Apr 5, 2022: Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

1st Reading – Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent 
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Moses’ lifting the bronze serpent over the people in today’s first reading is seen as a foreshadowing of our salvation through Jesus Christ when he was lifted up on the cross.

From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road, to bypass the land of Edom.

The Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. They make a long march round the land of Edom because they could not obtain passage through it

But with their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, 

The Israelites are tired and disgruntled.

“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

There is something astonishing about the murmuring of the people. They acknowledge that God brought them out of Egypt, and they admit that they have food (probably the manna). But still, they complain.

Their deliverance from bondage should have grounded them in trust in God, and their being miraculously supplied with sustenance should have filled them with wonder and gratitude. But instead of trust and gratitude, the text states that they are impatient.

Given all that God had done for them, it was God who would have been justified in being impatient.

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died.

God humbles the Israelites by ironically bringing their unbelieving fears of death in the wilderness upon them, and many of them did die. The idea is that the snakes had been there all along and the people had been protected from being harmed by them until now.

Saraph means “fiery,” likely a reference to either the color of the snakes themselves or the burning sensation caused by their bite. (The seraphim, the highest rank of angels, are called the “fiery ones” because they are the closest to God’s fiery love.)

Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”

The punishment yields the desired effect: they confess their fault in complaining against both God and Moses.

Note the humility in their request to have Moses pray on their behalf: with newfound humility, they are conscious of their own unworthiness to be heard.

So Moses prayed for the people,

Moses yet again intercedes to God on behalf of the people.

and the LORD said to Moses, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.”

Wisdom 16:5-12 interprets this passage by emphasizing that it was not the bronze serpent that cured them but the mercy of God. The serpent was a sign of the salvation which God offers all men.

Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Notice how God did not actually answer the prayer to have the serpents removed, nor did he restore the previous state in which the people were prevented from being bitten. Instead, he provides healing from the deadly effects of the snakebite. In this way, those who did not die for their murmuring were given a lasting reminder of the event, lest they forget the lesson of humility and repentance.

Psalm 102: 2-3, 16-21

R. O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.

Psalm 102 is a lament, one of the Penitential Psalms. The psalmist, experiencing psychological and bodily disintegration, cries out to God.

O LORD, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you. Hide not your face from me in the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; in the day when I call, answer me speedily.

The psalmist begins by humbly begging God to take notice of his affliction, and of his prayer in his affliction.

The nations shall revere your name, O LORD, and all the kings of the earth your glory, when the LORD has rebuilt Zion and appeared in his glory; when he has regarded the prayer of the destitute, and not despised their prayer.

It would seem that this psalm was written during the exile, or perhaps just after the return, when Jerusalem and the temple were in ruins. The psalmist expresses confidence that Jerusalem will soon be rebuilt. The restoration of the city will lead to universal recognition of all that God does for his people

Let this be written for the generation to come, and let his future creatures praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his holy height, from heaven he beheld the earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoners, to release those doomed to die.”

The psalm ends with a brief appeal on behalf of the future life of the people.

This prophetic vision deals with those who will live after the return from exile (“future creatures”, translated elsewhere as “a people yet unborn”). Many that are now unborn shall, by learning the history of how God restored Jerusalem, will be affected by what God has wrought and in turn offer their own praise.

Gospel – John 8:21-30

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“I am going away and you will look for me,
but you will die in your sin.
Where I am going you cannot come.”
So the Jews said, “He is not going to kill himself, is he,
because he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’?”
He said to them, “You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above.
You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world.
That is why I told you that you will die in your sins.
For if you do not believe that I AM,
you will die in your sins.”
So they said to him, “Who are you?”
Jesus said to them, “What I told you from the beginning.
I have much to say about you in condemnation.
But the one who sent me is true,
and what I heard from him I tell the world.”
They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.
So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM,
and that I do nothing on my own,
but I say only what the Father taught me.
The one who sent me is with me.
He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.”
Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him.

We continue our journey in John’s gospel, picking up from where we left off yesterday with Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees about his identity.

Jesus said to the Pharisees: “I am going away and you will look for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going you cannot come.”

Since the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus could be seen to have all the features of the promised Messiah. Some people recognized him as such and became his followers (see John 1:12-13, 4:42, 6:69, 7:41); but the Jewish authorities, although they were expecting the Messiah, persisted in their rejection of Jesus.

Hence this warning to them: He is going where they cannot follow; that is, he is going to heaven, which is where he has come from (John 6:41-51).

The Jewish leaders will continue to look for the Messiah foretold by the prophets, but they will not find him — because they look for him outside of Jesus. Nor can they follow him, for they do not believe in him. They will die in their sin of disbelief.

So the Jews said, “He is not going to kill himself, is he, because he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’?”

The Jewish leaders know enough to suspect that he is referring to his death, but they still don’t get it. Johannine irony is apparent here; Jesus’ death will not be self-inflicted but destined by God.

He said to them, “You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above. You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins.

The Jewish authorities belong to this world not because they are on earth but because they are living under the influence of the prince of this world, Satan (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

A bit later, in John 8:44-45, Jesus will condemn them even more strongly: ”You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe me.” 

For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.”

“I AM” is a divine name reserved to Yahweh in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 43:10-11), where God, in revealing his name and therefore his essence, says to Moses “I AM who I AM” (Exodus 3:14). In this profound way, God says that he is the Supreme Being in a full, absolute sense, that he is dependent on no other being, that all other things depend on him for their being and their existence.

Thus when Jesus says of himself “I AM,” he is revealing that he is God, and the salvation Christ brings will be applied to those who believe in his divinity.

So they said to him, “Who are you?”

The Jewish leaders do not want to accept this revelation of Jesus’ identity (i.e., “I AM”); they press him for an even more explicit statement.

Jesus said to them, “What I told you from the beginning.

This reply can be understood in different ways, because the Greek text has two meanings:

1) Jesus is confirming what he has just asserted and what he has been teaching throughout this visit to Jerusalem. In this case, his reply can be translated as “precisely what I am telling you” or “in the first place what I am telling you.” This the interpretation given in the New Vulgate.

2) Alternatively, Jesus is indicating that he is the “Beginning,” which is the word Saint John also uses in the Apocalypse to designate the Word, the cause of all creation (Revelation 3:14; cf. Revelation 1:8). In this case, Jesus is re-stating his diving origin yet another way. This is the interpretation givin in the Vulgate.

Either way, Christ is once more revealing his divinity; he is reaffirming what he said earlier but without saying it all over again.

I have much to say about you in condemnation. But the one who sent me is true, and what I heard from him I tell the world.” 

Throughout his Gospel, Saint John very often refers to God the Father as “he who sent me (Jesus)” (see John 5:37, 6:44, 7:28, 8:16).

Jesus had connatural knowledge of his Father, and it is from this knowledge that he speaks to mankind. He knows God not through revelation or inspiration as the prophets and sacred writers did, but in an infinitely higher way, which is why he can say that no one knows the Father but the Son and he to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matthew 11:27).

They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.

The Jews who were listening to Jesus did not understand the reference to “he who sent me,” but Saint John gives an explanatory note in recounting this episode.

So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me. The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.” Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him.

When Jesus speaks of “lifting up the Son of Man,” he is referring to his passion and death (John 12:32-33).

John’s Gospel was written after the Synoptics and the letters of Saint Paul. Here we can see how this Gospel rounds out those other writings and expresses a more mature theology: John presents the cross, above all, as a royal throne on which Christ is “lifted up” and from which he offers all mankind the fruits of salvation (John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:9; Wisdom 16:6).

Jesus says that when the time comes, the Jews will know who he is and his intimate union with the Father, because many of them will discover, thanks to his death and resurrection, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God (Mark 15:39, Luke 23:48). After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, many thousands will believe in him (Acts 2).

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