The Bronze Serpent – The Transformation of Evil

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 252

Weary and Agitated

The people wandering in the desert are weary and agitated. The Book of Numbers describes them as qāṣēr, which the NRSV translates to “impatient.” This word, however, means so much more. Literally, it is more often used to mean “to shorten or diminish.” A humorous, though apt, example is found in Isaiah 28:20, where the author speaks of a bed that is too short to stretch out in. This image, of a short bed, describes the situation of the Hebrew people. They have been wandering for a long time looking for rest. Much like sleeping in a cramped space, they can’t get comfortable. They try this way and that, moving around, and adjusting the blankets; nothing works. So they become agitated. They complain against God and Moses. Their complaint is relatable and deeply expressive of the human condition. Couldn’t we have died just as easily in the land of Egypt? At least we had food there. It is hard not to laugh and sympathize. However, it reveals a lack of faith and hope in divine providence. The LORD has recently released them from 400 years of slavery and misery. They miraculously escaped the clutches of Egypt with many signs and wonders, yet still, they doubt. This, as is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, does not sit well with the LORD.

Fiery Serpents

In response to the complaints of the Hebrews, the LORD sends a plague of poinsonus serpents, as the NRSV translates Numbers 21:6. Some translations choose fiery serpents, which is preferable. The NRSV, to its credit, notes the alternative in a footnote. Fiery is preferable because the Hebrew word is seraphim. It is the same word used to describe a class of the angels, the highest rank of angels according to varied traditions. The seraphim were thought of as beings of fire, see Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews for examples. Fire is the most rarefied of the four basic elements; it is the most like spirit. It is also a consuming and dynamic reality. A being of fire is a being of power and dynamism. It is like God in many ways. Therefore the serpahim which attack the Hebrews should be seen as spiritual, not natural, creatures. Hence preferring the translation fiery over poinsonus.

The Punishment is the Medicine

After punishing the Hebrews, God issues an unusual command to Moses: make a serpent and place it on a pole. This is shocking given the numerous aniconic statements of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrews should never create graven images and look to them for salvation. Yet, it is the LORD who commands it. The bronze serpent was surely a frightening and bizarre image. It likely would have taken the form of a fiery dragon. Merely looking upon this image brought healing. Why? Why would a bronze image of the creature which is inflicting suffering on the Hebrews be a source of healing? The answer to this question is the central theme of the scriptures. God is not bound by the evil of human choice. The misuse of human freedom does not frustrate the LORD's will. Rather, the God of Israel transforms evil into good. He repurposes or redirects the evil so that it gives rise to good. The Hebrews were punished because of their lack of faith, but the punishment gave them faith. In suffering under the terror of the seraphim the Hebrews were reminded of their need for the LORD. They were confronted by the inherent dependence they have upon him. Which is to say, through their sufferings, they return to the LORD. The bronze seraph is a physical embodiment of the spiritual reality. It is the sign that their punishment is true medicine. In the ancient world, medicine was expected to make one ill. It harmed so that healing could be brought about. In a sense, it took away all those elements which stood in the way of healing. The seraphim function similarly for the Hebrews. Their selfish desires, impatience, and weaknesses are burned away and their fidelity and dependence upon the LORD is revealed.

The Cross, the True Bronze Serpent

This scene from the Book of Numbers is picked up in John 3:14-15. Jesus has become the new bronze serpent. To gaze upon Jesus crucified is to have life. Even though the Gospel of John explicitly references the bronze serpent, the parallels are not on the surface. Humanity was not punished by God with crucifixion, so looking at a crucifix for healing makes no sense. There is a deeper image here. In the Garden of Eden, it was a snake, a seraph, who tempted Adam and Eve. According to many traditions and legends, Satan belongs to the order of seraphim. He is placed among the highest-ranking of the angels. It is by his free choice that humanity is tempted into the misery of sin and death. When Adam and Eve voluntarily submitted themselves to the serpent, they chose death for the cosmos. In the crucifixion of Jesus, this choice is transformed. Death, the punishment of humanity, becomes the means to salvation. God, in the humanity of Jesus, submits to death and so makes it into the passage into life. Jesus on the cross is the true and everlasting bronze serpent. To gaze upon Christ crucified is to take in the medicine of immortality. It is to behold the greatest work of God which makes Satan’s and humanity’s sin into salvation.

Let Us Pray

God of limitless power, our sins are not a barrier to your love. You can transform every evil into our good. Pour out on us your mercy, lift us up from the misery of sin and death, and let us behold your love, our medicine, in Jesus crucified. Per eundem dominum…

The Woman Caught in Adultery

Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent
Lectionary 251

Pericope Adulterae

The gospel scene of the woman caught in adultery, sometimes referred to as the Pericope Adulterae(PA), is unusually controversial. The controversy isn’t so much about the content, but whether it belongs in the NT at all. The PA does not appear in the earliest and most realiable manuscripts of the NT. There is no real scholarly doubt that PA does not originally belong to the Gospel of John. Brown goes so far as to say “clearly…it [is] a latter insertion.” [1] Brown supports this claim by pointing out PA's abscence from early Greek texts, the Old Syriac, the Coptic, and quotations by early Greek writters. [2] However, today, it is typically accepted as canonical and printed in bibles with, perhaps, a footnote referencing its absence from many manuscripts.

Is It Apostolic?

Some people are understandably disturbed by this state of affairs. Texts which do not authentically belong to the apostolic age should not be in the scriptures. Addressing this concern is not trivial. First, it is not clear whether the text is ancient or not. While there is no definitive manuscript evidence, there is a possible reference to the text by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis. According to Eusebius, Papias has related another account about a woman accused of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel According to the Hebrews contains. [3] This is problematic for three reasons. First, while Papais belongs to the first or second century, Eusebius belongs to the third and fourth centuries. There is, at minimum, a 100-year separation between the authors. Second, Papias is not known to be the most sober-minded of early Christian writers. He recounts unusual stories, and little is known about him. Finally, the Gospel According to the Hebrews is a lost work. There are many references to works under that title scattered throughout early Christian writers, but it is not certain whether they all refer to the same text. Even if they do, there is no reason to believe this gospel has survived. Papias refers to a similar scene again in fragment 23, but that provides no more evidence of the authenticity of the contemporary text. The best evidence for an ancient provenance of PA is the third century Didascalia Apostolorum which clearly references a text similar to the contemporary one. [4] Therefore, the pericope is old, surely belonging at least to the second century. Whether or not it is considered apostolic depends upon how one evaluates the evidence of Papias.

Is it Canonical?

Having failed to resolve the question of age, the question of canonicity remains. It depends on what is meant by “canon.” Armin Baum provides a respectable summary of various positions on the question of canon and the PA. [5] As Baum states, the question of canon for Catholic theologians is resolved. Jerome’s Vulgate includes the PA, St. Augustine approves of it, and the Council of Trent affirms it as scripture. For Protestant theologians, and perhaps Orthodox, the question remains open. Baum analyzes possible approaches that will not be considered here. One note of caution, however. Baum gravely underestimates the challenge of arriving at orthodoxy without a fixed canon. He rightly points out that the early Church seems to achieve consensus without a fixed canon, but this is a gross oversimplification. The early Church was rife with infighting, political intrigue, and even violence. The orthodox faction was not even in the majority at all points in history. The Marcionite churches held enormous influence and, in many areas, were the majority for centuries. The same is true of the Arian churches. That the orthodox position ultimately attained majority status and most other groups failed should be attributed to the intervention of God and not scholarly resolving of differences. Nonetheless, Baum’s article should be read and carefully considered.

Interpretting the Woman Caught in Adultery

Since, from a Catholic perspective, the question of canonicity is resolved, the issues of interpretation must be addressed. Gail O’Day’s feminist reading of the PA is amazing. It is insightful, liberating, and makes sense of an otherwise difficult text. O’Day in her article “A Study in Misreading,” [6] while addressing many issues and possibilities, presents two which deserve close inspection.

An Ironic Misreading

Many, notably St. Augustine, see in the PA a confrontation between sin and adultery. Jesus brings mercy to a wretched woman caught in adultery, who certainly deserves no mercy. This reading fixates on the sins of the woman, just as do the Pharisees. It objectifies the already nameless woman and makes her a mere warning for others. That is, such a reading takes the Pharisees at their word and adopts their thoughts. Given the treatment of the Pharisees in the NT, and particularly the gospels, this cannot be the meaning of the text. Jesus never objectifies; he liberates and gives life, especially in the Gospel of John.

A Tiny Detail

O’Day, rather than focus on the woman, shifts her focus to Jesus. Specifically, she hones in on his position in the scene. Twice Jesus bends down, stands up, and speaks. The first time is the with Pharisees after they demand of him an answer. Rather than respond, Jesus bends down and writes in the dirt. His silence is a refusal to submit to the Pharisees; it is taking control of the situation. Then Jesus stands up and addresses them. He repeats these actions with the silent woman. That is, Jesus treats both the Pharisees and the woman as equals. He shows no favor or preference to either. Neither is allowed to dominate and control the situation. Jesus speaks to both from a respectful position of standing. He gives both a choice to embrace his offer or reject it. Thus, the PA is not about sin; it is about the radical equality of the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls all people to himself; he excludes no one. This message has never been a favorite of the Church, at any point in history, but it is essential to the good news.

Let Us Pray

Loving God, you created us in your own image to live as a single human family united in you. Let us see your face in all people we encounter and know with certainty they are our equals. Per dominum…

Footnotes:
[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 335.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 741.
[4] Brown, 335.
[5] Baum, Armin D. “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53–8:11) Have Canonical Authority? An Interconfessional Approach.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24, no. 2 (2014): 163–78. JSTOR link
[6] O’Day, Gail R. “John 7:53–8:11: A Study in Misreading.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992).

Jesus Wept

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Lectionary 34

A Surprising Scene

Jesus wept. Much ink has been spilled over these words and the preceding few verses of the Gospel of John. John 11:33-35 presents a surprising scene. It seems that Jesus is showing emotion and even weeping. This is shocking because it contrasts with the typical Johannine portrayal. For the author of John’s Gospel, Jesus is more divine than human. Jesus stands apart from humanity as the light of the world. Some have described Jesus as being “radioactive.” Noone gets near him and he almost floats off the ground. While this is surely an exaggeration, it is an apt analogy. John’s Gospel has the highest Christology and the deepest reverence for the divinity of Christ of all the gospels. That is why this scene of such deep human emotion catches us off guard. The light of the world, the Logos should not be moved at the sight of human misery. He should lift up and repair all that is fallen and broken. By the conclusion of the Lazarus story, he does repair what is broken, but why this interruption of a Johannine theme? Why does Jesus suddenly appear so human, so fragile?

Why Anger?

In order to understand why Jesus wept, we must first consider John 11:33. This verse employs the Greek verb embrimasthai. Ordinarily, this word means “to become angry.” Embrimasthai is stern and emotional anger, not mere annoyance. It expresses itself in outward display[1]. The same word is used in Mark 14:5, Mark 1:43, Matthew 9:30, and the LXX of Daniel 11:30. Used in this context, it is a baffling choice. There is no apparent reason for Jesus to be angry. His friend has died and people are mourning. Scholars have taken two general approaches to resolve this issue. One group finds an object of the anger, the other group nuances the word and reinterprets it.

Object of Anger

Haenchen, citing others, and Brown point to two possibilities in the former group. The first suggestion is that Jesus is angry at the faithlessness of the Jews and Mary of Bethany.[2] He has already performed many signs and taught his followers. Still, they do not believe, despite what they may say. Jesus’ anger is thus frustration that people’s hearts are so hardened against his message. The second option is that Jesus is angry to see death and suffering in the world because it is an expression of the dominion of Satan.[3] Jesus came into the world to liberate it, to be a light in the darkness and his work continues to be frustrated. Thus he is angry that Satan still controls not only the world but the hearts and minds of the people. While Brown provides the most interesting suggestion, none of the interpretations are wholly satisfying.

Reinterpreting

The other possibility, nuancing the word, provides a more compelling reading. Moloney notes there is likely an underlying Aramaicism not totally captured by the Greek word. This, combined with the moved in the spirit, which internalizes the otherwise externally focussed word, gives rise to the idea of being “disturbed.”[4] Thus Jesus is not angry, he is deeply impacted by the scene. Like any other human, Jesus groans within himself at the sight of so much suffering.

Jesus Wept

The above analysis is essential to understand this most widely recognized of phrases Jesus wept. For one brief moment, the author of John’s Gospel lets go of his project to display the glory and transcendence of Jesus. He allows Jesus’ humanity to shine forth fully. In allowing this small display of humanity, the author increases not only our understanding of Jesus, but also proclaims the depth of his love. Jesus is not the incarnation of an uncaring and absent God. Jesus is the compassion of God. By means of his humanity, Jesus elevates the human experience into the divine life and transforms it. Weeping is no longer a sign of the loss of hope, but an expression of love which brings life out of death. According to St. Ephrem, [h]is tears were like the rain, and Lazarus like a grain of wheat, and the tomb like the earth.[5] The tears of Jesus are the waters of life bringing Lazarus out of the tomb.

Let Us Pray

Eternal God, in the humanity of your only son you have shown us compassion. You have lifted us up into your divine and unending life. May we always be united to you, so that our sufferings may be transformed and life may spring from death. Per dominum…

[1]Moloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 4, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 340.
[2]Ernst Haenchen, Robert Walter Funk, and Ulrich Busse, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 66.
[3]Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 426.
[4]Moloney, 341.
[5]Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11–21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 21.

Revelation and COVID-19

If you haven’t read the Holy Father’s Urbi et Orbi message, read it immediately! It is an amazing reflection on the Gospel of Mark 4:35-41 and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Earth, Our Boat

We are all on the same boat. Confronted by a global pandemic, an enemy who does not discriminate, we must stand together. The virus does not care about our culture, race, income, or any other characteristic; it infects all. Therefore we too must drop our prejudices. We cannot save ourselves if we do not strive to save all. The virus will use the infection of those for whom we care little to reach those for whom we care deeply. Either we rise together, or we fall together because we are all in the same boat. It seems this message has been slowly sinking into the hearts of people. In the past week, we have witnessed a true miracle, politicians agreeing! Even in a time of deep divide in the USA, we are witnessing politicians united and occasionally complementing one another. The pandemic, which first stole hope from us, is now giving rise to greater hope. It has forced us to see our common humanity shared in a common home. If only we would carry these new insights with us after the crisis ends.

Revelation and COVID-19

Pope Francis sees in the pandemic a revelatory quality. It has stripped us of the pseudo-reality we have built around us. The crisis has destroyed the illusion of our self-sufficiency. It will not allow us to drown ourselves in mindless entertainment, frivolous pursuits, or false independence. We are now facing the truth: we need one another, we need to confront reality. For so long, we have anesthetized ourselves to the world. We pursue whatever our disordered passions desire without the least thought for those around us. Forced into quarantine and social distancing, this is no longer an option. We now experience silence and loneliness. This new situation is a struggle. Because we have so long avoided the silence, we do not know how to deal with it. Silence makes us experience our mortality. It makes us look into the depths of our being. Silence is a frightening experience to the spiritually immature. Yet it is also a great opportunity. We can rediscover the truth and grow in the spiritual life. The pandemic is a time to choose the good. It is a time to let go of our old certainties and confront the pandemic of sin and evil, which had infected the world because the world was sick long before we were.

Jesus Asleep

Like the disciples in the boat, we may think God is asleep and does not care for us. As Pope Francis points out, however, he does care. God is not truly asleep. He is offering us the opportunity to have faith. The accusation that Jesus is asleep, “shake[s] Jesus,” according to the pope. Jesus cares more than anyone. God is drawing us deeper into the mystery of himself and the mystery of our existence. Contrary to our initial reaction, there is no need for fear; we have the cross. In our common boat, the cross is our anchor holding us steady. The cross is our rudder directing us along the journey. The cross is our hope and challenges us to transform this moment. It calls out to us to grow in charity and sacrifice our lives. It calls us again to hear the most joyful message, “He is risen and lives by our side!” We are never alone. The risen Jesus Christ always stands beside us, drawing us towards the Kingdom of God. Turning to him will open our hearts and make room for God’s creative Spirit to surprise us.

The Holy Father’s Prayer

Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies, and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak, and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’ (cf. 1Pet 5:7).

Put to the Test

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Lectionary 248

Let us put to the test

Being put to the test is a common biblical theme. Fidelity to the ways of God cannot be proved during times of great blessings. This motif is the basis for the opening of the book of Job. When our lives are free of distress, and we have leisure, it is easy to be faithful. We are afforded time to pray and meditate, we have no anxieties to distract or weigh us down, and we have many things for which to be thankful. Such a blessed time should, if there is even a hint of righteousness, give rise to a great love for God and neighbor. However, the scriptures view this as external righteousness. One who clings to God merely for blessings received might abandon faith the moment a trial arises. This abandonment would reveal that the person was never righteous but merely self-seeking. Fidelity, the basis of authentic righteousness, requires clinging to God “for better or worse,” as we say in the marriage rite. Thus, those who seem to be faith must be put to the test; they must be stripped of all their blessings and given a chance to prove their righteousness.

The Wicked Despise the Just

Wisdom 2:12-22 takes this biblical theme in an interesting direction. In Wisdom, the wicked are the ones who wish to prove the righteousness of the supposed just person. They have seen the works of the just person and are incensed! The just person’s every action enrages them. The just person avoids their company, does not walk in their ways, and even has the gall to reprove their behavior. The very existence of the just person is a reproach to the wicked. Such a person stands as a continual reminder not only of their errors but also as evidence that righteousness is possible. The just person reveals the weakness of the wicked and the baseness of their thoughts. Thus they conspire to bring an end to the just. They cannot imagine a world where such a person is authentic. It must all be a show for the sake of notoriety and attention. The decide the just person must be put to the test. When all his stripped away from the just person, the façade will collapse, and the person will be revealed as being no better than the wicked.

The Wicked, Instruments of God

But of course, as is always the case, the wicked are not in control. Despite their scheming, it is God who is in control. What seems to be a unique take on a biblical motif is actually the same message but placed in a concrete context. The ‘put to the test’ theme is stripped of the mythological elements seen in Job and played out in the mundane. The scene described in Wisdom is far too common. The path of righteousness does not often overlap with the path of wickedness. One who walks the righteous path does serve as a sign of higher ways. The wicked, in the disorder of their minds, see this higher way as a personal attack. They perceive the righteous as looking down upon them, and they become resentful. Thus the righteous are put to the test. However, they are not actually the ones doing the testing; God is the one who tests. Though absent from the lectionary reading, Wisdom 2:22 makes clear, God’s allowance of testing by the wicked proves the righteousness of the just. To refine the souls of the just and make clear the authenticity of their lives, God himself is the one who puts to the test. It is his “secret purpose.” The wicked become instruments of God to make righteousness shine forth ever more brightly. God, in his omnipotence, transforms the evil of the wicked into an instrument of the good and his own will. To some degree, this should bring comfort to the just. While God has no part in the sins of the wicked, he does not allow their plots to interfere in his designs. Whatever punishments and tortures they may dole out upon the just, God is still in control. When a hand strikes the just because the person is just, the sin belongs to the wicked, but the hand is vivified by God himself.

Jesus and the Wicked

The parallels between the scene in Wisdom and the life of Jesus, as presented in the gospels, are apparent.[1] The leaders of the Jews see in Jesus not only a potential usurper of their power but an insult to their way of life. Jesus does not favor them and praises them as do many of the people. He stands apart from their ways and even condemns them. As long as Jesus lives, the wicked cannot have peace. He is a continual reminder to them of the ways of God and their failings. Rather than change their hearts and follow the path of righteousness, they choose to remove Jesus from their midst. Thus the righteousness of Jesus will be proved. In his torture and death, Jesus does not abandon the Father or the path he walked. Rather, he submits fully to the human condition and proves the way of the righteous leads to happiness. As the wicked feared most, the just can never be killed. God does save them. The Father raised Jesus and made him a sign to all generations. This is the Christian life. It is a life of testing. It demands absolute fidelity to a seemingly impossible way, but the grace of God is always available. Jesus walks before us so that we are not alone on the journey. As Christians, we must not lament the trials of life; we must embrace them. Every trial is an opportunity to prove our faith and be ever more united to Jesus, to be ever more like Jesus. In the end, we too shall be raised up and inherit the kingdom of the Father.

Let Us Pray

Merciful Father, may we never fall in times of trial. But let us always cling faithfully to you and so be refined in mind and soul. Per dominum…

[1]Michael Adams, trans., Wisdom Books, The Navarre Bible (Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishing, 2004), 312.