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Homily for Tuesday of the 5th Week of Lent, 28 March 2023, Nm 21:4-9, Jn 8:21-30
Today’s first reading makes me think of that passage in the sermon on the mount in Mt 7 where Jesus asks in v.10, “Which father among you would give his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” I wonder how Jesus would have reacted if one of the disciples played the wise guy and quoted Numbers 21:4-9 and said, “How come when the Israelites asked for food God gave them snakes causing many of them to die?” My answer to that is, “They were not asking for food. God had already given them food but they were still complaining about it.”
Listen to what they said to Moses in Num 21:5, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” It was not true that they had no food. They did not like the food God was giving them. Siguro hindi masarap. What they longed for was the kind of food that they ate when they were still in Egypt. In short, they were practically expressing regret that they even escaped from slavery at all. It’s like saying, “We would rather remain as slaves and have good food, than be free and be hungry.” Imagine, they called the food that God was giving them “WRETCHED FOOD!” How painful that must have been for God!
Sometime children behave like that towards their parents. They don’t realize the kind of poison that comes from their mouth when they behave like spoiled brats. I remember a father, a jeepney driver, telling me how hurt he was to hear his son whom he was sending to college saying he was ashamed to show his classmates his “miserable Nokia phone” while everyone else had an iPhone.
What would you feel if you were a mother who had to wash a mountain of clothes just to earn some money and buy some food to serve at table for your children, and then the children say, “we are sick of this wretched food?” (Sawa na kami sa walang kuwentang pagkain na ito!)
I find it more sensible not to treat the story literally but literarily, meaning, figuratively. The Israelites, as it were, had been bitten by the poisonous snakes among their own companions, whose mouths were spitting venoms of uncharity and utter insensitivity to the very one who cared for them. Children can be like that when they are young and unaware of what their parents have to put up with to be able to feed them. It takes time before they realize that what was served to them was not just rice and fish but blood, sweat and tears.
The strange part of the story is when Moses is told to mount a serpent on a pole to save those who had been bitten from perishing by getting them to behold that which had poisoned them. It becomes even more strange when the Gospel applies it to the “lifting up of the son of man” so that those who behold him whom they have pierced will be brought to a realization and saved.
The symbolism is basically making a paradoxical statement—until we realize the deadly poison that has bitten us, until we get to recognize the pain that our own uncharity and insensitivity have caused on the very people who care or us, we will not be healed.
St. Paul is saying something like this in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” In short by looking at him who suffered for our sins, we are led to conversion.
I saw a Taiwanese video of a public school teacher who asked his pupils what their parents were doing for a living. One said his father was a miner. Another said factory employee in a fish processing plant. Another said Construction worker. Another, a security guard. But when he asked if they had ever seen what their parents do in their workplaces? They all said no.
So the teacher took a video of a miner sweating and all covered with dirt, and a fish factory worker gutting loads of fish whole day, a construction worker digging a canal under the heat of the sun, and a security guard enduring mosquito bites and forcing his eyes open so as to remain awake the whole night, the children silently and spontaneously wept as they watched. They did not realize until their teacher showed them on video the sacrifices their parents did for them. Apparently it was an effective way of changing the attitude of those among them who behaved like spoiled brats.