Numbers 36, Psalm 52, Luke 10
The Interesting Thing about Religion is God
There’s not a lot to have to say about Numbers 36, except is it any wonder why our Jewish brothers and sisters make such great lawyers! The text turns back to a legal conundrum with the daughters of Zelophehad. Moses makes the ultimate ruling, noting that “This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes.”
The interesting thing about religion is God. Everything else pales by comparison. When we enter deeply inside the Church, it is easy for us to forget just how boring, strange and odd are some of the things that we devote our time to or discuss. What we converse and worry about can be extremely off-putting to those who come to the Church looking for “God” only to hear debates about things that sometimes have little or nothing to do with the Holy One. Let’s keep focused on God!
It’s easy while striving to be a strong Christian to have negative thoughts about the world and about others and wonder why more people do not lead good Christian lives. The psalmist struggles in the face of evil and people who lack integrity. It is a sign of goodness to be repulsed by evil and wrongdoing. That’s half the battle. The other half is taking action and doing something about it. The psalmist writes,
Why do you boast, O mighty one,
of the mischief done against the godly?
All day long you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue. (Ps. 52:1-4)
Truly, there are people who cannot be trusted in this world. I think of President Putin who walked around the Olympic Village smiling and greeting athletes while his military was making secret strategic plans to invade the Crimea wearing uniforms with no insignia to identify them as Russian special forces. This was a carefully arranged operation that is the first intrusion on sovereign boundaries in Europe since World War II end. It could potentially lead to Word War III.
Putin is today’s Hitler. As Christians, we are called to name evil and call it for what it is. Evil people usually mask what they are doing. They are facile at lying to themselves, twisting the truth and trying to convince others that what they are doing has merit. Evil doers excel at making victims feel as though they are co-conspirators or have elicited the evil being perpetrated against them. They are strong and need to be met with strength and wisdom.
Over and over again, the Bible shows us that bad things actually happen to good people. Serving God and being good does not create a force field around us that wards off evil. It does, however, put us in God’s good graces, and we can trust that God is with us, despite what others attempt to do to us.
I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever:
I will thank you forever,
Because of what you have done.
I will proclaim your name, for it is good. (Ps. 52:8-9)
To the best of my knowledge, no one ever drowned at my summer camp. Part of the reason is that we always practiced “the buddy system.” Everyone had a buddy. I was a scrawny camper who loved to swim and play a game called “Donut Ball” at Camp Belknap in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Donut Ball was played using a World War II life raft with the netting removed from the center. It looked like large rectangular lifesaver floating in the water. Donut Ball players sat on the edges while keeping a volleyball up in the air. When a ball drifted back a Donut Ball player pushed off with his feet and tried to keep the ball in play while often diving backwards into the water. Whether swimming, playing water polo or Donut Ball, we always had a buddy who insured that we did not drown.
Likewise, Jesus sent his disciples out in teams to preach and heal. In one of his most famous sayings, our Lord said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Luke 10:2) Jesus warned them that they would be like lambs in the midst of wolves. Surely, these were seminarians being sent out to serve in small parishes which are famous at times for devouring and spitting out clergy.
They were commissioned to heal the sick and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” At the same time, it they were not welcomed, they were to wipe off even the dust from their feet as a protest to those who would not offer hospitality and greet them; so much for turning the other cheek or loving one’s enemy. Perhaps there is a time to curse those who act with hardened hearts. At the very least, it’s wise to move on to a place and a people who long to hear God’s message.
Jesus did not choose scholars to found the Church. He chose ordinary people. Their schooling was minimal, but they had substance and grit and were teachable. Across the centuries, God often works through those with good hearts rather than only those with exceptional minds. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Luke 10:21-22)
One of the greatest facets about Jesus’s teaching was how down to earth and basic it was. Our Lord did not use very complicated language or ideas. He made a point and made it simply. His parables are easy to relate to and most importantly, he lived his message. His message and mission were one.
When a lawyer stood up to test Jesus, our Lord did not flinch. The man sought to justify himself and Jesus affirmed his recitation of the law. But the man wanted more. He wanted to justify himself before the Son of God. This is never a very good idea. Reverence and humility are the best ways to relate to God and Jesus.
Not disheartened, Jesus told a story about a man wandering down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jerusalem is set atop a small mountain. The average elevation in the Old City is 2,490 feet. Jericho is the city with the lowest elevation in the world. It is 1,300 feet below sea level; so there is a drop of almost 4,000 feet in the 15 miles that separate one from the other. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is very steep. Along the way, thieves often hid behind boulders, waiting to bounce on unsuspecting travelers.
An unnamed man was beaten and robbed and left for dead by his assailants. When a priest passed by, he chose to stay faithful to his mission to serve the Temple in Jerusalem. The man in the road looked dead. If he stopped and touched a corpse to see whether the man was still alive, the priest would instantly become “unclean.” He could therefore not carry out his mission.
Likewise, a Levite, who served the Temple, passed by. He, too, passed to the other side of the road and left the man to die. Everyone knows that a Samaritan came, bandaged the man’s wounds, put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he could be properly cared for, and he footed the bill!
When I was a young newspaper reporter in Nashville, I was sent out to write a story about what it was like to lose a family member to a drunk driver. I met with the parents, the widow and siblings of Russell Carpenter, a handsome, athletic young man with a beautiful wife and young children. Russell had started a company and was doing wonderfully. He had everything going for him, until a young man with a drinking problem rounded a corner with a drink in his lap that spilled and caused him to lose control of his car and plow into Russell’s car on the night before New Year’s Eve.
Russell died in a car wreck that never should have happened. A year after that event, I gathered with the family to learn and share their story with the community. It was one of the most moving events of my life. I learned lessons that I would never forget about grieving and carrying on after a great loss. Russell’s father said, “Russell always carried two cans in the back of his car – one full of water and one full of gas. No matter where you were and what time of day or night, he always stopped to help someone whose car was broken down. That’s the kind of guy Russell was.”
The world needs more Russell Carpenters. It takes some risks to be a Good Samaritan, but it’s worth it. God watches over his Samaritans, and if we use our common sense, intuition and wisdom and practice the buddy system, we are likely to be alright. Think about how you can be a Good Samaritan on a more regular basis. Perhaps your Lenten discipline can be to something like a Good Samaritan each day.
Chapter 10 ends with a story that is familiar to most Christians. The disciples and Jesus enter the village of Bethany, located close to Jerusalem. This is where Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus live. They appear to be Jesus’s closest friends in the gospels. Here is where our Lord could rest and be himself.
Martha, ever the conscientious hostess, worked hard to serve Jesus, while Mary sat at Jesus’s feet “listened to what he said” and drinking in his wisdom. When Martha complained that Mary was doing nothing to assist her in her many tasks, Jesus uttered his famous words, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Our temptation is to believe that we must decide between work and contemplation or activity and prayer, as if they were unconnected entities, after hearing this story. The truth is that we require both. Work and prayer are vital. They complement each other and form a balanced life. The credo of Benedictine monks is ora et labora or work and prayer.
As Christians, we do best when we strike a balance between serving others and spending contemplative time receiving Jesus’s love and wisdom. It is not an either or. Christians, who devote great amounts of time to outreach, hospitality, pastoral care or service, would be wise to balance this with time spent in reading Scripture, worshiping and praying. Christians, who spend significant time in Centering Prayer, reciting the Daily Office, worship and Bible study, would be wise to balance this with service to others. It is out of a balance of work and prayer or ora et labora that the most balanced lives are fashioned.
Jesus, however, is right. Mary chose the better part. No matter how much service we do for others and for God, if we do not devote time to being with God in prayer and lectio divina or the prayerful reading of Scripture, adoration of the blessed sacrament and worship, then we miss the better part. Over time we may be little more than people with great hearts and a strong volunteer ethic, but we may run the risk of burnout and not recalling why we are doing what we are doing and how it connects with our faith. As the monks note in their credo, the ora (prayer) precedes the labora (work) and insures that we are doing the work for the right reasons and are fortified with spiritual resources to do it and do it well.
The first word in the Rule of St. Benedict, his 6th century Christian masterpiece of spiritual guidance regarding how to live together in Christian community, is asculta or “listen.” “Listen, my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou may return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away,” is the opening sentence of the Rule. In Latin the word asculta or listen means both “listen” and “obey.” It is from our time spent “listening” to God that we receive guidance as to what we should do. Ora et labora. Prayer, then work. Listen, then do.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Luke 10:2)
Does the Church sometimes get carried away at focusing on things that have little to do with God? Do you believe that there are evil forces and evil persons in the world? Do you expect that God will take special care of you and protect you because you are good? How could you be a more effective Good Samaritan? What make it hard for you to keep your balance between being and doing? Are you more of a human being or a human doing? How much time to you devote each day to “listening” to God?
Gracious and Loving God, help us not to worry too much about the evil that we read and hear about in the world and become depressed, but to focus on the good that we can do this very day and during the week to come. Inspire us to become Good Samaritans in a world that is desperate for them. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania