Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Numbers 14, Luke 12
In our liturgical church we use a lectionary for daily worship and Sunday Eucharist. This means that numerous texts and psalms are brought together to provide a "chemical reaction". It draws the reader into a rich and fertile place.
This is one of those much maligned "Old Testament God of judgment" readings. (I disagree)
13:1-2 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites..." Each tribe provided a spy, and chapter 13 recounts how the men spent forty days discovering the incredible fruitfulness of the land. However, upon their return, the men said an invasion could not be successful because the people of the land were too powerful and like giants. Caleb alone voiced confidence that Israel would prevail if they attack. Numbers 14 begins with the people wailing and crying. "Why did God do this? Let's head back to Egypt!" I underlined the key statement. God said, "I am giving you this land" and the scouts said, "It cannot happen." This is mutiny against God. Let that sink in...
[If one can allow the narrative to function as a story and if one can allow people in the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age to be ancient then one can hear God speak in this ancient epic. The Lord revealed Himself to them and spoke through them, but just as we translated Hebrew into English so must we translate and interpret their thought.] We are confronted in this narrative with people who do not trust God in spite of all He had done for them. This is the key or central revelation. Moses and Aaron exhort the people to see all that is offered and trust. (14:11) God says, "How long will this people spurn me and how long will they have no faith in me?" The narrative sets up the dilemma: Israel has refused to trust God (amazing that they portray themselves in such negative light. That is not the ancient norm.) God says He wants to wipe out Israel and start all over. This would echo Genesis and the Noah story. Moses as intercessor becomes the savior as he provides YHWH with four reasons to relent. Clearly, this understanding of God (being angry, hurt and wanting to wipe out an entire people) does not sit easily with us today. Our view of God is far less anthropomorphic. However, in our time the problem of faithlessness and unbelief would produce similar outcomes. The act of unbelief as rejection would alienate the sinner from the source of hope. Same outcome even if we would explain the process differently. One should ponder the place of intercessory prayer but be careful not to take this portrayal of God too literally. In the end, the (nation) people are forgiven, but they are still to be kept from the land. Why? Maybe they were unready to enter the land. They do not trust and so they are not able. They still are slaves in their minds and hearts. It will be the next generation (take note, those under twenty) which will enter the land. Except faithful Caleb. He will be the lone survivor (except Joshua is also going to be there). The language is graphic--"your corpses will drop dead in the wilderness--God is no politically correct mincer of words...
Why so mean? In the ancient Middle East loyalty was at the heart of faith. Love was attachment to a person or group. This culture was not focused on the inner world of mental thoughts, beliefs or feelings (like our modern psychological Western culture). Believing was not an intellectual exercise, it was an act of entrusting one's self and being trustworthy. Loving was not a warm feeling of affection or passionate desire, it was living life as a part of a group.The Israelites were being unfaithful, unloyal and were showing a failure to love God. 14:33 has another strong word (zenuth, which means harlotry, fornication or whoredom) translated as 'unfaithfulness.' This captures the feel of the sin of Israel. God's judgment is arguably a declaration of what is taking place. The people have rejected God, they have returned hate for love, infidelity for faithfulness, distrust for faithfulness. God's commitment to the nation extends beyond the current generation. They will perish but some day their offspring (whom they claimed God would let die) will enter the land. God is faithful and merciful, but He also is allowing people to choose their own way and suffer the consequences. How the mystery of divine-human relationship is expressed matters, but what matters more is insight. I think that we can understand this story as a parable on faith and a prophetic warning against unbelief and infidelity--in other words, it is a New Testament story too.
The opening verse (I came to bring fire) is not found in any other Gospel. One is tempted to look back to Luke 1:16 where John the Baptist says a "coming one" will "baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" for a context. The church Fathers offer numerous options. Cyril of Alexandria (homily 94) says the "fire is the saving message of the Gospel and the power of its commandments" though he quickly says the Holy Spirit is the fire of God at work in us. Ambrose thinks it the fire of love. Although he reminds us that on the road to Emmaus their hearts burned with fire--which is the flames of the divine Scripture. Cyril of Jerusalem points to Pentecost and the flames. Finally Basil the Great sees the "flaming words" of Jesus reveal the malice of sin and baptism "is a type of the cross, death, burial and resurrection." If we do not know exactly what Jesus means, we obviously discern His impatience. As when He wondered aloud how much longer he would have to be with the unbelieving crowd, so here we sense an impatience. We can easily overlook Jesus humanity, especially those who think He was all knowing. However, these words reflect a Jesus who is also waiting and longing. It is a Jesus who wants to see things happen God's way.
Written words, without benefit of tone of voice, are easily misunderstood. When Jesus says He has not come for peace but division what does He mean? Families divided among themselves on what to think of the Messiah reflects the reality of the early church. Family division carries a heavier weight in the Middle East. It is a loss of identity. Is Jesus warning or bemoaning this division? Is He sad that the unbelief produces division (unbelief again!) or is He declaring that is His purpose, to divide out folks?
The concluding words hearken back to the parable of the faithful (expectant) servant. Jesus often criticizes those who are adept in the worldly matters while spiritually blind or deaf. In our own day we are no less prone to this malady. The truth is we get good at what we practice and Jesus thinks we practice the wrong things. There is a tension between God's Kingdom and "the world" (fallen creation). In contemporary times, Western Christians are certainly too comfortable with the world. Let the one with ears, hear!
So how do these two readings interact? They convey a sense of God's impatience waiting for His people to become His people. They remind us that choosing is a response to being chosen. In some case only one is a Caleb. In other cases many embrace God. The readings remind us that love is passionate and mercy has its limits, that relationship requires choices by all parties and that grace, while an unearned offer and an unmerited kindness