Chapter 24, the final chapter of Joshua, begins with Joshua relating Israel’s story to the people as they are gathered to hear his last testament to the people of God gathered at Schechem. And Joshua tells them of the nature of the gift they have received from God:
I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant. (Joshua 24:13 (ESV)
This is a world in which we all strive to make more than we take, in which we admire self-reliance, in which we claim “I built this!” And take great pride in what we build, accumulate, and leave behind. We earn what we earn, digging and hewing and carving it out of the very ground we walk upon.
We earn. It’s what we do. It’s what we strive to. We labor. It is honest, decent, moral. To earn our daily bread. I want to earn. I want to work and draw a paycheck or even sing for my supper. I want to know I’ve done honest labor, can care for my family, and even help support others. An orphanage in India I have been aching to help.
But Joshua reminds Israel that they did not earn this land. And have they not worked it. They reap fruit they did not sow in a land that was full of people they have driven out, killed, conquered, and enslaved. I suspect this strikes many of us as tremendously unjust — especially in a world where war and conquest, occupation and imperialism, are viewed with great disdain, as fundamentally immoral acts.
Western Christians — at least some of us — are repenting of these things, and repudiating church teachings that proclaimed lands already full of people actually empty, places open for conquest and settlement. We condemn this kind of thing, we do not celebrate it.
And we certainly don’t attribute this kind of gift to God.
All this reminds me of the parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11–27. It’s a harsh parable, especially when it comes to the servant who was so afraid that he did nothing with the sum he’d been entrusted with:
20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:20–26 ESV)
I’ve heard lots of attempts to turn this into a critique of the political and economic system of the empire in which God is not complicit, none of them ring true, I believe the harsh master off to claim the kingdom in another land is Christ1, and he is returning to the judge the church — his followers who have been entrusted with the wealth of God in the absence of our master.
And this brief passage from Joshua bolsters that view. God does, in fact, give to those who have not earned, who did not deserve. God takes from those too frightened to live (and maybe sin) boldly in faith. Many reap who never sowed seeds of wheat, and much sowing is done by those who will never take a scythe to the grain they have planted. Who will never thresh.
Earlier in Luke 12, Jesus tells the story of a rich fool who takes comfort knowing his silos are full of grain, who relaxes to eat and drink, not knowing he will die that night.
But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Is God just or unjust here? Perhaps because this parable is a critique of wealth, couched in terms of inevitable and inescapable death, that we can accept it. We will all die. We will all leave behind things, the wreckage of our lives, that will become the possessions of others. The parable of the minas is different. It suggests a coming judgment — and like many of the judgment stories in Luke, it’s a harsh and brutal judgment — in which God will actively take from one who has little and give to one who already has more than enough.
Like the parable of the minas, however, this gifting of the land — a land already populated with women and men, old and young, full of cities and fields — is conditioned upon Israel’s adherence to the covenant. And we are about to reach that moment in the biblical narrative in which the Israel will begin to reap the consequences of its failure to do as God commanded when the gift of this land was made. God will stop fighting for Israel. Eventually, this land will vomit Israel out. Just as God said it would.
- I believe the allusion here is to Vespasian, the Roman general who in the midst of the Jewish War, left with a legion to seize power in Rome, placing his son Titus in charge of besieging Jerusalem and destroying (accidentally, if press reports are to be believed) the city. ↩︎