An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Confronting Terrorist Texts

A sermon on Exodus 32:1-14 & Matthew 22:1-14 by Nathan Nettleton

Last weekend while walking out of my local supermarket, I encountered a family who were easily identifiable as Muslims. The man was wearing traditional garb for which I don’t know the correct names, and the woman was wearing a full niqab with only her eyes showing. They were exactly the sort of people who are being pointed at in the media debates at the present time with some people calling for laws to force them to dress differently because even their clothes are perceived to be a terrorist threat. Their gorgeous little dark-haired daughter, aged about three or four, was riding a scooter and she came to a screeching halt in front of me because there was a danger that her scooter and my shopping trolley were about to collide. I smiled warmly at her parents and her and said to the girl, “Come on, you go first. I’m not going to run you over!” The look of relief and gratitude in their eyes was extraordinary. An anglo-Aussie bloke had been friendly to them. It was obvious that that is not something that they can routinely expect in the present climate of fear. It appeared that they have gotten used to being regarded with suspicion and distance. And, of course, we’ve been hearing lots of Muslims, especially Muslim women, reporting exactly that. As you know, trying to find ways of addressing this terrible divide is something I am finding myself more and more drawn to.

The reasons for the suspicion and fear are easy to identify. Every day the news carries reports of violent extremists acting in the name of Islam killing and terrorising people in Syria, Iraq, and various other parts of the world. These violent extremists frequently make horrifying threats against the citizens of the western countries who they regard as their enemies, and lately some of these threats have been carried out with the grotesque beheadings of several kidnapped victims. Even though we might know in our heads that the statistics say that these extremists are a tiny tiny fraction of the Islamic world, it would be surprising and unnatural if we didn’t feel any fear. The whole point of terrorism is to create a sense of terror that is out of all proportion to the actual threat, and it usually succeeds in doing so. But just because suspicion and fear come naturally, it doesn’t follow that they are right. And it also doesn’t follow that it is right to judge Islam by these violent extremist acts.

For starters, the history of the Christian Church is littered with examples of equally terrifying violence. Even in the last decade, the number of Muslim people killed by the military forces of countries that are identified as “Christian” is many many times greater that the number of Christians or westerners who have been killed by anyone identifying as Muslim. Of course most followers of Jesus would want to say that Christianity cannot be held responsible for the military actions of their countries, and that’s fair enough. But down through our history, astonishing numbers of people have been killed as a result of the direct action of the Church itself. The Crusades and the Inquisition are two of the most notorious examples, and of course, the first of those directly targeted the Muslims. Some people have suggested that we are facing something like the Crusades in reverse now, but I think that would be misleading. In fact, the vast majority of people who have been killed by Islamist extremists in recent decades have been other Muslims. What we are witnessing in the Islamic world is probably more analogous to the bloody Christian-versus-Christian wars at the time of the reformation. But whatever the analysis, you get my point: the Christian world has repeatedly been guilty of the same sort of violence and terror as the Islamic world. The balance might be tilted more one way at the moment, but that only means that our histories are not quite in sync.

Now all of that is a very long introduction to a question about the religious justifications for such violence and terrorism. Christianity and Islam both recognise the Bible as sacred scripture, and about 80% of that Bible is inherited from Judaism, so the three religions have a lot of scripture in common. And those of us who want to promote peace in the name of our religions have to grapple with the serious problem that there are more than a few stories in those scriptures which might be called texts of terror: texts that portray God as directly perpetrating acts of violence and terror, or ordering other people to perpetrate them, or which suggest that God or God’s kingdom can be compared to terrorist states.

We heard two such texts of terror tonight, and one of them is attributed to Jesus himself. The first one was from the stories of Moses, so it is a story that all three religions have in common. In the extract we heard, we are told that while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew people down below made themselves a golden calf and began worshiping it as a god, and that as a result, the Lord said to Moses, “I’m sick of these people. Leave me alone so that my anger may burn hot against them and destroy them.” We then heard that Moses managed to talk the Lord out of this act of extreme violence. That might make the story slightly more palatable, although we are still left wondering what God might have done had Moses not been so persuasive. But if we had kept reading to the end of the chapter, it gets worse. Despite having talked the Lord out of killing all the people, Moses himself promptly orders the Levites to take swords and go back and forth through the camp killing people indiscriminately, and some three thousand people are killed. And then we are told that the Lord sent a plague on them as well. So if this story tells us what God is like, and what God’s chosen leaders do in defence of God’s honour in the face of idolatry, is it any wonder that people can quote scripture to justify behaving in similar ways when they believe that God’s honour has been offended? We can’t reasonably criticise the Qur’an for condoning violence when our own Bibles contain stories like this.

Now normally, we would probably be turning to Jesus and saying that he is a consistent advocate of peace, forgiveness and non-violence, but tonight we need to ask Jesus to explain himself too. Tonight we heard an extract from the gospel according to Matthew in which Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” and when the invited guests snubbed his invitation, he sent out death squads to kill them and burn their city to the ground. Not surprisingly, when he then invited some more people, they agreed to turn up. Having seen the consequences of refusing his invitations, you would, wouldn’t you? And then, to make it worse, one of these guests isn’t properly dressed for the occasion, so the king orders the guards to arrest him, shackle his wrists and ankles, and dump his body outside in a dark place. People who do these sorts of things are usually described as terrorists. Political leaders who do these sorts of things are usually accused of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity. What on earth could Jesus mean by saying that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a story like this? If that’s the sort of thing that goes on in the kingdom of heaven, then most of us would probably prefer not to be there.

Well, don’t panic quite yet! One of the problems of this parable, and a couple of others like it, is that the gospel writers Matthew and Luke use it in quite different ways, and we often interpret one version through what we know of the other. Luke’s version of this story has none of the violence and doesn’t even have a king. It is just a “someone” who invites people, and although he is angry when he is snubbed by those he invited, his only response is to instead invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” So in Luke’s version, we have no trouble seeing an image of the kingdom of God. Some refuse the invitation, but those who are usually rejected by the world are welcomed in to enjoy the celebrations. So what is Matthew doing when he adds a violent king, removes reference to the disadvantaged groups and instead simply has a replacement crowd arriving on fear of death, and then adds the extra details about the one silent and confrontingly dressed guest who is violently expelled? Or, assuming that Jesus told both versions on different occasions, what is he doing taking a perfectly good and acceptable illustration of the kingdom of God and turned it into a text of terror? And why has Matthew chosen to include this version rather than the other?

Well, as I have said, the easy trap is to assume that both versions work the same way, and that therefore the violent king equals God and that turning up to the wedding banquet suitably attired equals being accepted into the kingdom of heaven. Maybe this version is so different because it isn’t supposed to be heard that way at all. Or maybe it is deliberately able to be heard in two different ways. I said some weeks ago that sometimes Jesus tells stories that are able to be interpreted in ways that simply confirm what most people think about an angry God and a violent judgement, but which are also able to subvert themselves for those who have ears to hear, as Jesus often puts it. Certainly this story is capable of confirming a very violent image of God indeed. But let me show you how else it might be heard.

It is a mistake to assume that the ordinary people of Jesus’s day would have automatically equated any king who appeared in a parable with God. The murderous exploits of the king in this story sound a lot like the sorts of kings they were only too familiar with: most notably Herod. And the people did not regard Herod as an example of a godly ruler who revealed to them anything of the nature of God. So when they heard the blood-curdling story of this king, they may have taken it as a quite literal description of the world they lived in and listened to see what Jesus had to say about how the kingdom of heaven emerges in the midst of such a terrifying world. It is, after all, Matthew’s gospel which contains the not-very-well known but very important line in which Jesus says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12) So Matthew’s gospel depicts the kingdom of heaven as a sufferer of violence, not as the perpetrator of violence. So Matthew’s readers ought to tune in to this story and look to see who is suffering violence in order to see whether it is the victims who might be representing the kingdom of heaven.

There are, of course, two lots of victims here: those who first refused the invitation of the violent king, and then, even more in the spotlight, the one who has come into the king’s presence, but who is dressed in a way that the king finds unacceptable (or perhaps that the Prime Minister finds confronting!). Who does Matthew normally present as the one who is willing to face up to powerful rulers but refuses to conform to their style? Jesus, yeah? And when the king interrogates this guest, we are told he remains speechless as he is condemned, brutally treated, and cast out. Who else does Matthew present as remaining silent while being interrogated, condemned, brutally treated and cast into the outer darkness? Yep, Matthew is the gospel writer who most emphasises Jesus’s silence at his trial. So, if this reading is on track, this parable is not portraying the kingdom of heaven as a terrorist state at all, but as the victim of terrorist states. It is calling us to refuse the invitation to participate in the culture of violence, and if we have the courage and Christ-likeness to openly face the perpetrators, to do so as Jesus did, and refuse to clothe ourselves in the violent fashions of the despots and power-crazed, even if it means confronting the ire of the rulers and suffering the full force of their violence in our own bodies.

Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think these two conflicting readings of this parable are simply an either/or. I think that what Jesus is doing, and what Matthew is doing as he passes on the story, is giving us a lesson in how to read our sacred texts. He is in fact acknowledging and showing us how stories can be read as religious justifications for believing God to be a violent despot and for becoming perpetrators of violent terror in “honour” of such a God. But he is also showing us that when we open our ears and eyes and hearts to what the Spirit is doing, those same stories, those same sacred texts, can reveal to us the God who suffers the full pain of all our violence and who weeps over our blasphemous attempts to implicate God in our persecution of those who we regard as enemies or just suspicious others who dress wrongly and should become more like us.

Islam has no monopoly on sacred texts that can be used to make violence seem like the righteous response of God’s true followers. Yes, the Qur’an contains such texts, but so do the scriptures that we share with them. But we also share the belief that the prophet Jesus is a true messenger of God who reveals the nature of God to us, and we both need to learn from Jesus to read these sacred texts as revelations of a kingdom that does not perpetrate violence, but suffers it, knowing that the power of love is the one power that can overcome the power of the terror of death. May the Lord open our ears to hear and our hearts to love. Amen.


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