Numbers 21-23, Psalm 47, Luke 5
Snake-bitten people can become the wounded healers of the world
Numbers 21 – 23
These chapters are tricky to understand. We are told that “Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.’ The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.” (Numbers 21:2-3) Hormah means destruction in Hebrew.
One of the great struggles that any nation faces is telling its own history truthfully. Perhaps the best measure of this question is high school text books. What do Japanese text books say about how the Pacific War started in 1941? Do German text books describe the Holocaust accurately? Do American history books explain how we systematically killed Native Americans and drove them onto reservations?
Truth-telling is hard. We are all tempted to tell lies to ourselves and to others. It is interesting when talking with couples or families to hear them contradict each other when recounting experiences. One family member recounts the story one way, and the other interjects a completely different account.
Israeli history books describe the peaceful settlement of Palestinian lands from 1947-1949 when Palestinians willingly left their home and towns where their families had lived for up to 2,000 years in order to allow Jewish refugees to settle. Palestinians refer to this event as the Nakba. They were forcibly removed. Their story is more accurate. What stories do we tell ourselves about our own personal and national history? How accurate are they? The opening of Numbers involves God as a chief actor helping the Israelites to destroy Canaanite towns. It is deeply wrong to credit our evil to God.
Once again, the Israelites complain. This time, God sends poisonous snakes among the people. Many are bitten and die. Perhaps feeling regret, God instructs Moses to fabricate a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole and show it to those who have been bitten. All who see will recover or return to life.
This past week I heard an old friend give a very powerful talk. The Rev. Becca Stevens and I did youth ministry together in Tennessee over 20 years ago. Today, Becca has launched two nationally-acclaimed ministries that are touching countless lives across the United States and overseas. I am thrilled that Becca is coming to St. Thomas Church in November to speak and share her ministry.
In her talks and in her book Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling Becca tells about being sexually-abused as a teenager by an elder in her own Episcopal church, a predator who took advantage of her family after her father, an Episcopal priest, had died. Becca was bitten by the serpent of a man. Today, Becca has founded the Thistle Farms and Magdalene Ministries that help women, many of whom were sexually abused usually around the age of 11-years-old and were often bought and sold to sex traffickers. She helps them regain their lives and their freedom. Her ministry is one of the most powerful and most needed in our country.
Becca has transformed a snake-bite into a cure that is giving hope to thousands of women across the United States and now women in Ecuador and other countries around the world. God is able to take the darkest moments of our lives and transform them into an antidote to give hope and freedom to victims of the world’s worst snake bits, if we have the courage to let God transform our suffering into a source of healing and hope for others. Becca is an amazing woman!
Moses sent messengers to the King of Sihon in the land of the Amorites or Canaanites. He requested permission to travel through their land en route to the Promised Land. When Sihon refused, “Israel put him to the sword.” (Numbers 21:24) Throughout the Old Testament there are different versions of the Conquest of Canaan was told. The Book of Joshua, for example, tells about how Israel quickly entered and took control of Canaan. The Book of Judges, however, tells of much less decisive and less complete conquest and protracted battles fought for decades as Israel strove to take over the Promised Land.
In a similar way, we all strive to tell ourselves a story as to why our marriage ended or why we no longer talk to one of our brothers or why we no longer work for a previous employer. Truth-telling is hard. If we create a lie and convince ourselves that it is the truth, we prevent real healing from occurring. Our inability to tell the truth often affects the generations that come after us.
Chapter 22 introduces us to one of the most curious figures in the Bible. Balaam is a non-Israelite prophet from Pethor, which was located near the Euphrates River in northern Mesopotamia. This Mesopotamian soothsayer’s fame had spread to such an extent that King Balak requested his help, when the Israelites arrived on the border of his territory.
Today, as I write, 6,000 Russian forces have arrived in the Crimea and have taken over that region of the Ukraine. Putin, Russia’s dark leader, is once again playing political chess and human lives are at stake. The world is deeply concerned. King Balak was living in such a moment. An unknown people had entered his territory, had already destroyed towns and people in Canaan and was requesting his permission to travel across his kingdom.
Balak sent an embassy with significant sums of money to Balaam requesting the seeker to curse the invaders. The use of profession cursers, regarded as having special rapport with the deity, is well-attested from antiquity. When I was working for the church in remote western Kenya, I asked friends to introduce me to a witch-doctor. There were several witch doctors living in the area, but I could find no one willing to take me to see one. Their power was considered to be so strong that individuals told me that if a witch doctor disliked us, he could strike us down with deadly force. Such was the power of a professional curser in antiquity.
Balaam did not know the people that he was being asked to curse. All he was told was that “’a people has come out of Egypt and has spread over the face of the earth; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out,’” was King Balak’s message requesting help. Balaam consulted God, who refused to let him curse the Israelites. So Balak sent another embassy.
This time, God apparently relented and instructed Balaam to go with the second embassy, but only to do what God instructed him to do. Balaam saddled his donkey and joined the officials. God, however, was unhappy with this decision and sent an angel to meet Balaam in the middle of the road. They wise soothsayer turned out to be somewhat blind. Only his donkey could see the angel wielding a sword in the middle of the road. The ass turned off into a field. Three times Balaam beat his donkey to return to the path. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times,” said the ass.
This is one of the endearing but strange stories of the Bible. It’s not every day that an ass speaks to us. Finally, God opened Balaam’s eyes so that he could see the angel with his drawn sword standing in the road. We might ask ourselves, “What angels are standing in the middle of the road that I am traveling on and blocking my route for my own good? What has someone close to me been trying to tell me that I have either ignored or have been unable to see?
Balak tried three times to have Balaam curse the Israelites. Three times Balaam refused to utter words that God did not instruct him to say. Finally, Balaam opened his mouth and uttered a blessing instead of a curse. “See, I received a command to bless; [God] has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.” (Numbers 23:20) Balak unknowingly had arranged his own defeat by enlisting Balaam’s help.
The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness that everyone unconsciously tries to undermine our life’s greatest project. Hence, we create a marriage only to sabotage it or build a company only to lose it or focus on building vast equity only to watch it disappear. Balak’s actions remind us that we must be careful not to unknowingly undermine ourselves.
Around 525 A.D., St. Benedict made reciting the Psalms the backbone of the Divine Offices or Opus Dei (meaning in Latin, Work of God) for the prayer life of his monks. By the ninth century, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, the Night Office, sometimes referred to as Vigils. The work of Benedictine monks was to offer prayers for the world and to balance work, prayer and study.
Monks recited the Venite (Psalm 95:1-7) or Jubilate (Psalm 100), which are also part of the Daily Office of Morning Prayer recited by many Anglicans around the world each day. These joyful psalms instruct us to “sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation” (Ps. 95:1) and “Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.” (Ps. 100) Likewise, Psalm 47 instructs us to “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy” and “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.” (Ps. 47: 1, 6-7)
Benedict was a spiritual genius. He knew that it was important for humans to pray joyfully. There are days when we awake like a dour monk, grumbling to ourselves and not thankful for the gift of a new day. By reciting joyful psalms like psalms 95, 100 and 47, we brighten our mourning and set our outlook right from the beginning of the day. God literally commands us to be joyful, to count our blessings, praise to God and be grateful for another day of life.
After Henry VIII dissolved the great monasteries of England from 1536 – 1541, the great monasteries of England in Canterbury, London, Durham and other places became cathedrals. The Church of England refers to them as “the ancient foundations.” The monks who remained became canons and served as priests in the cathedral. By 1549, they began using The Daily Offices of The Book of Common Prayer.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer took the eight monastic offices and transformed them into two Daily Offices – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Every priest and lay person was encouraged to recite them each day. Hence, Anglican spirituality evolved directly from Benedictine spirituality. Psalms of joy and praise such as Psalms 95 and 100 play a key role in Anglican spirituality. Psalm 47 mirrors them.
Ten percent of us take anti-depressants. This is the largest percentage of any population on the planet. Americans are the most depressed people on earth. Taking time to pause, pray and read Scripture and draw closer to God each day and recite joyful psalms is a great antidote to combat depression. It creates a joy-seeking thankfulness at the start of each day and turns the focus from ourselves to God as the outset of each day. Living without God and focusing too much on ourselves is a sure path to depression. A good spiritual discipline is a great antidote.
Chapter 5 of Luke’s Gospel demonstrates that Jesus knew a bit about fishing or at least about persistence and thinking outside the box. When Jews fished on the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Lake of Gennesaret, they anchored their boats facing north. The Jordan River entered the sea at this point, bringing with it fish and aquatic life that was a source for feeding fish. As any fisherman knows, where a tributary enters a lake or a large river you can catch fish. Jews would then toss their nets to the left side of the boat, because the left side of the lake is where the Jews lived. The right side is where the Gentiles lived. Hence, the right side was the wrong side to cast your nets, according to Jewish custom.
Simon and his colleagues had been fishing all night, tossing their nets to the left side of the boat, as Jewish fishermen traditionally did, but to no avail. Here Luke recounts a story that is barely mentioned in Mark’s Gospel. Mark mentions only that “Jesus was walking by the sea of Galilee when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew at work casting nets in the lake; for they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed [Jesus].” (Mark 1:16-18) Matthew recounts this same episode word for word. (Matt. 4:18-20)
John’s Gospel offers the most stories about Jesus’s resurrection appearances in the New Testament. One of these occurs just after daybreak, as Jesus was standing on the beach by the Sea of Galilee. Peter, Thomas and Nathaniel, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples had gone fishing. They had fished all night without catching anything. Jesus stood on the beach sand said, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.” (John 21:4-6)
Luke’s Gospel gives us far more detail than Mark or Matthew offer about Jesus’s interaction with the disciples, whom he will call to join him and become fishers of men. Both Matthew and Mark leave us scratching our heads and wondering why any able-bodied men would drop their work and follow a total stranger who happened to pass by while they were working as fishermen. Luke, however, tells us that a crowd was following Jesus. Jesus then climbed aboard Simon’s boat, which was near another boat, and asked Simon to push off slightly from the shore.
This created a natural source of amplification, where Jesus’s voice could easily be projected to the masses on the shore. Meanwhile, it drew the fishermen into his teaching. They listened and became his most fervent disciples. We read, “When he had finished speaking, Jesus said, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ [Peter] answered, ‘Master, we have fished all night long but have caught nothing. Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When he had done this they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.” (Luke 5:4-7)
Could John and Luke’s stories be part of the same story or two episodes that mirrored one another? Perhaps the reason that Jesus attracted this fisherman, who dropped everything and left family and friends to follow him, was because he encouraged them to do things differently and to persevere. Miraculous things occurred as a result. After his death, when they were lost and grieving, the resurrected Christ came to them and once again encouraged them to break with tradition and fish from the right side or the Gentile side of the boat. Once again, the results were remarkable. Suddenly, they realized that this was the very lord who had called them into ministry several years before.
Either way, the story was a symbol of the miraculous catch of human beings and disciples for Christ that would come about when the Early Church turned from trying to convert practicing Jews to Christianity and focused instead on converting Gentiles to the Christian faith. Jesus related to people where they were in life. He did not ask them first to study theology. He met them in their normal routines of life.
I spoke recently with a retired business man who is very involved in The Compass Rose, a vital organization that supports the Anglican Communion. He met with Archbishop Justin Welby in October. “How did you enjoy meeting him?” I asked. “I loved it,” he said. “As a retired business man, I can relate him and he understands me and those who have worked in business. He can speak to business issues and businessmen and they cannot say, ‘Oh Archbishop, that is a lovely thought, but you are a theologian and do not understand business. They know that he understands them and understands business. It is a powerful thing.”
I suspect that it is out of this powerful connection and ability to meet people where they are in the normal routine of life as opposed to spending the entire day in the Temple or in a church office like we clergy are prone to spend too much of our time, that Jesus ministered best. He healed a leper and then a paralytic. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
But Balaam answered Balak, ‘Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the Lords says, that is what I must do’? (Numbers 23:26)
Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm. (Ps. 47:6-7)
Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)
How have you been bitten in life? What hurt or grief is God calling you to use as a source for bringing hope and healing to others who can learn from your experience? Do you recite Morning Office? If not, you may wish to do so or at least recite Psalm 95 or 100 each morning as a way experiencing joy at the beginning of each day. How is God calling you to think outside the box, to break with custom or tradition and do something new? What attempts are you making to go to the people in your ministry and leave the safe setting where you are surrounded by believing Christians?
Gracious God, you call us to venture forth from comfortable surroundings and meet real people in real life settings and to speak using real language and not lofty theological statements and pious sentiments. Help each of us to venture into unchartered places, to speak with an authentic voice of hope, listen attentively, look carefully at the needs around us, and build relationships from which all of our ministry shall evolve. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania