Deut 34: Luke 24:44-53

23 May 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Matins, 23 May 2004, Westminster Abbey

by the Reverend Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

Deut 34: Luke 24:44-53

The Hebrew Scriptures fall into three parts: the Law, the Prophets and the other Writings (which include the Psalms). For Jews, the second two parts are really commentary on the first. For the Jewish faith the basic text is the five books of the Law, the Torah, and central to the books of the Law is the figure of Moses, the one with whom God entered into a covenant, a solemn agreement that if the people kept the Law, God would be their God and give them the Land they so much needed. What we heard this morning was the promise of God to Moses:

And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah, as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb and the Plain, that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendents.’”

This is one of those passages on which many Orthodox Jews base their conviction that they are to inhabit the whole land of Israel; that to partition it would be a failure of faith; and that there can be no compromise with the Palestinians on the issue of the control of the land. For Christians, who find this passage in their Bibles, this promise is, of course, something a puzzle.

The way the puzzle has been solved by Christians is to use the approach we heard in our New Testament reading, when the risen Christ says to his disciples: ‘These are my words, which I spoke to you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled,’ and then, we read, ‘he opened their mind to understand the scriptures.’ That is, he opened their minds to re-interpret the law and the prophets and the writings as focused on himself; just as in the earlier story when two downcast disciples on their way to Emmaus were joined by Jesus, whom they did not recognise, and who, ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, … interpreted in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27).

What Luke tells us Jesus did is what we find throughout the New Testament: the use of the Hebrew Scriptures to show how the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus fit into a pattern of God’s working that has been there from the beginning. Sometimes we find the interpretation pretty strained; sometimes it’s hard to trace the exact quotation; sometimes a point is made from the Greek translation which doesn’t seem to be there in the Hebrew original (the prophecy that a ‘virgin’ shall conceive is a good example). The point is that the resurrection of Jesus had such an impact on the minds of the disciples that they began to read scripture differently. They began to read the Hebrew Bible, as a series of texts ‘about’ Jesus Christ. Luke tells us it was Jesus himself who taught them to do this.

Quite early on, once the books of the New Testament had been written down, there were those in the Church who said this process didn’t work; that the God of the older testament was not the same as the God of the new testament; that reading the scriptures Christocentrically meant that texts from the Hebrew Bible must be rejected: the Church should pick and choose its scriptures according to the insight that the Spirit of Christ now gave to Christians. In the running debate on this issue, the Church as a whole came down firmly on the side that Jesus Christ was to be found in all the scriptures, and that the Hebrew Bible in its own distinctive way bore witness to Christ. The Church could not do without the Hebrew texts, which it took to inspired, just as it took the best books of witness to Christ, written since the resurrection, to be similarly inspired.

Christians are thus committed to understanding the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Christians, the liberation of Israel from Egypt gives a foretaste of the liberation of God’s new people from bondage to death; and the conquest of the Promised Land gives a foretaste of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. In other words, the history of Israel, whilst still history, becomes at another level a metaphor for the history of God’s new people. For followers of the risen Christ, the story of God’s new people, the Church, is constantly be read in dialogue with the story of God’s people, Israel. Christians need the story of Israel precisely so they can understand what it means for them, in whatever land they may be living, to be the people of God.

In all of this there is a serious danger, of which, since the Holocaust especially, we have become much more aware. It is the danger of, in a wrong way, taking over the Hebrew Scriptures, of denying to Jews the authenticity of their Scriptures and their continuing experience of God. What should Christians say to Jews who believe that God has promised to them of all the Land, including the land of Ephraim and Manasseh and the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar in the south; that is to say what we now called the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and land to the East of the Jordan, which would now be in Syria or Jordan?

I do not think it is the business of Christians directly to contradict the way members of other faith communities read their scriptures, especially when it is they who have given their scriptures to us. Our primary duty is not to contradict others but to learn how to read the scriptures in our context and to do that reading well. There is much for Christians to learn about how to read the scriptures from the insights of Jewish and Islamic scholars. We may question, we may express our puzzlement, we may listen to the debate within those faith–communities (there is, of course, an impassioned debate within Judaism about how to interpret the promise of the Land). We have, in courtesy, to earn the right both to preach the gospel and to enter into serious religious dialogue. And no serious religious dialogue today can evade the issue of land in general and the Holy Land in particular.

On this, we can make two points. First, Christians do not lay claim to any particular land. From the earliest days, Christians saw themselves as of every land and none. Christianity is based not on ethnicity nor on nationality nor on social standing; there is no exclusively Christian people; no exclusively Christian nation; no exclusively Christian caste. The Church, the Body of Christ, is open to those from every people and nation and social background who choose to follow of Jesus Christ. The medieval ideal of an exclusive Christendom, in which Europe was identified with Christianity and being European with being Christian, was of its time, and cannot help us build the diverse, stable and inclusive society we all of us need today.

Second, Christians share with those of other faiths a profound concern for land and for the distribution of the land. All human beings live off the earth, and in a profound relationship with the earth. The fact that Christians do not lay claim to any particular land or lands as Christian territory does not mean that Christians do not care about the right use of land and a right relationship with the earth that sustains us all. The just distribution of land; the just sharing of the earth’s resources; the preservation of the land for future generations, are of profound concern for all people of faith. There is, however, no such thing as Christian land, Christian water, Christian air, or Christian oil. ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ and it is lent to us to use as the Lord wills, which is for the benefit of all.

What contribution can Christians make, then, to peace in the land that, our scriptures tell us, God promised to Moses? I suggest that it will be to bear witness against exclusivism both there and in our own home countries. We know why, largely through the failures of Christians, Jews have wanted and needed a Jewish homeland in which they can be secure. We know why, particularly since the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinian Muslims and Christians have also needed guarantees of peace and security. In most of Britain we have for a generation enjoyed the profound blessing of peace and security, but as the peace and security of our land comes under threat support is rising for new means of exclusion. Our text from the Hebrew Scriptures raises the question of exclusion in an acute form. It is answered by our text from the New Testament which reminds us that neither Jesus nor his followers claim that God has promised to them a land: what God has promised in Jesus is something that can heal the hurts caused by every act of exclusion, by every act which deprives human beings of land and divides them, one from another: the forgiveness of sins.

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