There’s a fascinating story in today’s Old Testament lesson. In fact, there are at least three fascinating stories in today’s Old Testament lesson. The first focuses on God’s conflict with the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness. The second deals with Moses who, finding himself in the middle of the conflict between God and the Israelites, has a bone to pick with God. And the third story is about community rules and regulations, and about God’s propensity for breaking them. Fascinating stories, all. Let’s take a quick look at them.
The first story describes a lot of weep’n and a wail’n. The Israelites are complaining bitterly about their hardship within the hearing of the Lord. Wandering in the wilderness has been no picnic, and the food has been awful! God did send them manna to eat. It came down at night when the dew settled on the camp; and there was plenty of it. But that wasn’t the point. The biblical writer says, “The manna was like coriander seed.” Coriander seed? I don’t know anything about coriander seed, so I asked my wife, Shelby, who is an excellent cook and knows a lot about spices and such. “Coriander seed!” she said. “That stuff smells like old shoes; and it gets stronger the longer you cook it. It should be used very sparingly.” Maybe it’s no wonder the Israelites complained about losing their appetite, and longed for the meat and fish, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic of Egypt. I think I would also.
But look at how God deals with this. (Incidentally, God’s response was excluded from today’s lectionary. I think it ought to be included.) Listen to God’s answer to Israel’s complaints. “The Lord heard you when you wailed, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt. Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loath it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt.”
God doesn’t pamper people. God doesn’t permit people to put aside their vocational callings and responsibilities just because it doesn’t feel good or taste right. God is a God of love. But God is a God of tough love. When God’s anger is stirred, God speaks and acts, and God doesn’t worry about being polite or politically correct. God makes judgments, judgments that self-serving religious leaders and their people dare deconstruct only at their own peril. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “The law must be contained in the gospel, and the gospel must be contained in the law.” When humans put their own will before the will of God, there are consequences.
Jesus’s words in today’s gospel lesson reflect this. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out…better to enter the kingdom of God with one hand or foot or eye than…to be thrown into hell.”
And then we have Moses—in the middle. That’s how I see the second story in today’s Old Testament lesson: “Moses in the middle.” Poor Moses; sucked into the middle of the conflict between God and God’s people. “Triangled” is the word we use today to describe it. And he is stressed to the breaking point. And he too complains; he too goes up in God’s face. “Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people upon me?…Did I give birth to them that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child…?”Moses’ words remind me of a seminary classmate of mine who once told me that parish ministry made him feel like a wetnurse with large breasts whose only job was to comfort and suckle those parishioners in the church with under-developed coping skills.
Moses—we know what it’s like. And apparently, so does God. God is sympathetic to Moses. God gives help to those caught in the middle. One need only ask in faith; one need only trust that God is God, that God often knows how to deal with these things better than we, that God is not afraid of conflict like we’re afraid of conflict, but that indeed, God works in and through open conflict and disputation—and in fact prefers this greatly to political manipulation. It was Luther, was it not, who said that if you want to find God at work, then look for a cross? It was Luther, was it not, who removed contemplation as the goal of disciplined spiritual reading, and replaced it with tentatio, anfechtung, conflicted struggle?
And this leads us to the third story in this lesson—the story about community rules and regulations and about God’s propensity for breaking such rules. It’s also a story about a tattletale, and about a charismatic leader with a propensity for control and a penchant for protecting the power of his position. It all happens when Moses, responding to God’s direction, gathers seventy of the elders outside the camp at the tent of meeting. There the elders are given the spiritual power to carry the burden of prophesying to the people so that Moses won’t have to carry it all alone. Enter the tattletale. A young man runs up to Moses and says, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp. Eldad and Meded are breaking the rules.” Enter too then, the gifted Joshua, a man who had been Moses’ aid, a position of great power, since his youth. “Moses, my Lord, stop them!” he says. “They can’t be allowed to do this.” Moses’ response is not unlike that of Jesus in today’s gospel, who faces much the same situation when the disciple nearest and dearest to him tattles on a non-disciple who is successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. “What’s the problem, Joshua,” says Moses. “Do you have a need to protect me? Were that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Or, to use Jesus’ words to John, “Whoever is not against us, is for us.”
God must know that people in power love to write and enforce rules, rules that protect them and their positions, and help them to stay safely in power. Moses and Jesus remind us that it’s God who writes the ultimate rules, not us, even if we happen to sit in a position of power and authority in the religious community. This is not to say that God is a God of disorder—far from it. But it is to say that God is not bound by the rule books of anxious, self-protecting people in humanly-constructed positions of power and authority in the community of faith. There is still room for, and hope that, the Spirit of God will pleasantly surprise us, and freely move among the people gathered around the Word, no matter how slickly or subtly those in power who are threatened by that Spirit and that Word attempt to twist it and subvert it.
So there you have it. Or maybe it’s better to say, “There you have them.” Three stories, nestled, one inside the other. Each of which say much about God’s activity among us. I really appreciate stories like these. They give me much for which to be thankful; they give me much upon which to reflect; and maybe even more important, they give me much with which to struggle.