The first of the readings for today, Numbers 16:1-19 is part of a narrative which is just plain terrifying. Numbers 15 describes the necessary sacrifices to the Lord, to be brought to the tent of meeting, and over which God manifested as a cloud. They were enough to impoverish a poor man. And also a list of sin offerings for mistakes. That did not save the life of the man who collected firewood on the Sabbath. God ordered him killed, and he was stoned to death. And now we see rebellion, actually two, by community leaders Korah, a Levite and representatives of the tribe of Reuben. The Levite complaint is that they were raised to serve at the altar of God, but not as priests. They wanted more. All were angry with Moses and Aaron. Their grievance before Moses was, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” That seems fair. What is their sin? Disobedience to the word of God? Or just the word of Moses? Was this going too far, a plea for a shift in the social order to include more of the people, which Moses was not prepared to give? And isn’t that where we are in our modern world? Again, we are on the streets asking for more equality, an end to systemic hierarchy based on tribe or race? And so I prayed and wrestled with the words in Scripture, not settling for sophistry or an easy excuse for an answer.
The Levites were fighting for more status. They already controlled the tent of meeting, but they wanted to be the priests. But we also have the people who have been too long oppressed and want – what? Power? Status? A share of the pie? To be heard and recognized? Not burned to a crisp by an angry God. We are much happier with Numbers 6:23-27, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them, ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.’” But now we are in the pit. COVID-19 hasn’t slowed down. The murder of African-Americans by law enforcement doesn’t seem to have slowed down, either. The street marches continue, and Congress is finally beginning to take back the government, but is it too little, too late? And the next election is in doubt, not because of the will of the people, but because of corruption here and abroad. We are under a cloud, but probably not the cloud of the presence of the Lord God. And if we were, we had better fall to the ground and pray.
There are lessons to be learned. Moses was trying to herd an unruly, hungry, thirsty, tired collection of quarreling tribes to a promised land of freedom, and who were finding the promises of a cloud in a tent less appealing than a good Egyptian dinner. And worse, spies said the land Moses claims is ours is already claimed by powerful people (Num 13). Do we have here the truth of an angry God punishing his own? Or of Moses driven by exhaustion, frustration, speaking for a God who may be trying to beat identity, freedom, and knowledge of himself into this band of chosen people, the people who would carry forth the story of Salvation, and not being very merciful about it? As hard as this story is, the message of obeying God, who made us, owns us, loves us, rings true, even in these stories of the early days in our ongoing struggle with our God.
Our Gospel for today, Matthew 19:13-22, teaches that the kingdom of heaven belongs to “such as these,” the little children, and tells the story of the entitled young man. What did the rich young man really want? He seems to be looking for something else to buy. A good deed to ensure him eternal life? Jesus stops him right there. Why are you flattering me with the title “good,” he asks, when only God is good. Right then and there we know that Jesus knows what the focus is of this man. He questions him, and even the right answers are wrong. It is the Law, adherence to it, like a list of goodies on his trophy shelf. So Jesus guts him with the clarity of any good spiritual director when one whom he or she loves and wants to bring to the light has it all wrong, and is so wrapped up in that wrong that hearing is not an option. “Okay,” says Jesus, “sell everything. Become one of the poor, needy, oppressed, falsely accused and thrown in prison. Give up status and power through race or connections, all those things which your wealth bought to assure your privilege.” And the young man leaves, in sorrow. And this is very like Korah, the Levite, who does not go before God and pray, “I give thanks for the gift which I have, but I love you more, and I yearn to join Aaron in the priesthood, not out jealousy or desire for power, but out of burning love.” But no. He just wants more entitlement.
And how is that like a little child? Children are not perfect little angels. Trust me on that. They can be disobedient, unruly, irrational, worrisome little monsters. And they are learning. They are trying out life. And they have absolutely no power but what they can beg, charm, bully, or cajole out of their elders. They are us. And Jesus is reminding his disciples once again that being vulnerable and ignorant isn’t a sin. It is the human condition, and that is all God is asking of us. Swaggering or posing, demanding authority, pretending we have it, that is not grace, even cheap grace. That is falsehood, and that is sin.
Paul sums it up in the Epistle, Romans 3:21-31, righteousness through the Law and circumcision and the righteousness through faith of the uncircumcised, when he writes, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” This also sums up the sin of Korah and the young man, under the Law, but not under the will of God. Paul goes on to talk about boasting, but both Korah and the young man are boasting in way, boasting of their entitlement, trying to gain more than they have for status, religious favors, but without the gratitude due God. Would the stories have been different if Korah had expressed such humility rather than a challenge to Aaron before the Holy of Holies? Or if the young man had burst into tears in realization of his sin? That doesn’t matter. These are not witness statements but lessons. Lessons for us.
I guess I can only say pray, obey God, face the consequences with the courage of faith and a clean heart. And forgive those laws which to us now seem unjust, and forgive harsh behavior of the leaders who brought freedom and the knowledge of the One God to the world. And love the one who came as God to forgive us for all our sins, committed out of ignorance or willfulness, and revealed how deep the love God is for us.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.