you’ll make a really good living.
Instead, they’re saying aim high. Set lofty goals. Don’t be okay with mediocrity. Don’t settle for something less, or something that demands little. With those six little words . . . . . . be all that you can be . . . they are encouraging young men and women to strive to fulfill their potential. And they are telling their audience that the army is a suitable environment to do just that. I’m sure that enlistments were strong during the years these commercials aired -otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted for over two decades.
Be all that you can be. This is nothing “new” of course. Many of us strive to achieve in all sorts of ways. You might be one of those people. And most of us strongly encourage our children to do just that. And so many of us get extra academic degrees. And we put in extra time at work hoping to get a promotion. And we exercise religiously. And we make our kids do their homework. And we don’t let them skip their sports when they don’t feel like going. And we make them say ‘please and thank you’. And we keep our homes in tip-top shape (or at least try to). And in matters of faith . . . .
Hmmmm. That one is little tougher. Now, let’s not forget – we’re all here today – and so that’s a start. That’s at least making an effort. That’s a step in the right direction. But can we say that we want to “achieve” in faith to the same extent that we want to “achieve” in other ways?
Do we want to be the best we can be when it comes to following Jesus, or serving God, or doing the right thing? Or would we rather settle for less? In other words – do
we aim high when it comes to many areas of our lives, but aim much lower when it comes to our faith?
In today’s Gospel passage from St. Luke we hear one of the sternest (maybe even scariest) phrases in Scripture. Jesus tells the people (and us),
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate.”
In fact, I don’t like the sound of that. Not one little bit. It almost sounds as if being on the outside is the “default” position, and being on the inside is the exception. But is that really what we truly believe about God? Is that who we know him (in faith) to be? Is this the same God who was born of Mary, preached and taught and worked miracles, suffered and died and rose to new life for our sake and the sake of the whole world?
Of course. And that tells us that we’re probably not thinking of this story in the way we should. Think for a moment. The story doesn’t say that the gate is closed. Nor does it say that we can’t all “fit” on the other side. But it does say that it is “narrow” – and maybe that’s a clue to understanding this passage.
Part of the problem (I think) arises when we ONLY think of this passage in terms of what happens AFTER our earthly lives have ended (although that is certainly valid as well as common interpretation). But if we think of the other side of the gate being the “kingdom” or “life with and in God” or “communion with the Divine” – then the passage takes on a somewhat deeper meaning.
Then “striving to enter the narrow gate” becomes much more about focusing on those things that keep us securely connected to our God, those things that form an intimate bond with him, those things that unite us most perfectly to our Lord. The truth is, a life for, in, and with God does not happen purely by accident. No, rather, it comes about when we strive to “be the best that we can be” – when we strive to embrace and live as the authentic person God calls us to be, the best version of ourselves – live out the very things Jesus has shown us in a perfect way. The gate is “narrow” not because God wants to keep us from him, but rather is narrow because living a life of faith is not some vague thing – but rather involves living in a particular way, thinking in a particular way, and seeing in a particular way. It’s not about simply avoiding doing anything too bad. That’s keeping God somewhat at a distance.
And so we’ll probably never fully step through the narrow gate, never share in God’s life in the most intimate way, never experience the fullness of life God wants for each of us – if we simply settle, if we aim low, if we think that loving a little and giving a little and forgiving a little is enough. But if we truly strive to absolutely “be the best we can be” when it comes to every God-thing – love, mercy, kindness, generosity, compassion, forgiveness – then we can be (humbly) confident of every good thing awaiting us when our God takes our hand and leads us through the gate
. . . today, tomorrow, and into eternity.