From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. –Numbers 21:4-9
Have you ever met someone who is totally ungrateful and thought “they need to get beat up”, in the hope that it would give them some perspective on how good their life is? The events in today’s Mass reading from the Old Testament are little like that.
The people of God, who have been journeying through the desert toward the promised land, get upset that the journey is taking longer than they thought it would. They run out of patience, and lose perspective. Ungratefully, they curse the blessings that God has given them. Note, what they say contradicts itself. “Why have you brought us up from Egypt where there is no food or water?” they ask. But, in the very next line they say, “we are discusted with this wretched food”. If there was no food, how could they be disgusted with it? Like a teenager lashing out, they are trying to hit their father where it hurts. First they act ungrateful about being saved from slavery. Secondly, they complain about the Manna (bread which miraculously formed from dew) and the quail (which they caught and ate after the birds miraculously showed up in their camp) and treat it as if it’s nothing. So what’s the deal? Why are they being brats? The Israelites are really dealing with an often unspoken struggle in the spiritual life: resentment. The feeling of bitterness we have towards God when he doesn’t meet our expectations.
In reality, God’s people are not upset that he is giving them what they need. They are ticked at the fact that he isn’t giving them what they want. What do they want? The comfort and pleasure of their former life. Of course, this is ironic, because they were enslaved in their former life; but, ultimatley, they are resentful of God because in order to remain faithful to Him, they have to deny themselves. By sending snakes into the camp, and by giving them the remedy to their suffering, God reminds His children how dependent they are on his care. He also foreshadows that His plan goes beyond healing them from poisonous bites. He also wants to give them a remedy for the poison of sin.
Now, there are many reasons why people might be angry with God. The loss of a loved one, the apparent meaninglessness of suffering, or mabye they had a bad experience with a Church/pastor. Anger toward God in this way is not necessarily good, but it’s understandable. Often though, we can be tempted to resent God, and turn away from the Catholic Christian life, over much less intense things. In order to be in relationship with God we have to turn away from sin. In order to turn away from sin, we also have to deny the pleasure that comes from sin. Often this is the hardest part. It’s easy to recognize why certain sins are bad, but it’s painful to say “no” when it feels good. When we have denied sin, but are still attached to the pleasure it gives it’s easy to be resentful. When we constantly fantasize about what we’re missing out on, as opposed to focusing on what we’ve been given, its only a matter of time until we give in. Like the Israelites, we need to get some perspective. God has bigger things in store for us than our immediate pleasure. His destiny for us is that we be caught up in the infinite and ecstatic fire of His love for eternity . Yet, in order to get there we often have to say no to the temporary high of created things*. This is exactly the point of the Cross. On the Cross Jesus denies himself utterly. He literally pours himself, his blood, out for us. Not just as a reminder or example of the self denial we need to live, but as the fountain of self giving love that we can drink from and be empowered by. It’s not a coincidence that the Israelites were dissatisfied with Manna. The plain bread God provided them. How often do we overlook the Eucharist? The plain bread which is actually the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. Think about it for a second. If the Eucharist is really GOD then is there any pleasure, any sin, that can overshadow it’s greatness? Let us pray this Lent that we can have perspective. That we can deny ourselves the pleasure of sin, in exchange for the joy and fulfillment that comes from being in a state of grace, and receiving Jesus in communion. Let’s not fall into the petty resentment of the Israelites, but join in the gratitude of the Eucharist, which literally translated means “thanksgiving”. Let’s look to the Cross, where Jesus makes a remedy for suffering and death, out of suffering and death.
*Created things and pleasure are not bad in and of themselves. In this case we are talking about the abuse of created things. For example, lust instead of authentic sexual love; drunkenness instead of enjoyment without losing control; vengeance as opposed to justice etc. As we grow in the spiritual life, sometimes God asks us to let go of even legitimate pleasure in order to grow closer to Him. The important thing is we are not denying that what God has made is good, just that he is better.