In our scriptures today we have two dramatic episodes, one from the Old Testament, and the other in our Gospel reading and they parallel each other. These are moments of decision, of choosing, of deciding where one’s loyalties lay, where faith is really and truly properly placed.
Many of you know the first story, or at least the quotation drawn from it. Joshua, in a meeting he has called of all the tribes of Israel toward the end of his time as leader, states unequivocally: “as for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.” In this, he challenges those gathered to make a similar affirmation of faith in the one true God who delivered them from Egypt and into the Promised Land.
In the Gospel, we have a crisis. Jesus has asserted that unless one eats his flesh and drinks his blood, you cannot have true life. And for many, indeed most of those who hear this, they cannot accept this teaching and leave. Yet Peter, and the other members of the twelve, stay. But it’s not much of an endorsement. From what we read there is no affirmation by the twelve of what Jesus has said. Peter says, with what one can easily imagine as a tone of resignation and perhaps some exasperation, that they have really no choice. Coming to understand Jesus as a teacher of truth, they will accept what he has said, not because they are convinced, but as a result of the trust they have in our Lord – and well, they’re already so far in, there’s no going back.
Now, what would you have said? As an ancient Hebrew called to put your faith in completing the project of conquest of the Promised Land through belief in this still rather “new” god that Moses and Joshua proclaim; would you have been as forthright as Joshua?
Were you an ancient Galilean or Judean, Samaritan or Gentile, listening to Jesus make the outrageous, and more than disturbing assertion that in consuming him, eating his flesh and blood, you would receive true life, indeed, everlasting life; would you really have said, “Yeah, I believe that.”
We have to be careful of the conceit that we would have; that we would have been so exceptional and seen the truth of it all and made the right call. We know in retrospect; we’re reading the story. Think of what a person standing among the crowds gathered at Shechem thought about the world around him; assumed about the nature of the universe, understood about God or the gods. What were the influences upon him that came from the wider world that was filled with all kinds of different religions, different notions of science, of what the proper political order ought to be?
Remember also that they don’t have a Bible – if lucky there maybe some copies of the law kept in secure places, guarded by priests in hilltop sanctuaries, accessible in detail only by the few who can read and write. Living in an oral culture, the law, the stories of the great Exodus from Egypt under Moses, the even older stories of Abraham and Isaac, you will hear them told one way in one place, and among another tribe, a slightly different story. There is no authorized version accessible to everyone, a few clicks away on the internet, a copy of the Torah available at the local book store or online through Indigo/Chapters.
And let’s remember that this is just one generation removed from the slaves who were in bondage in Egypt. Don’t assume you’ve got gathered before Joshua a group of committed monotheists, don’t picture in your head devout Jews wearing the tallit, the prayer shawl. These are folks who likely have gotten no further than considering that maybe Yahweh, the God who says his name is “I am” may be the most powerful god among gods. You would likely still encounter a lot of people who were still struggling with the idea that the god of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob is this Yahweh – sure Moses said he is, but maybe Moses was wrong. You’ll have some of these people attached to old gods, even gods of Egypt, who might think that it was these who really delivered them personally from bondage, and that this Yahweh was taking undeserved credit. And there were likely still others who didn’t know what to think of the “Lord” that Joshua serves; that they stuck with Moses and later Joshua because these men were lucky, that things seemed to work out for them, and so like the guy at the roulette table who’s on a winning streak, you keep putting your chips next to his and hope the winning numbers keep coming.
The secular example that comes to mind of this temptation to think to well of ourselves flips the scenario from how well you would recognize the truth and goodness of the true God to how well you’d suss out and reject evil. The classic example is one that features in a Jordan Peterson YouTube. Whatever our opinion of Peterson, he makes a solid argument based on sound psychological principles that most people, if they had found themselves in Germany in the early 1930s, would either have been Nazis, or to some degree supportive of the National Socialists as they came to power; at the very least tolerant of them, naïve about them – very few of us would have taken the time to work out the consequences of letting the odious, evil ideas of the National Socialist program develop and be applied. If at all perturbed, we’d more than likely look past their promises to cleanse the nation, to punish the enemies among the German people, and lose ourselves in the fantastic schemes they had to create full employment, a national insurance scheme, put a chicken in every pot, and an automobile in every driveway.
Of course, in hindsight the wild promises they made were completely unaffordable, and the nation more or less had to go to war before all the deficit spending caught up with them; but boy what a good ride it was right up until the crushing defeat at Stalingrad.
Now, of course, the racial theories they espoused appear to be so obviously destined to come to no good. But we forget that their racialist ideas were really just one expression of what was current in the world of ideas about race, eugenics, the primacy of the nation over the individual, and so on; that there were Americans and British intellectuals, French and Russian thinkers who comfortably discussed such things, perhaps regarding that Nazis of the early 1930s as maybe taking it all a little too far.
It’s interesting to note that Germany in the 1930s was easily the most educated nation on earth – more graduates of secondary and post-secondary institutions per capita than anywhere else, including the United States. So, academia is no bulwark against tyranny; more often than not, it is easily co-opted and then works to legitimize oppression through intellectual contortions and scientistic gibberish – study the Soviet Union’s intellectual history to see just how debased and degraded universities can become when they are captured by an ideology, when science serves a government agenda, and effectively ceases to be science.
This problem of knowing good and evil, discerning truth from lies, has gotten no easier. And untethered from our faith traditions as so much of our society is today, most people don’t have anything to test the assertions, promises, statements of our authorities against, to make moral evaluations of it all. They’re like those who gathered at Shechem, no bible, and subject to all kinds of influences and forces, many contrary to faith in the one true God, but of this they are largely unaware, or arrogantly assume they’re smart enough to know best.
If we think we will know evil because the bad guys will conveniently dress in black, laugh maniacally and rub there hands together in excited anticipation of the havoc they will wreak upon us all, we have learned nothing, forgotten everything, and are truly lost.
If we think it’s a matter of convictions, that those who make promise and publicly declare themselves for us, if we can detect insincerity in their desire to truly do good, that’s its just about power – then we’ll know not to trust them. However, if you know anything about the murdering tyrants of the 20th century: Stalin, Mao Zedong and Hitler – they were all in deadly earnest, thoroughly authentic, deadly sincere about their ideas for perfecting the world.
Now, what I’ve given you are extreme examples. I don’t think we’re quite there yet – but the principle is the same. There are all kinds of forces at work upon us; a world that is not concerned with our salvation, yet filled with those who earnestly want to enlist us in this cause or that, heedless of our concern to be faithful to God’s law, truth and love. It was not for nothing that Saint Paul said that we work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
The tests for us are few but can give some indication of where truth and goodness is among the authorities, the politicians and the so-called experts. How much of Christ do you see in them, hear of him in their words?
Do we find humility? Or bravado? Do they make threats? Do they bully? Or do they offer a vision of blessings; something like Christ’s beatitudes? Do they sow suspicion? Divide? Or do they seek to reconcile? Who are their friends? Their enemies? Are they rational? And I don’t mean coldly logical, but is it all emotion with them? Rage and extasy?
Really, we are looking for who is truly most Christlike; and by their fruit we can also know something.
Of course, in the coming election we have as catholics poor options despite having so many catholics standing for office. For example, all of the parties now are explicitly pro-abortion. When sifting the candidates, looking for wheat among an awful lot of chaff; we might be left looking for the most appetising chaff this time around.
But in all this choosing, our first choice must be God, and in what feeds us, it cannot be the promises found in political pamphlets, but the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour. Serve God, be nourished in Christ – for God’s sake and yours pray through this time of election, choose carefully, in humility, work it out in fear and trembling; offer up your anxiety to God, draw inspiration from the Saints, enlist the help of our Lady, be firm in faith and remember always that Christ is our one true lord and saviour.