The Right Choice, 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), August 27, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
21st Sunday in OT, Year B
August 27, 2000
Joshua 24:1-2,15-18; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

1) Today’s readings could not be possibly more dramatic — or more important for us. They bring us face-to-face with the fact that each of us, like the Israelites in Shechem, and the disciples in Capharnaum, are called to make a choice, a choice for or against the God who has already chosen us, the God who created us, loved us from the beginning, revealed himself to us, sent his only Son to die for us, blessed us in innumerable ways and prepared a place for us in heaven. And each of us has to choose. This is the most important choice we’ll ever to have to make. Today’s readings are a gift to help us to choose well.

2) In the first reading, Joshua assembles all of the tribes of Israel in Shechem and makes the following proposal to them: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” This is an amazing scene. The Israelites had just arrived in the Holy Land, after having been liberated from slavery in Egypt, after having seen the miracles God worked to free them from Pharaoh’s power, after having witnessed the miracles the Lord worked for them in the desert, feeding them with manna from heaven, quenching their thirst with water from the rock, and countless others. One would think they had already been following the Lord during this time, following him in the pillar of cloud, following him in the persons of Moses and then Joshua, his chosen servants. But then Joshua hits them with the question, “Decide today whom you will serve.”

3) In order to understand why Joshua would say such a thing, we have to recognize first that Joshua understood two important truths. The first truth was that God had created the Israelites, as he has every human being, free, free to choose him, and free to choose against him. This he did ultimately out of love for us, so that we might participate in the greatness of being free like Him. Animals are not free, because they cannot and do not choose their behavior, but act only out of instincts or needs or habits. God created man and woman free so that man and woman ultimately might be able to love, to love themselves, to love each other, to love God. This is an important truth, because no one can ever be forced to love. Love is the choice to give of oneself to and for another, and if it is ever forced, under physical or emotional pressure, it’s not really love. Likewise God never forces us to love him. Unlike what some Christians occasionally believe, God doesn’t try to “extort” or love out of him. These Christians basically say, “We have no choice but to love God and serve Him. If we don’t, he’ll send us to hell forever.” They sometimes look at the commandments with great fear, as if God is on the sidelines just waiting for us to violate one of them, so that he can immediately then just take our life and send us to hell. This is not God’s plan at all. God gave us the commandments to teach us how to love appropriately — because every violation of a commandment is a violation to love God or our neighbor — and gave us heaven and hell because he respected our freedom so much that he wanted to give us a choice about eternity. Ultimately heaven is for those who freely choose to love God and all those God created in this life and Hell is for all those who refused to love God and others in this life, those who rather wanted to use their freedom egotistically to choose themselves at the expense of their Creator and all others, those who made themselves gods. God created Hell out of love for those whom he created free and who used their freedom to choose against Him. And Hell is in a certain sense what those who choose against God would prefer, because heaven — where everyone just worships and loves God eternally — would be Hell for them. If God “forced” everyone into heaven, there would really be no freedom in this life. In order for there to be freedom, there has to be a choice of alternatives, and God gives us that choice. He hopes that we choose well and choose Him — and he’ll give us all of the help we need to do so — but he doesn’t force us to choose him.

4) The second truth that Joshua recognized was the choice for or against God is something that is made in every decision, and hence is something that constantly has to be renewed. This is something that is obvious in human nature. Even when we choose something for life or forever — like marriage, or priesthood, or religious life — we constantly make choices that are either faithful to that prior choice or unfaithful to it. In the same way, the Israelites needed to choose again. It was, in a certain sense, easy to choose God when they were desperate in slavery and God chose to free them with an extraordinary succession of miracles. It was also easy to choose him when he was working miracles for them in the desert and then helping them defeat the occupants of the land He had promised them. But now that they were free from slavery, now that they had come to the land of milk and honey (a land of plenty), they had to choose again, to choose the Lord, or to choose the gods their ancestors worshipped, or choose the gods of the people with whom they were now inhabiting, or choose to make other gods they would worship now that they no longer seemed so “dependent” on the Lord.

5) In the Gospel, Jesus presents the disciples with another stark choice. After he had said that unless a person gnaws on his flesh and drinks his blood, he has no life in him, many of the disciples remarked, “How can anyone take it seriously?” and many of them broke away and would not remain in his company any longer. Notice that we’re told it was the DISCIPLES who murmured with these questions and went away, not the Pharisees and Scribes who didn’t accept Jesus from the beginning. Those who had been following Jesus, listening to his discourses, witnessing his miracles were the one to complain and scatter. Jesus had given them the choice to follow him and said that following him meant eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and they rejected it. Jesus didn’t run after them and say, “You misunderstood me, all I was talking about was a spiritual flesh or blood,” which wouldn’t have been true. He knew that they had heard him appropriately but they didn’t want to do it. Jesus also didn’t run after them and say, “Let’s negotiate!,” “just keep a few commandments and still be my disciples and we’ll call it even.” The faith, the truth, isn’t up for negotation. They could accept it or reject it but they couldn’t lay conditions on it. Neither did Jesus try to “guilt-trip” or scare them back into his fold, by threatening them with misery in this life or eternal Hell fire in the next. He didn’t do that because he respected their freedom. He therefore let them choose against Him, as much as that must have hurt him, because he came from heaven to save them, loved them and had spent so much time trying to cultivate in them the life of grace. But as we read, “they refused to believe.”

6) Jesus’ remarkable response, rather, was to turn to his closest collaborators, the twelve apostles, and say to them, “Do you too want to leave me?” What a question! Do you too wish to go? The twelve couldn’t have understood the reality of the Eucharist and eating Jesus’ flesh and blood any more than the disciples who had departed did. It was a mystery that exceeded human capacity for understanding and one that would be clarified only somewhat during the Last Supper and later during the Resurrection appearances. But Peter, filled with grace, recognized that in choosing the Lord in faith, he was choosing to trust him, even when things didn’t make perfect sense, even when things became difficult. And so he stood up and said, “Lord, 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.” In other words, he declared, “We believe you, Jesus, and we trust in you,” no matter what. And they chose him again — or all of them did, except Judas.

7) What does all of this mean for us? It means that we have to choose, again, today. We cannot rest comfortable on the choices we’ve made in the past, or those others made on our behalf at our baptism. The Lord calls us to choose him each day, but also gives us the freedom to choose against him. We see this freedom at work anytime we’re confronted with the temptation to sin, anytime we’re confronted with the ability to do a good deed. We’re confronted with the same choice that the Israelites were, to worship the Lord Our God or to worship other the other gods that surround us.

8 ) What are these other gods? There are three very popular competing gods today. The first is money. How many people worship money rather than the true God today! The most popular reason people give me when I ask them why they haven’t been coming to Mass is “Well, Father, I have to work.” In some cases — like doctors, nurses, police and firemen, even restaurant workers — they may have to do their works of public service on Sunday (which still doesn’t take away their obligation to go to some Mass on the weekend), but most of the time we’re dealing with people who rather want to work, they want the extra money, even at the expense of worshipping the God who created them and loves them. Even among those who come to Mass each week, there are a few who still worship money, who are possessed by greed. Even those God has blessed these people with financial comfort, they give almost nothing to charities, or to the Church, or to the poor. Jesus Christ himself said that we cannot serve both God and money and each of these people need to make a choice, just like the Israelites, whether they will worship God or worship money.

9) The second god that’s often worshipped is sex. It was the same for the ancient Israelites. Most of the pagan gods were gods of fertility and sexuality like Baal. Those who worshipped Baal actually had temples where their “worship” was to have liaisons with prostitutes. Today countless people in our society worship this god of sexuality. We see it in so many ways. We see it in all those who have sex outside of marriage, claiming that they love each other, while what they really are doing is just using others — sometimes with the others’ consent — for sexual pleasure. How absolutely logical it is that so many of these people who have sex outside of marriage, when they find out they’re pregnant, often resort to abortion, to killing their child. If they’re already violating the sixth commandment, why not violate the fifth?! Sexuality without responsibility has become such a god for them that they’ll even kill their own children in the innocence of the sanctuary of the mother’s womb in order to preserve that lifestyle. We see this god worshipped by all of those who try to pass out condoms to our kids in public school, as if it were impossible not to worship that god and to live a life worshipping the true God in chastity. We see this god worshipped by all those who visit that horrible so-called “Adult” video store on Flint Street, just a few blocks from this Church, as if people who were truly adults would ever voluntarily engage in that type of sexual sickness. We see it as well in all of those married couples, including Catholic ones, who use artificial contraception, seeking the pleasure of sexuality outside of the life-giving context given to it by God. This conscious choice to separate love-making from openness to life ultimately separates love making from God. It is a choice of Baal rather than the one, true God.

10) The third god worshipped today is the ego, in which one makes oneself a god. We see this god manifested in many ways. The first is when people talk about an exaggerated freedom, a freedom to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or not. We see this readily, for example, in the abortion debate, when politicians or citizens talk about the right to “choose,” when what they’re really talking about is the right to choose to kill their children in the womb, which should never be allowed. They’re worshipping their right to choose to do anything they want, as if they were the gods capable of creating right and wrong, rather than worshipping the true God. We see this inside the Church with the phenomenon of “cafeteria Catholics.” These are those who try to pick and choose what they believe in the faith, as if they themselves were the god who determined what was true and ought to be believed or not. Like people moving down the line in a cafeteria, choosing to have the chicken rather than the lasagna and milk rather than juice, these people say about the faith, “I’ll take the Church’s social work and help of poor people, but I won’t take the Church’s teaching that only men can be ordained priests;” or “I’ll come to Mass each week, but I won’t live the Church’s clear and inspired teachings on sexuality;” or “I’ll say the Rosary every once in a while, but I’ll also cheat on a test or cheat on my taxes.” etc. Like with those who worship money, or worship sex, it is necessary to choose which God we will serve. We cannot serve two gods, we cannot serve God and mammon. We have to choose. We have to choose. Every choice of this kind is ultimately the choice between Christ and Barabbas. Jesus himself said starkly, “Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever doesn’t gather with me scatters.”

11) After this, some of you may well want to say to me, as some of the disciples said to Jesus in today’s Gospel, “This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?” I’m not trying to pretend as if living the Gospel fully today is easy, particularly in the culture in which we live, which oftentimes can be so hostile to our faith. It is hard! Jesus promised us it would be. He said that anyone who wanted to be his disciple had to take up his Cross every day and follow him. The Christian life is one of radical choices, in which we die to ourselves, die to our desires for power, pleasure, fame, pride, so that he might rise again inside of us. It is a choice for him, to worship him in all things. But Jesus also promised that at the end of that Way of the Cross we will walk with him, we will receive a hundredfold in this life and will inherit eternal life in the next. He is the only one who could ever promise such wonderful things, because he is the only God capable of giving these things. But he puts it out there for us to choose.

12) “Do you too wish to go away?” Jesus asks us this question today as he did the twelve. As you know, many disciples of the Lord have left his side over the past few decades, who no longer practice the faith, who no longer live the faith, including tragically some in our own families. These are the ones who have chosen to go after some other god who they erroneously think is less demanding and more pleasing. Jesus hasn’t forgotten about them. He died out of love for them and they are his lost sheep which he will continue to go after. If we’re in that situation, Jesus again gives us the chance to choose him today at this Mass. He turns to each one of us and says, “Do you too wish to go away?” May we stand up, with Peter, and say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” This is the response of true faith. We may not understand everything in the faith, just as they didn’t understand everything Jesus was describing then about the Eucharist. We may have to suffer for Him and the faith as a result of this choice, just as the apostles did — most of them were imprisoned and ultimately killed. But it’s all worth it! Jesus promises us in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me — who professes faith in me — before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” That is our choice. It is stark. It is crucial. And if we choose Christ, truly choose him, it will the best choice we’ll ever make. All the saints give witness to this. For the Lord will bless us tremendously, not only in this life — despite or especially because of the Cross — but also in the eternal life to come, when Jesus will stand up for us in front of his Father and say, “Behold my friend, my good and faithful friend,” and the delighted Father will say to us, in words for which our ears were made, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world!” What a gift! And it is ours, my fellow Christians, provided that we choose to respond to it with faith!