A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
“By this you will know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites”.
Perhaps you, like me, find those words uncomfortable. The tribes of Israel stand on the banks of the River Jordan, poised to enter the land they believe they have been promised. Joshua tells them that this land is not empty. A variety of peoples already call it home. Yet their claims count for nothing. They are to be driven out. We might say, ethnically cleansed.
It’s an ugly thought. In our lifetimes we have witnessed the calamity of people being driven from their homes and lands all too often: Bosnian Muslims; Iraqi Yazidi; the Rohingya of Rakhine. That prospect appals us. What are we to make of a text which ascribes similar genocidal intent to God?
Naim Stifan Ateek is a Palestinian priest and liberation theologian who writes about passages such as this from his perspective as a refugee driven from his home. His judgement on our worship tonight is stark. “We do not tear up those pages from our Bibles,” he writes “but neither should we read them in public worship”. So we should not do as we have done. These passages “are not morally edifying” he continues, “they do not contain a word from God”. He is confident about his judgement because he believes that they “in no way reflect the love of God for all people as revealed to us in Jesus Christ”.
Jesus is what Ateek calls his “hermeneutical key”. If a text can be squared with what Jesus shows us of God then it is in: if it cannot then it is out. And the call to drive people from their ancestral home is out. Well, it is certainly true that St Matthew’s Gospel ends with an affirmation that God’s purposes encompass all people. After his resurrection Jesus addresses the disciples in words that have become known as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. At the last the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites and others will be included.
But to jump straight to the Great Commission is to overlook passages such as the one we have heard this evening, where the command given by Jesus is very particular. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans”. There’s not much hope in that command for the non-Jews of Jesus’s day.
Jesus the inclusive hermeneutical key? “Go…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. What are we to make of this disparity? Naim Ateek suggests that passages such as our first reading reveal not the purposes of God but rather the primitive understanding of God held by those who wrote them. A tribal people, besieged by enemies, perceive a tribal God who will drive those enemies out. If Ateek is right, and if we dare to read the Old Testament as an attempt by human beings to articulate their understanding of God then how do we read the Gospels? Jesus is a first-century Jew. The Jews are comprised of twelve tribes. So Jesus appoints twelve disciples because his mission is to those twelve tribes, God’s historic people. The inclusion of the whole of humanity in the mission is a later development. It comes only when God’s sovereignty over life and death - and not just over Israel’s enemies - has been definitively revealed.
In this passage we glimpse a Jesus who is what orthodox Christians have always believed him to be: fully human, shaped by his world, sharing at least some of its religious assumptions, and like his forebears, articulating his understanding of God: an understanding which will change and grow.
So it suggests that we should be humble about the claims we make. The revelation of God’s purposes is not yet complete and our knowledge of them is imperfect. When we forget that then the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites and Perizzites are at risk and will reap a bitter harvest. At our hands. Amen.