Martin Luther King Jr. begins his autobiography by stating,
"Of course I was religious. I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy's brother is a preacher. So I didn't have much choice."1 But of course King, like all of us, did have a choice, and he made it with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength. One wonders if King heard our passage during his early days of instruction in the faith, and whether he recognized the situation Joshua speaks to as his own situation: a community with a historical, covenantal relationship with God must nevertheless choose to live into that relationship.
The lectionary text comes at the end of the book of Joshua, when Joshua has summoned the people to Schechem to renew their covenant with God. He recounts the history of this covenant relationship. He begins by remembering their distant past, "long ago," literally "from eternity," when the ancestors of the Israelites lived "in the land beyond the river," that is, the Euphrates. He then tells what God did for their ancestors: he gave them descendents and good land; afflicted their enemies and brought them out of slavery; brought them to a new land and gave them victory over the Amorites.
Note that Joshua does not follow the typical tripartite recollection of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, he goes even further back in history to Terah, Abraham's father, and includes the lesser known Nahor, Abraham's brother. In doing so, Joshua shows that from the story's beginning, there have always been under-currents of the Israelites' faithlessness. Terah and Nahor "served other gods" (verse 2). We see this evidence in Genesis 31:53. When Jacob and Laban make their covenant at Mizpah, they swear by the God of Abraham and the gods ('elohe) of Nahor. From the beginning of Israel's history, then, there is evidence of those who did not choose to serve the Lord.
Against this background of polytheistic ancestors who served other gods, Joshua exhorts the people to fear and serve God in complete faithfulness (Joshua 24:14). "Serve God" becomes the core refrain of Joshua's message. He repeats the word twice in verse 14, and it appears three times in the subsequent four verses. Only the New English Translation translates the word as "worship;" other English translations translate it as "serve." Both translations have merit, since the semantic range of the verb suggests that to worship God is to serve God. "Worship" emphasizes that we should worship only God and not bow down to other gods (as the Old Testament constantly reiterates).
Nevertheless, in Joshua, the word "serve" makes better sense, particularly because of its proximity to Exodus. The Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt, but their freedom is not absolute. Rather, they move from being Pharaoh's servants to being God's servants. Unlike the type of slavery and service they provided in Egypt, however, this time they must choose to serve God.
In fact, Joshua recognizes that serving God may not be something people want to do. Verse 15 begins with Joshua's acknowledgment that it may not be desirable (NIV), or the people may not be willing (NRSV) to serve the Lord. These translations miss the raw honesty of the ESV and the KJV, which reflect the drama of the literal Hebrew. It is not simply that serving God seems unpleasant to the people, but that it may be "evil in your eyes," (ESV) and it may seem "evil unto you" (KJV).
If it is a choice--perhaps undesirable, perhaps even evil--to serve God, then why make it? The Israelites themselves give us two answers, signaled by the word "for." The first one comes in verse 17. The reason to serve God is because of what God has done for them. They were listening to Joshua's sermon! They echo back the history that Joshua himself recounted in detail for them. The second reason emerges naturally from the first. If God has done this for us, then he is our God. This affirmation becomes more profound when it is set against the background of polytheism.
In verse 15, Joshua points to the availability of other gods--the gods of the Amorites, the gods of their ancestors, or the Lord. But the people rightly acknowledge that the Lord is their God. It would be absurd to serve other gods, and to forsake God, when this God is ours! It is significant that the people affirm this. The Israelites often suffer from amnesia when it comes to remembering God's past acts, but not here.
The lectionary text ends before the chapter does, which is somewhat unfortunate, for the conversation between Joshua and the people continues with wonderful rhetorical flair. Joshua has laid out the challenge--choose to serve God--and the people have responded, "We will serve God!" Not content with this, Joshua lays down the gauntlet, telling them that they cannot serve God, and warning them of the consequences for forsaking the Lord. To this, the people once again sound the chorus, "We will serve the Lord" (verses 21, 24). Joshua concludes by removing himself from the picture. He will not be the witness to the people's promises, but instead the people "are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord" (22).
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus likewise recognizes the necessity of "choosing to serve God," even though it will be difficult. In response to Jesus' hard teachings, some leave. Jesus recognizes that the twelve may want to leave, too. Peter responds, saying, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). They can leave, but why would they? Jesus has brought them this far, and he is their God, with the words of eternal life.
1Martin Luther King, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 3.