Following Jesus involves decisions. We may not notice this when the way seems easy, when we have joyful fellowship, spiritual consolations, and approval by the world. But since Jesus calls us to follow him on the “narrow way” that leads to heaven, at times the need for clear decisions becomes obvious and challenging. Our flesh will want to know in advance the outcome of every decision – whether life will get easier, we will have enough support, and everything will work out as we wish. But that is not how it works. A decision to follow the Lord is based on faith in him, not on our desired outcomes.
In today’s first reading, Joshua gathers all the Israelite tribal leaders and sets this challenge before them: “Decide today whom you will serve.” Joshua is near the end of his life; he wants to set his people on course for their future in the Promised Land. In the verses that are not included in today’s reading, Joshua reminds the Israelites of how the Lord has guided, protected and provided for them for many years. Speaking in the name of the Lord, he concludes his message saying, “I gave you a land you did not till and cities you did not build, to dwell in; you ate of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Josh 24:13). Therefore, the decision to serve the Lord is not a leap in the dark. When we recall the facts, the evidence of God’s goodness throughout our life, it is a most reasonable decision.
Still, it is a challenge, so the word of God urges us, “Decide today…” We will make no progress in our spiritual lives until we decide and then act upon the decision. God can only guide us if we are willing to move. As the saying goes, “God cannot steer a parked car.” We can never know exactly how everything will work out in the future – whether this is really the “right time,” or the “right person,” or the “right job.” But if we do nothing at all, waiting for everything to be perfect, there is no chance of being redirected to the good end that the Lord has in store for us.
Joshua does not merely insist that the Israelites “decide today.” He also inspires them with his leadership by boldly declaring his own decision. Without knowing what anyone else is going to do, he states clearly, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” The reading notes that the people “stood in ranks before God,” indicating that they understood that Joshua was speaking in the name of God. In the Church, our clergy speak in the name of God. In particular, the Pope, called by Christ to lead the Church, is empowered to speak the truth to us in special and intentional proclamations, just as Joshua did in today’s reading.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), in which Bl. Pope Paul VI (soon to be canonized) reiterated the Church’s traditional teaching on married love and responsible parenthood, rejecting contraception as immoral. The message the Pope delivered was not what many had expected, nor desired. Many declared, like the disciples in today’s Gospel, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Catholics had to decide: would they trust God? Would they seek to understand something that baffled modern minds? Would they declare, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD”? Like the Israelites in Joshua’s day, Catholics had an opportunity to look at the history of God’s care and guidance of his Mystical Body, the Church, and trust that a decision to follow the Lord in this matter was the right one. Unfortunately, many people “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
There are many passages in the Bible and many teachings of the Church about which we might react, “This saying is hard.” When the word of God is difficult to understand, or – more likely – difficult to follow, we can be tempted to withdraw and “return to our former way of life.” One example of a hard saying can be found in the “longer form” of today’s second reading, where St. Paul says that “wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” Since this passage is bound to cause difficulties, the Church allows a “shorter form” that omits it. The admonition to husbands, “love your wives,” will be read in every Catholic parish today, and no one will object, but not the part about wives being “subordinate.” It is indicative of our fallen nature that we bristle at the very idea of being “subordinate” to anyone.
Here St. Paul is teaching us about the “great mystery” of the marriage relationship of Christ and the Church. It is tragic that we can fail to appreciate the greatness of this gift because of our pride, our foundational sin, the sin that caused the original man and woman to defy the Lord in the first place. Its opposite, humility, is still difficult for us! Even when we see the disorder and the terrible consequences of living as our own bosses, our proud, broken selves still fight against being subordinate to the Lord. This is why we must renew our surrender to him every day. It is a daily decision, a “daily offering,” following the example of Mary, our Blessed Mother: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
When we are faced with confusion, lack of understanding, and fear, our best option is to turn to the Lord, not away from him. Today, we learn from St. Peter, the first Pope, to cling to Jesus with a strong decision of faith, saying, “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.”
When do I find it difficult to “serve the Lord”? How does pride affect my decisions? In the midst of confusion, do I turn to Christ?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.