This Lent, I’ve been wandering in the desert with Moses. Somehow, I’m finding the Book of Numbers very rewarding . I bought the Holy Father’s latest book on Jesus of Nazareth, but I’m struggling to read it, I don’t seem up to academic texts, no matter how beautifully they are written.
Chapter 20 of Numbers deals with the incident that is referred to in Psalm 94, “harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert when your fathers put me to the test”. In the past I’ve been put out by this chapter because the punishment inflicted on Moses and Aaron seems a little steep for their “crime”. Moses would not lead his people into the promised land and Aaron would be dead by the end of the chapter. I just could not work out what they had done to merit this. They just seem to have the pastoral needs of their people at heart and ask God to help them in their distress. Isn’t that what the leaders of God’s people are supposed to do?
Looking at it afresh it now becomes a disturbingly real and seems to speak a great deal of how we should behave towards our spiritual leaders and how they should respond to us.
The chapter starts with the near seditious murmurings of the people. They are looking back to a fictitious golden age in Egypt, they are dissatisfied. Their physical need for water overrides their trust in God. This is not a good state to be in. This is what Lent is all about; trying to dampen down our kvetching about the state of things and how much better things would be if only……, and trying to shut-out the voice of our physical needs and let God in.
God’s justice is never cruel, it is merciful. Moses and Aaron have responded inadequately. They respond primarily to the physical needs of their people, imploring for yet another (soon to be forgotten) miracle. Their pastoral work does fall short of what it ought to be. They have not responded by teaching the people to have faith by example, they have wanted to keep them quiet. I’m reminded of the disciples when the Canaanite woman implores loudly for her daughter to be cured, the disciples ask Our Lord to get on with it to shut her up.
So God is rightly disappointed with Moses and Aaron, they have sought to “people please” over and above putting the love of God first. It might not seem much of a crime, but look in any parish and you can see the damage it does. Mummy wants her little girl to serve at Mass even though she yawns and looks bored, the Children’s liturgy group want the kiddies around the altar after the Consecration every Mass (even though they are rowdy), the Music ministry team want hymns nobody else has heard of and even though Father isn’t quite sure they are theologically sound…..Father gives in to their demands, Father doesn’t want a fight, Father wants to try and show everyone he is here for them, Father’s exhausted and dispirited, Father can’t stand arguments, Father feels weak, Father has no authority, Father wants to say things in his sermons but he lacks the guts for the murmurings that may follow.
Father has forgotten to put God first. What is happening to him is not that different from what happened to Moses and Aaron.
As parishioners, we must in all charity stop murmurings before they cause such things, the consequences of not doing so have been shown to us more than adequately in the Old Testament.