Who am I? Who are we?
Our first reading this Sunday from the Book of Joshua is all about those two questions. “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” It’s a reading worth reflecting on.
Joshua, you may remember from your bible history, succeeded Moses as the leader of Jewish people when they came out of Egypt. He’s generally remembered as a soldier who led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, a land disputed then and a land disputed now. The Book of Joshua is a litany of the battles he fought, beginning with the famous battle for Jericho. “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin down.”
Our reading today is from the end of the Book of Joshua. Joshua is over a 100 years old, and 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, your journey isn’t over, he reminds them. But he’s not an old soldier interested in recalling old battles or strategizing military planning for the future. You have been called by God, he tells them. Are you going to listen to that call or not, he asks them? You can drift away and follow other voices, other gods. Make your choice.
“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” Joshua says.
And the people respond:
“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.”
For Joshua the most important thing is remembering who you are. It’s remembering who you are as an individual and remembering who we are as a people. Everything depends on how we choose to answer those questions.
There’s the personal call: “Who am I?” Where did I come from, who gave me life? Why am I here, what am I to do? Where am I going? What’s my future going to be? God is there in those questions. How do I answer him?
My personal call is not for me alone, though, I’m part of a call to others. We go to God together. We make this journey together.
Joshua and the people see God’s call not just as a personal call 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 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, how difficult our circumstances are, God calls us to make the journey together.
A French geophysicist and philosopher, 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.
One important way we differ from the animals,Le Pichon says, is the care we take of our weakest members. It’s a trait he finds in our earliest ancestors, the Neanderthals, 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 then buried with them. He would have been 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 the 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. We are truly human, made in God’s image, when we take care of the weak. We make the journey together.