Some thoughts on today's Lectionary readings:
- Often, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading aren't particularly related. This isn't one of those days.
- In the reading from Numbers, there is tension between three parties: the people of Israel, Moses, and God. Israel is still in the midst of their wandering in the desert. They are a people in transition...both homeless and yet promised a home.
- The people revolt: Though Israel has been delivered from 400 years of slavery, have witnessed God's great work, and have been fed by God, they still pine for Egypt, the place of their slavery. Their complaints are patently absurd given their freedom. The complaints echo their complaints from Exodus chapter 16, which prompted God to send them the manna to feed them. This happened before the people reached Mount Sinai in the 3rd month after the Exodus. It is now after the beginning of the first month of the year after the Exodus, 9 or 10 months later. In Exodus chapter 16, God promised to feed them daily. By Numbers chapter 14, that promise is no longer enough.
How many revolutions begin with people not having enough to eat or enough basic provisions to live on? The people were already amidst a rebellion. Numbers chapter 11 begins with God squashing a revolt and Moses petitioning God to relent. The narrative has already established that the people are never lacking in their needs. They have enough to go on everyday but they are unable to store and save, and are therefore unable to plan. This was to be the last stretch of their wandering but their actions following this will lead to another 40 years of wandering.
The story of the Exodus is fundamentally a story about memory and trust. The examples are extreme and the consequences are great, but the people's troubles come from either their forgetfulness of the things God had already done (or said he would do) or from their lack of trusting what they've known God to do and say, preferring their own plans to God's.
It's a fundamental issue for Western Civilization since the Enlightenment. If we do not already deny God's existence outright, we tend to question a dynamic, acting God who speaks personally to his people. Most modern people would consider that kind of understanding of God as foreign to their way of thinking. Yet it's at the crux of biblical religion, standing before almost any other issue. Can people know God? Can God communicate in a meaningful way to people? Does God speak in a way discernible to a whole nation of people? How should we respond to the exclusive claim of God's revelation to Israel? Applying the word "trust" to God means that he is perceived as having done things that are trustworthy. This is an understanding of God that is well beyond the merely conceptual. This radically challenges many commonplace images of God.
- Reluctant and heroic leadership: The beauty of this reading from Numbers lies in Moses' stark honesty. He is beyond frustrated and he is clearly stuck in his position between God and the people. Moses does not have a lot of leverage in the relationship. He shares both a great intimacy with God (Numbers 12:6-8) and yet he begins his mission as both a murderer and a coward.
His words to God really cash in whatever good will he may think that he has before God:
Why do you treat your servant so badly?” Moses asked the LORD.
“Why are you so displeased with me
that you burden me with all this people?
Was it I who conceived all this people? ...
I cannot carry all this people by myself,
for they are too heavy for me.
If this is the way you will deal with me,
then please do me the favor of killing me at once,
so that I need no longer face this distress.”
Moses is one of the great characters of the Bible and, if you were making a case for that claim, this passage could be Exhibit A. Moses possesses no sense of false piety. Imagine being given a mission that would last for 40 years, culminating in your death, and full only of hardship, of being misunderstood, and of conflict. It's almost unbearable and the last moments of Moses' life in Deuteronomy are tragic considering the fact that he is not allowed to enter the land that he guided the people to. We do not encounter any real moment of joy in his life and even his relationship with God involves anger and frustration. I'd like to imagine that there is joy in Deuteronomy when the children of the rebellious first generation after the Exodus pledge themselves to follow the Torah and bind themselves to living justly in God's eyes. At the last moments of his life he finally sees the fruit of his work.
His complaints are a great challenge for us to be honest before God. God, it seems, has no use for false piety. Piety should bubble joyfully out of the heart. It can't be forced or contrived. It's as natural as blurting out an "I love you" to your beloved in a moment of deep recognition of what you two share. You can't fake it so don't try. Moses surely didn't.
- And yet...we are given another image of leadership in Jesus. The reading from the 14th chapter of Matthew's Gospel is well known and is recounted a couple of different ways throughout the Gospels. Jesus feeds 5,000 men and their families with five loaves and two fish. There's a lot happening in the story but it's the first few lines that give us a window into Jesus' personality. He's clearly a leader and it's interesting to compare what he does here with what Moses said and did in the last passage.
We're presented an image of a grieving Jesus who just wants to be alone. The Gospels are written very economically, as though every inch of parchment and every drop of ink mattered. Because of this, you sometimes have to read between the lines to understand those things that aren't simply spelled out for you. John the Baptism figured heavily into the life of Jesus. So much of who Jesus the man was came from John. John saw his role as preparing for the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:11-12) but he wasn't an incidental figure in the Gospels. He provides Jesus with his first followers (John 1:35-37), he baptized Jesus, and he is remembered as a cousin of Jesus (Luke 1:36-45). John was a callback to the Old Testament prophets in his words and actions and it reminded those who witnessed him that the events from their distant past actually happened. His presence would have reawakened a sense of expectation and re-education, almost like an abbreviated prologue at the beginning of a film that catches the view up on things they may have forgotten. There's a reason that so many people thought Jesus was John come back to life (Matthew 14:2 and 16:14). John and Jesus said similar things (Luke 3:3 and Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:8) and even similar insults for detractors (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, and 23:33). While there were clearly differences between the men and their styles (Luke 7:33-34), John and Jesus shared something close. John is remembered as a cousin but it would probably not be too far to say that Jesus lost not only a cousin but a kind of brother and mentor.
In short, the day John died was not a good day for Jesus and he wanted to deal with his grief by being alone.
Yet people start flocking to him without any concern for his feelings. Jesus is like Moses in that the rest of his life would be consumed with a difficult (and some could say thankless) mission. One one hand, we can't be surprised that people treated Jesus like the goose that lay the golden eggs. He was always surrounded by people who were hungry or afflicted because of his reputation as a wonder worker. Even today, if a doctor has a reputation for dealing with certain illnesses or successfully performing certain kinds of surgeries, he will find himself sought after and very busy. Jesus' reputation was as someone who could do anything and there was no shortage of people who were suffering without any other hope.
On the other hand, I can't help but see Jesus as being kind of used here. How do we feel about people who only come after us when they want something? After a while our response to them is cynical or dismissive. If this passage from Matthew's Gospel included the line "and Jesus told them 'can you maybe give me a couple hours to chill out?'", we would certainly understand it. In most circumstances that would probably be the most charitable thing we could muster.
This is what makes his response to them so moving for me: "his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick". His response involves no words, only compassion. The Gospel lets us know that it was a "vast crowd" and we learn how vast when he ends his time of healing their sick by feeding them all. The curious saw wonders, the hungry ate, and the afflicted were healed.
What a powerful image of God: so great yet embracing us so deeply as to become one of us. Grieving but not at the expense of consoling others. Tired but working until all are healed and fed. Motivated not by a reputation and seeking nothing but moved by unfathomable compassion.
Moses began to crack under the pressure, and yet remains the prophet most venerated in the memory of Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12). He loses nothing of his greatness in his weaknesses and failures. Yet it speaks volumes when God's only Son goes through the same thing and still shows so much compassion and mercy.