Reflection for March 31
Readings: Num 21:4-9; Jn 8:21-30
It always makes me smile when I read the what the Israelites said over and over again to Moses: “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in this desert?” In this case, they went even further: they were “disgusted with this wretched food.” First of all, we have to remember that they wandered in the desert for forty years because they themselves refused to enter into the Promised Land. God had brought them to the border of what would become Israel, but when the men who were sent to scope out the land came back, they told the people they would not be able to take the land because the people who lived there were fierce.
When we look at the complaints of the people, they are always blaming Moses. It was God Who brought the people out of Israel, not Moses. They had such a lack of faith that even after seeing God defeat the Egyptians, which may have been the most powerful army on earth at the time, without them even having to lift a sword, they still panicked when they heard about the inhabitants of the land where God was leading them. God led them through a desert where there is no food or water, especially for a million and a half people, and He provided for them in miraculous ways every day. Still, the people took their eyes off of God and, focusing only on themselves and on the natural order, they grumbled against Moses. It is amazing how, in our human nature, we do not like to take responsibility for our own choices, but we prefer to blame someone else.
When the seraph serpents came into the camp biting people with their fatal venom, it got the attention of the people. The word “seraph” means fiery; I do not know if that refers to the appearance of the snakes or what the people felt after being bitten, but either way, it sounds like a pretty frightening situation. The people finally acknowledge their sin and God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, mount it on a pole, and have the people look at it if they have been bitten by a snake. It is interesting that God did not remove the snakes, but simply provided a means for the people to be healed after an encounter with a serpent.
This episode foreshadows our Lord’s crucifixion where He was lifted up so that we can be healed. It would seem a lot easier if God would simply remove our ability to sin. He did not do that; instead, He allowed His Son to die for our sins. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that when He is lifted up, we will know that He is I AM. Of course, I AM is the translation of YHWH, the holy Name of God. Recall the scandalized question of the Scribes: “Who can forgive sin but God alone (Mk 2:7; Lk 5:21)? Like the bite of the serpents in the desert, if we look at our sins in the light of our relationship with God, our rebellion burns. We are left with the burning pain of having offended the One Who loves us and Whom we are to love above all else. What is worse, is that there is nothing we can do to repair the situation.
In the desert, the people of Israel were helpless to get rid of the snakes. We are helpless to get rid of our sins. In the desert God provided a means of healing. In the desert of our lives, God has also provided a means of healing. In the desert, they people had to look at an image of the very creature that caused the pain. On the Cross we have to do the same. It is our sins that causes the pain, but St. Paul teaches us that Jesus became sin (2 Cor 5:21). When we look at our Lord on the Cross, we do not see merely the price of our sin, we see our sins nailed to the Cross in the Person of Jesus (Col 2:14).
The Jewish people fell into idolatry in that they began to worship the bronze serpent. They refused to give God the credit for healing them and, instead, see to have thought it was from some power within the image of the serpent itself that brought their healing. For this reason, King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent. In our case, if we understand that Jesus is I AM, then we do well to worship Him. He does have the power in Himself to heal us and, being God, it is only right and proper that we should worship Him.
We are told in the Gospel reading that many people began to believe in Jesus because He spoke as He did. For instance, He told the people that “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” As we did a few days ago, once again we are confronted with the question of who do we say Jesus is? He is telling us plainly that He is God and He is the only means by which our sins can be forgiven. C.S. Lewis presented three possibilities: He is either and liar, a lunatic, or Lord. If He knows He is not God, but says He is, then He is a liar and we should have nothing to do with Him. If He is mentally ill and thinks He is God when, in fact, He is not, once again, we should have nothing to do with Him. If He is telling us the truth, the He is God and we should have everything to do with Him.
He cannot be a good man or a teacher of righteousness if He is either a liar or insane. So, if He is either of these, a liar or insane, we need to flee as quickly as we can. But if He is God, which is what He is telling us and which He is, then we need to draw near to Him. That is the blessing for us: we cannot only look at Him on the Cross, but we can take up our Cross and be united with Him in the work of healing souls and bringing them to salvation.