This week the Scriptures revealed that with the death of Moses, a new chapter in the story of the Israelites begins. The people have returned to their ancestral lands and begin a difficult process of acclamation and settlement to a territory that until now they have only known through stories told to them by their ancestors. The lands they enter are their inheritance, the lands where the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob once dwelled, and yet the descendents of the patriarchs are now strangers in their ancestral homeland.
They are also not alone in this new place. Thus begins a violent period in the history of the Israelites, as the people battle with the other inhabitants of their ancestral lands for territory and resources. During their long journey from captivity to false gods in Egypt and during their sojourn in the wilderness, the people were led by the prophet and mystic Moses, but now they are led by the warlord Joshua. The Israelites, once a nation of slaves who became a nation of nomads, now becomes a nation of warriors.
Today’s scripture passage from the Book of Joshua describes how the Ark of the Covenant was employed in the battle strategy of the Israelites. The Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of the divine presence of the God of Israel abiding with his people, becomes a kind of weapon.
The divine power of the Ark is manifested in signs and wonders, specifically a marvelous event that mimics the parting of the Red Sea, an extraordinary event through which God liberated the Israelites from the power of the gods of Egypt and defeated the God-King Pharaoh.
It is now the river Jordan that parts before the divine presence of the Ark, allowing the Israelites safe passage into their ancestral lands. Once there, the battles for control of the lands will begin.
It is likely that for many the violent imagery of the Bible is disconcerting. Our appreciation for the heroism of the warrior does not make the horror of war easy to take, nor does it justify the violence of battle. Unease with the violence of so many of the biblical stories has been the experience of many for the long years of the Church’s life. The saints and sages of the Church have interpreted the battle stories of the Bible as allegories, stories that are interpreted to indicate the struggle of God’s people (the Church) over against the dark powers of sin, death and the devil. The battles of the Israelites against their enemies are not justifications for cruelty and violent conflict.
As an allegory, the Ark of the Covenant represents the divine power and presence of the Lord Jesus, abiding with his Church in the mystery of the Eucharist. It is the power and presence of Christ that alone can defeat the powers of sin, death and the devil and without the power and presence of Christ we are prevented from entering the promised land of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is communion with God in Christ. But if the power and presence of the Lord Jesus takes the lead, then the obstacles of sin, death and the devil can be removed from the paths that lead to communion with God in Christ.
Though we might not prefer the battle imagery so often employed in the Bible, we cannot simply do away with it and hope to understand at all revelation of God in Christ. As Christ draws all creation to himself, there are powers that resist his communion, and these powers must be overcome.
There is much in this world that is opposed to Christ and disciples will inevitably find themselves in enemy occupied territory. In the midst of these conflicts, Christians will counter the power of evil, not with worldly weapons, but with the weapons of the Holy Spirit- these spiritual weapons are creative, not destructive, they build up, rather than tear down, they set right, rather than committing wrong, and rescue rather than enslave, they give life rather than impart death.
Today in his Gospel the Lord Jesus warns against having hearts hardened by an unwillingness to forgive. Like the hardened heart of Pharaoh (remember the story of Exodus), whose unwillingness to release the Israelites from bondage results in his own destruction, so to do hardened hearts that refuse to forgive result in our own destruction.
Forgiveness is always an undeserved act of compassion- no one deserves forgiveness, it is always a gift, a gift that will often time favor the restoration of a relationship as being of greater significance than giving what might be justly deserved. It is difficult to forgive, especially when we have been the victim of cruelty or have suffered a grave injustice, but Christ insists that it is better to forgive than not, even if the demands of justice cannot be adequately met.
Christ does not just pronounce this perspective on forgiveness in words, but embodies his teaching about forgiveness on the cross. In the cross humanity proves itself capable of the worst kind of cruelty and injustice, and offends God in a way that should have meant the end of any possible relationship we could have with him. It is in the cross we prove ourselves capable of committing a wrong that we are powerless to set right.
And yet Christ has power to forgive us and this is precisely what he does for us- offering us in his forgiveness a mercy that is as surprising as it is undeserved.
It is this same mercy that he expects that we will share with one another.