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The Ninth Sunday After Trinity

The high altar at Salisbury Cathedral with Lentan frontal
Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 17th August 2014

A Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL 

1 Samuel 15 v 1-9; Matthew 15 v 21-28

I recently had a conversation with a woman who had chosen a passage of Scripture to be read in a service in the Cathedral. She was asking me to omit from the middle of this passage two verses which she found offensive because they spoke of God being vengeful, meting out terrible judgment.  I argued that we should read the whole passage intact - as it is printed in any Bible - and not pick and choose. Thinking I might fire a winning shot I said to her ‘but these verses are part of the Canon of Scripture’ to which she instantly replied ‘Well they shouldn’t be!’

I suspect most of us would agree with her: this woman was expressing the discomfort we all feel with some parts of the Bible which speak of a merciless God.

For those of you who are visitors with us just for today you perhaps need to know that we’ve been inflicting on ourselves in these summer weeks some of the most notorious of these passages. Places where the Bible speaks of God and his agents as violent, cruel or bloodthirsty.  Places where we find what we’re reading to be morally or spiritually indefensible. And today we have the whopper, the passage which many people turn to if they want to discredit the validity of the Old Testament or the whole religious tradition; the description of God ordering genocide.

‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both men and women, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’

‘Do not spare them.’ This isn’t ordinary warfare but annihilation, the slaughter of the innocent. We heard that the motivation for this command was that the Amalekites had once been those trying to prevent the people of Israel reaching their ‘Promised Land’.  The Amalekites had organised a pre-emptive strike against Moses and his nomadic band of fleeing slaves when they left Egypt. And now, many generations later, it seems that King Saul and his subjects are out to settle old scores. And settle them ruthlessly. Women, children, the elderly, even the livestock have to die. Those are their instructions. From God.

Well, my starting point has to be that our abhorrence of all this is entirely proper.  Just as I think it is important to read this story so it is also important to say that this is a God in which we do not wish to believe.  Throughout human society there have always been people who claim for themselves the mandate of a vicious and merciless God. It’s possible that the humanitarian crisis playing itself out in Northern Iraq right now may have its roots in a sense of a cruel God who hates the infidel. Yet there’s no place for such an ideology in true religion, certainly not in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions which all build faith on God’s mercy.  We are not asked to believe in a God who commands genocide – on the contrary we’re meant to find it repugnant.

So inevitably this is about how we choose to read the Bible and whether we’re prepared to be serious about what Scripture means.  Two questions are always worth asking as they will help keep us in contact with what we can trust.

The first question is ‘what did the people who first heard this story believe they were meant to understand?’  If we apply that to the slaughter of the Amalekites we approach the story from a rather different perspective.  This is a story about Saul, the first king of Israel whose reign had ended in ignominy.  For a people who believed that they depended on God’s blessing and followed God’s commandments the failed project of kingship caused them some heart-searching.  And this chapter in 1 Samuel is part of an interpretive explanation of why God might have abandoned his chosen leader. Why was it that God said that he was ‘sorry he had made Saul king over Israel’? We’re not hearing so much about the historic feud with the Amalekites but about Saul’s disobedience.

Somewhere in their conflict with their old enemy Israel believed that they saw the roots of Saul’s failure, his stubbornness and rejection of God.  The story is being told to illustrate that Saul had not executed God’s plan and had instead pursued a policy based on his own headstrong self-interest. Now I accept that doesn’t rescue me from why they should think that God might have ordered a massacre. But this story is here for a singular purpose: to describe how it was that Saul went astray. It’s a story about how leaders don’t have ultimate authority. How leaders can go astray by serving their own needs. How obeying God’s commands is part of what keeps them legitimate and their people blessed.

Which prompts the second question we bring to any reading of Scripture; ‘what does it say to us today in our context?’  The most immediate message has to be the raw reality of brutal human behaviour. Two thousand years before Christ the world of human society was just as cruel, violent and hate-filled as it appears to be two thousand years after Christ.  We’re warned not to rely on too optimistic an approach to human nature.

All of the books of the Bible are written against such a background of violent human conflict or persecution of a minority. Biblical writers struggle with that suffering and with human history, expressing their conclusions in many different ways. Almost without exception they plead the cause of an all-loving God who desires the ways of peace for a merciless humankind and a God who says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” (Ezekiel 18 v 31-32)

The fact is we hear Scripture urge us again and again not to give in to that brutal reality but to live in hope of a very different way of being. And that’s precisely what we see happening when Jesus has his encounter with the Canaanite woman, and we’re given a description of mercy.

The very term ‘Canaanite’ represented those who, whilst they might share the same land with the Jews, were of another way of life. Like the Amalekites they too threatened Israel. So we can feel Jesus being tempted to ignore or mistreat this Canaanite woman. He’s been brought up with the ideology of God’s election of only Israel. He’s under pressure from his disciples and the religiously judgmental who’re watching him and want him to swat this woman aside.  He is human.  And yet instead of resorting to contempt and potential cruelty in a short exchange he displays a loving heart and a non-violent spirit.

Mercy arrives in the situation when Jesus recognises that his destiny is tied in with those he is told to despise or who threaten him. He recognises that if this woman and her daughter don’t flourish nor would he. Then he feels the demands of compassion which break down the limiting walls of prejudice. And finally he chooses to believe that faith matters more than ethnicity or our history or other forms of identity.  This is the God in whom we’re asked to believe. We’re asked to invest in mercy.

What does the slaughter of the Amalekites say to us in our own context?

·       It says that we have to find the spiritual and emotional resources to live with some difficult and contradictory aspects of the human condition.

·       It says that there’s no escape from the best and the worst of that human nature which at its very worst can be unspeakably brutal. But we must resist the temptation to use the excuse of a merciless God to justify our own brutalities. Being merciless, that nastiness in ourselves, is no answer.  In following Jesus we’re urged to walk a way which manifests compassion and gentleness and solidarity.

I think I'm glad that the slaughter of the Amalekites is in the Canon of Scripture because it keeps before us the question - in which God do you believe? How much mercy does your God have? And are we capable of showing that mercy to ourselves and to others?