Who do you serve? This question is at the heart of both the first reading and the Gospel this weekend. In our first reading from the Book of Joshua and in our Gospel from John, a challenge is raised and we are confronted by the question rather starkly, albeit in two different contexts, with the question: who or what do you serve? God? or Someone or something else?
In the case of Joshua, we have a leader within the community of Israel — a community, by the way, which has a history of occupation and exile — that is faced with an ostensible conflict of cultures, values, religions, and practices. The people, Joshua exclaims, have been lax when it comes to practicing the true faith, of living up to the covenant with the Lord. There has been a blurring of the line between the cultures, values, religion, and practices of the People of God with that of the so-called pagan societies that surround the Israelites.
Joshua is calling the people to remember who they are, what their identity is, and to recall that this identity has always been defined by their relationship to the One God (YHWH)! What he’s doing in this reading is essentially saying: “Wake up folks, be aware of what you’re doing, and take your faith seriously! Either you worship The Lord or you worship these false gods, but you can’t keep living life going through the motions, unthinkingly and unreflectively doing whatever you want. Live the Covenant or don’t, but stop kidding yourselves and be honest!”
In the Gospel, Jesus likewise brings his disciples back to reality and tells them also, in so many words, to stop kidding around. Living the Gospel is hard! That is, when we actually take it seriously and not just blur the lines between our Christian discipleship and professed faith and many of the competing “religions” of our day. And there are many, here are three of the most popular contemporary “Religions”:
- The Religion of Consumerism — it takes many forms, whether the “prosperity Gospel” or the some form of elevation of wealth, accumulation, and material possessions beyond what is necessary for human flourishing. It is a religion that is practiced in our shopping malls, online, and in every part of our society. It offers its hymns of television ads and highway billboards, presents its liturgical presiders in the form of celebrities who promote this or that product that you “must have,” and gives people the false sense of salvation won through things and money.
- The Religion of Nationalism — This is the belief that one’s country, in this case the United States of America, is the most important thing in life and ultimately treated like an end in itself instead of the arbitrary, if important, historical construction that should really be intended to provide for the welfare and safety of its citizens. Tied to this religion is the novenas that are said in the ardent defense of partisan views and political positions that nowadays makes no room for discussion, civility, or compromise. The person of different political and economic worldview is not simply a person with a different political or economic worldview, but a heretic and a traitor, someone deserving banishment and excommunication! This religion, in subtle and at-times overt ways, teaches its adherents that being faithful means being willing to kill for one’s country, but not die for one’s faith.
- The Religion of Individualism — There are many denominations in this contemporary religious tradition, but each comes down to a basic worship of oneself. My god might not be money or country, but it certainly isn’t the God of Jesus Christ (although I might trick myself into thinking it is), but rather the god of “me.” I come first no matter what and selfishness is masked as responsibility, hoarding money and things is disguised as self-suffiency and planning, and my benefit at the expense of others is heralded as virtuous. It is a religion that worships the truly atheistic “god” of someone like the novelist Ayn Rand, whose credo begins, not with “I believe in one God,” but with the aphoristic “God helps those who help themselves, and if you are poor, unemployed, struggling in life — it’s obviously your fault and I have no obligation to help you!”
These are not the religion of Jesus Christ, these are false religions that are popular and insidiously ubiquitous in our time. Like the people of Israel in our first reading, we are too often tempted, usually without realizing it, to blur the line between Christianity and these false religions, choosing to practice what we like instead of what we are called to believe.
We justify the tenets of these false faiths b telling ourselves that “Christianity supports this” and that “the way that I see the world is the way that God does.” In fact, that is often not the case at all. In truth, Christianity is harder, more complicated, and nearly as black-and-white as these false religions of our day would have us believe.
I recently read an interesting novel titled, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House Books), by Christopher Beha. It’s a book about young writers, friendship, love, faith, and the different decisions we have to make everyday in small and big ways.
The two main characters discover, again and again it seems, that the easy answers they want — one is entirely disinterested in organized religion, while the other is something of a zealous convert to Catholicism — don’t arrive. Instead, they are, each in their own way, confronted with Jesus’s challenge in today’s Gospel: this is not easy, do you still want to follow me? Can you still follow me?
In the process of life and figuring these things out, the characters in the book, like you and I, have to grapple with the reality that what following the Gospel means, at times, is that we have to act not in our own personal interest, but place others first. We have to strive to do what might seem impossible, as Jesus laid the mission out before us: love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable, and work to heal the brokenness and broken-heartedness of humanity in our world.
So the question of today’s readings remains a question for us today: In the end, who do you serve?