March 15, 2015: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Bryan Cones

Numbers 21:4-9

Who slipped this snaky passage into our readings today? That first reading obviously has a connection to the gospel with Jesus’ assertion that the Son of Man must be lifted up, like that serpent long ago, but it’s kind of a lot to digest just to make that point, with its overreacting, even homicidal God, who sends poisonous serpents among the people because they had complained one time too many as they were wandering in the desert. Why must we read a passage like this in Lent? Why has the church chosen it for our reflection? Indeed, why has this story been included at all in the family history our ancestors in faith have passed down to us in the Bible?

It’s passages like this one that led one early Christian, a man named Marcion, the son of a bishop in the second century, to completely reject the God of the Old Testament. Marcion was probably the first to divide the scriptures into Old and New, and he saw the God of the Hebrew Bible as an angry, jealous, tribal deity, completely incompatible with the Father of Jesus. So Marcion produced a cleaned up “Bible,” which was really quite brief, more like a pamphlet, just his version of the gospel of Luke, along with some of Paul’s letters.

Not that texts like this one are limited to the Hebrew scriptures. Thomas Jefferson, playing a latter day Marcion, clipped out with a razor all the gospel passages that offended his philosophical sensibilities— anything he judged to be supernatural. His Jefferson Bible focused on Jesus’ ethical teachings: no miracles, nothing about Jesus’ relationship to God, no healings or resurrection or any other funny business.

I doubt that Marcion or Thomas Jefferson would be the only two in the whole history of Christianity to want to edit the Bible: It’s full of troubling, even embarrassing stories, stories that have caused a lot of trouble and suffering for people. One of the more difficult ones for me is coming up on Good Friday: the Passion according to John, with its constant refrain that “the Jews,” “the Jews,” as if as a people, were responsible for Jesus’ death, a charge which has through the centuries resulted in real suffering and death for Jewish people.

So why not just cut these texts right out of the Bible? Or if not out of the Bible, at least out of the stories we read when we gather on Sunday. Our lectionary is already an edit of the Bible: We never read, for example, the long, florid list of curses that Jesus hurls against his opponents in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It certainly is tempting just to keep on editing.

And while we are trimming our religious family history, I think I’d also like to do some editing on my own story. I’d love to take an X-Acto knife and surgically trim those embarrassing moments, the failures and sins, the wrong turns, the acts of prejudice, the times I have punished or judged others, the times I have chosen badly, or poisoned myself.

I’d also like clip out those poisonous influences on my life, the people that weren’t helpful to me, or the ones that led me astray, the bullies, the people who hurt me and made my life hard. Then along with a nice, tidy, consistent religious family story, I’d have a nice, tidy, consistent story of me to go along with it, though, admittedly, it might only be pamphlet-length. It’s so, so very tempting.

Is anyone else tempted?

Of course, I am not always nice or tidy or consistent, and neither is my family history, nor my family of faith. I am as complicated as the Bible, which is why it has been so helpful to me as a way to interpret life. I have struggled with an image of a punishing God, and with my own desire to punish or to have God punish others, or even wondered if I was being punished by God. I have wandered and complained, been bitten and poisoned, sometimes by my own doing, sometimes innocently. And I have found healing by facing truthfully whatever serpent has brought me trouble.

Does that sound familiar to anyone else?

In that light I’m grateful that we heard this story today, grateful that the Bible doesn’t let me or us off the hook, grateful that I have to struggle to make sense of a difficult story, and grateful that my complicated story is reflected in our complicated Bible story.

Lent is after all an invitation to be truthful, to decline the temptation to be anything other than I am, and perhaps we are: complicated human beings, with complicated families, and complicated stories, along with complicated faith, maybe even a complicated God, who nevertheless calls us, invites us, to be God’s complicated people.