Our readings at Mass can often tell us about ourselves and our situation. The reading from the Book of Joshua for this Sunday is an example. It’s worth reflecting on.
If you remember your bible history, Joshua succeeded Moses as the leader of Jewish people when they came out of Egypt. A soldier, he led the people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, a disputed land then and a disputed land now.
The Book of Joshua is a litany of the battles this great general fought, beginning with the battle for Jericho. As the spiritual says, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin down.”
Today’s reading concludes the Book of Joshua. Joshua’s an old man now, over a 100 years old the bible says, and he’s getting ready to die, so the old soldier calls together the different tribes and families of Israel to Shechem to speak to them for the last time.
Your work isn’t finished, he reminds them. Our journey isn’t over. The old soldier doesn’t speak of military matters or plans for new wars. Something more important is on his mind. He reminds the people that they’ve been called by God. “Are you going to listen to that call or not?” he says to them. You can ignore that call or drift away.
“But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” Joshua says. And the people heartily join him in renewing their convenant with God.
“Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods. For it was the Lord who brought us and our ancestors out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among the peoples through whom we passed. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
Notice that Joshua and the people see God’s call not just as a personal call. They’re called by God as a people. When God called them from Egypt, he called them all, the old and the young, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, to make the journey together and they did.
That’s the way the bible describes it and that’s the way it should be, even today. No matter how sophisticated our society gets, no matter how difficult our circumstances are, God calls us to make the journey together.
This isn’t just the wisdom of the bible. A French geophysicist, Xavier Le Pichon, says that the world evolves the way it should when we respect the fragility of the earth and the fragility of our human community. We advance as a people when we take care of our weakest members; our earth community advances when we respect its fragile nature.
According to Le Pichon, who’s quoted at length on a recent NPR program, one important way we differ from the animals is the care we take of our weakest members. He adduces recent studies of our earliest ancestors, the Neanderthals, in whom this surprising trait appears over one hundred thousand years ago.
One study of a Neanderthal burial ground in Iraq revealed the skeleton of a 40 year old severely malformed male, who evidently had been carried from place to place by this group of hunters and buried with them. He was surely a burden to them, he must have slowed them down, but they carried him with them just the same. He meant something to them.
Unlike animals who cast aside their weak to die on the way, humans have developed a feeling for the weak, Le Pichon says. Like animals, they nourish and care for their young, but they reach further to the weakest. This sense of compassion separates humans from animals. It makes us humane.
Le Pichon disputes Darwin’s all embracing principle of the “survival of the fittest.” That principle, when applied to human evolution, does not take into account the spirit of compassion, he says.
Jesus, of course, taught the importance of this spirit of compassion when he told us that what we did for “one of these, the least,” you did it to me. You grow in love through your care of the least.
The thought of Xavier Le Pichon is worth following. Take a look at all the material on him at NPR.