As we welcome you into our humble Catholic home, you will notice in the entryway a modest Hobby Lobby quote block that reads: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). In this our home is far from unique. This line from Joshua can be found engraved and embroidered on many items of Christian home décor, resulting in an overexposure that almost necessarily blunts the radical claim its original speaker was making. Consequently, most guests, not unlike my husband and I who see the sign daily as we drop our car keys in the key bowl, would not think twice about the radical nature these words once held in proclaiming a commitment to serve the Lord, nor do we recall the real struggles our ancestors endured to do just that. Therefore, in order to recapture the real significance of this sign it is helpful to consider the context in which this pledge was originally uttered.
Following Moses’ death, the Lord instructed Joshua to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land (Jos 1:1-4). The Lord encouraged Joshua, “Only be strong and steadfast, being careful to observe the entire law which Moses my servant enjoined on you…Recite it by day and by night…then you will attain your goal; then you will succeed…Do not fear, nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God is with you wherever you go” (Jos 1:7-9). As leader of the Israelites, Joshua defeated Jericho with a liturgical procession (Jos 6:20), and captured the city of Ai by the power of God (Jos 8:18-20), not by any power he himself possessed apart from God. In obedience and thanksgiving to the Lord for their victory, the Israelites sacrificed “burnt offerings to the Lord and made communion sacrifices” (Jos 8:30-31; cf. Deut. 11:29-32). “Then were read aloud all the words of the law, the blessings and the curses, exactly as written in the book of the law…to the entire assembly, including the women and children, and the resident aliens among them” (Jos 8:34-35).
This authentic worship of the Lord displays a real love for God’s law. To the Israelites, as it ought to be with us, the law of the Lord is “…more desirable than gold… sweeter also than honey or drippings from the comb… obeying them brings much reward” (Ps 19:11-12). Psalm 19 highlights the beautiful relationship between the law of the Lord and the cosmic order of the universe, e.g., “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:2); and, “He has pitched in [the heavens] a tent for the sun” (19:5); and, “From one end of the heavens it comes forth” (Ps 19:7). The law is beautiful precisely because it is a reflection of God’s very character, i.e., a reflection of His love, mercy and compassion for His people, seen in his ordering of the cosmos as the psalmist explains. The natural response, therefore, is to try and find our place in this beautiful order, which we can rightly describe as right worship. As Ratzinger identifies at length in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “Worship is the attempt, to be found at every stage of history, to overcome guilt and bring back the world and one’s own life into right order. And yet an immense feeling of futility pervades everything…The only real gift man should give to God is himself” (35). This in no way dilutes the potency of the law, as Ratzinger adds, “this one God is worshipped through an extensive sacrificial system, the meticulous regulations for which are set out in the Torah” (37). But, we do not stop there, for if we mine the depths of the cultic history of Israel, we discover as its center, Jesus Christ. Ratzinger continues, “What at first seems to be a break turns out, on closer inspection, to be a real fulfillment, in which all the paths formerly followed converge” (ibid).
From the introductory line of Psalm 19, we understand that this psalm of praise of God’s law is “for the leader. A psalm of David”(19:1). We understand that David is the model of one who loves God and offers Him right worship. But even David, King of Israel, was just a reflection of the King to come. In the Gospel of Matthew, the primary aim is to establish a genealogy of Jesus that reaches Adam through David and Abraham (Matt 1:1-16). Why? So that we might come to understand that from the beginning (cf. Jn 1:1) God intended to send His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us (Gn 3:15). Notice, too, that Jesus is also a lover of the law (Matt 5:18) and challenges His disciples not only to keep the commandments, but that their holiness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). Moreover, Jesus takes the law one step further by equating anger with murder, lust with adultery and rejecting violence by instructing His disciples to turn the other cheek and love our enemies “… and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:21-48; cf. Romans 3:31). Indeed, Jesus’ love for the law is extreme. Elsewhere in the New Testament we find Jesus praying that His kingdom may not be divided, but rather that all may be one (Jn 17:20-26; cf. Jer. 32:39; Ps 133:1; 2 Chron. 30:12). This unity of God’s people is achieved in obedience to the law of the Lord as Jesus and the Old Testament leaders proclaimed.
The Church teaches that some aspects of the ancient laws, such as the purity laws and the laws pertaining to a specific historical context, do not need to be adhered to, which is further evidenced by Jesus crossing those boundaries (Mk 1:40-42; Mk 7:1-23). That said, the Church teaches that “the Law is holy, spiritual, and good” and the Old Law is a “preparation for the Gospel” (CCC 1962-1964), what St. Paul referred to as a paidagōgos, or trainer, for Christians (Gal 3:23). St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “… even though the Old Law prescribed charity, it did not give the Holy Spirit, through whom ‘God’s charity has been poured into our hearts’” (CCC 1964). In the New Covenant established through, with and in Jesus Christ, the law is transformed and fulfilled (Matt 5:17). The Law no longer remains extraneous to us, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it has been inscribed on our hearts, as Ezekiel foretold (cf. Ez 11:19), and thus the Fathers and Aquinas speak of the Spirit itself as the new law. The Gentiles are now grafted in and the boundaries are removed, and this in order for all to be One in Christ (Eph 2:14-18, Jn 17:21).
In his homilies on Joshua, Origen identifies Joshua as a Christ figure who valiantly leads Christians into battle with the weapons and shields of virtue to fight against the enemy of God’s people, which is vice. Origen asks, what did the forty thousand troops ‘gird’ themselves with to defeat Jericho? (cf. Jos 4:13) He points to Paul for the answer, “Therefore, put on the armor of God…stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness…your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:13-15).
Close to Joshua’s death and as a foreshadowing of the New Covenant, God reaffirmed the covenant with the Israelites through him (Jos 24:25-26). “Therefore be strong and be careful to observe all that is written in the book of the law of Moses [that is ‘gird your loins with virtue’]… I am going the way of all the earth. So now acknowledge with you whole heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord, your God, made concerning you has failed” (Jos 23:6; and, 23:14-15). The People of God responded in affirmation, “We will serve the Lord, our God, and will listen to his voice” (Jos 23:24).
As Christians, that is as the People of God, members of the mystical Body of Christ in the world, we echo our Israelite ancestors and understand that ‘listening’ to the Word of God entails the imitation of God Incarnate, our Savior, Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14). Indeed, the commitment for “me and my house to serve the Lord” (Jos 24:14) is to gird ourselves in virtue daily and repeat Mary’s fiat: Yes, Lord! I am Your servant. Here are my hands, my feet, and my heart ready to praise You through loving service to my neighbor.
Your Sister in Christ,