Whom do you serve?
In the first reading today, Joshua asks this question of the Israelite people. Joshua had taken over as leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses. Moses had led the people out of Egypt, out of slavery, right up to the threshold of the Promised Land. He had been an advocate before God on behalf of the people, and had called upon God to feed them with manna from Heaven. He asked God to provide them with water from the rock. Yet, because he struck the rock twice, and displayed distrust in God’s providence, he himself was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. So, after looking across the Jordan Valley at the Promised Land, Moses died. It was Joshua who crossed the Jordan at the head of the People Israel, and led them in battle against the inhabitants of the Land.
You will recall how long the journey was from Egypt to the Promised Land. For forty years, they wandered in the desert. Remember also how the people grumbled against Moses. They were sick and tired of wandering in the desert, and they began to say that they were better off in Egypt, in slavery. In Egypt, even though they were not free, they were complacent and resigned to their slavery. They were oppressed, not being allowed to worship the one true God, the God of their ancestors. They had no religious freedom. They had submitted to the yoke of the Pharaoh, who was considered to be a god-man in Egypt. They existed to work, and to serve the Pharaoh. But they were OK with it, as long as they had food on the table.
We could easily skip over this story, saying, “Thank goodness we don’t live like them! Thank God we are not slaves like those poor, hapless Israelites!” But not so fast. There is nothing new under the sun. Consider that the Israelites did not become slaves overnight. They did not get together one day and vote to become an enslaved people. They emigrated to Egypt during a famine in their own land, and they became slaves of the Pharaoh very slowly, over a period of generations. Little by little, their rights and freedoms were taken away, until they were gone. We must learn a lesson from them, for in a similar way, we, who live in this free country, are at risk of giving our freedom away.
It happens so slowly, in subtle ways. It rarely happens overnight, in an election, a referendum, or a Supreme Court decision. It happens in the daily choices that you and I make. We choose slavery or freedom by our daily actions. Whether we know it or not, we choose the god we will serve each and every day. But why do we do this?
Man is a religious animal. That means we will worship and serve something. If we don’t choose true religion and worship of the one true God, then there will be a void, a vacuum, in our soul, and something or someone will fill it. There are so many false gods out there that demand our attention.
Joshua knew this. He knew that if the Israelites did not choose to serve the one true God, they would instead serve the false gods of Canaan. So, on his deathbed, he gathered the people to himself and placed the choice before him. And he said to them, in a verse that I’m sure you see hung in so many homes, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
But it is not vain sentimentality. It has to be backed up by action. If it isn’t, then the words mean nothing. We have to back it up by action. For example:
- When we make prayer our first priority in the morning, we choose to serve the Lord.
- When we choose religious education over sports, we choose to serve the Lord.
- When we choose Mass over a couple more hours at the lake, we choose to serve the Lord.
- When we choose to ask off work on a Holy Day of Obligation, we choose to serve the Lord.
- When we choose to have more children instead of having more stuff, we choose to serve the Lord.
None of these other things are bad in themselves. But oh, how easily they take precedence over the practice of our faith. And then, little by little, we lose the Faith. The Israelites promised Joshua that they would also serve the Lord. But we know from the rest of the Old Testament that it didn’t last long. They didn’t back up their words with actions, and eventually their enemies conquered them.
Today, we are not under such a threat from a foreign army. Rather, we are under threat from the enemies of the Church. Religious freedom, in particular, is under attack. The followers of the false god of secularism seek to take away our freedom of conscience, especially from those who bake wedding cakes, take wedding pictures, and those who do not wish to pay for their employees’ abortions and contraception. These enemies demand worship of pleasure and deny personal responsibility. They teach the dogma of environmentalism. Their prophets are atheists and their saints are dead scientists. They replace the virtues of faith, hope, and charity with the false virtues of tolerance, diversity, and permissiveness. They burn the incense of mind-altering drugs. They demand the bloody sacrifice of the unborn.
If we don’t take a stand against these subtle and not-so-subtle attacks, we, like the Israelites, will lose the Faith. And when we lose the Faith, we lose our country too.
We are not made to worship those false gods. We are not made for slavery. Rather, we have been born again of water and the Spirit. We are granted the gift of faith at our baptism. We have rejected sin and professed our belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We can come to Jesus today, for by our baptism, it has already been granted to us by the Father. We are free.
In today’s gospel, when Jesus finished his teaching on the Bread of Life, many disciples in the crowd balked at it. They were casual disciples, but when the teaching got difficult, they abandoned Jesus. They did not believe that he is the Bread of Life, and that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. And they walked away. To put it in other words, they had “other priorities.”
Then Jesus, like Joshua before him, placed a question before the Twelve. “Do you also want to leave?” And St. Peter answers, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” His words are an echo of the words of the ancient Israelites, “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
Brothers and sisters, we also have a decision to make. Whom do you serve? Today, and every day, say it with your actions: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” For freedom’s sake, you have been set free. Live like a free man today.