Unlocking Holiness

Homily for Sunday, March 11, 2018
Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4–9

key-2312481_960_720Origen of Alexandria, writing in the 3rd century, compared the Scriptures to a mansion in which the key to open the door to one room often lay in another.  So, for example, the key to open the door to the letter to the Ephesians might be in the book of Genesis.  Or the key to open the book of the prophet Amos might be somewhere in Paul’s letter to Romans, and so forth.

One of the keys to understanding today’s reading from Numbers lies in the book of the prophet Ezra.  In Ezra, Ezra describes how, when the exiles came back from Babylon to Jerusalem and built the second Temple, many of the men were discovered to have married foreign wives, and Ezra wanted racial purity.   [See Ezra 9:2: “For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.”]  While concerns about idolatry abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a ban against marrying foreigners appears only once other than in Ezra, in Deuteronomy 7, where—from my reading—the concern yet remains, not racial purity, but idolatry.  (Moses didn’t want foreign spouses turning hearts to foreign gods.)  Ezra’s concern with racial purity, and his subsequent order that the men send away their foreign wives along with their children(!) is unprecedented in the Hebrew Scriptures, which as a whole is concerned, not with purity, but with holiness.

Ezra helps to unlock the door to today’s passage in Numbers because, though Ezra is concerned with purity, Numbers by contrast is concerned with holiness.  While “purity” might be an admirable quality in gemstones or in metallurgy or in pharmaceuticals, purity is unrealistic in people.  If we search our hearts, we know well our capacities for both the good and the bad—we are not pure.  Macarius the Great, in one of his homilies in the 5th century, perhaps puts it best about these complex hearts of ours.  Our hearts, Macarius says, are like a castle.  They

contain an unfathomable depth. In them are reception rooms and bedchambers, doors and porches, and many offices and passages.  In them are rooms filled with righteousness as well as rooms filled with unrighteousness.  In them is life, and in them is death.  In them is that which is good; in them is that which is evil. [Homily 15.32]

Numbers is concerned not with purity but holiness.  If purity is unrealistic for human beings, holiness is something to which we are called.

Some differences between purity and holiness…

  • If purity is about what we can do, holiness is about what God does in us.
  • If purity is about actions, holiness is more about relationship
  • If purity is about trying harder, holiness is a graceful accepting of limitations.
  • If purity is about getting it right, holiness is about being forgiven.
  • If purity is about perfection, holiness is about courage

In short, holiness is our capacity, not so much to not sin—we all sin—but holiness is our capacity to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness when we do sin.  An accepting which is not always easy to do.

forgivenessThe book of Numbers—including today’s lesson—is filled with examples of holiness.  Not purity, but holiness, which is “our capacity, not so much to not sin, but to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness when we do.”  By my count, seven times in Numbers the people rebelled against God—including today’s lesson—and seven times the Lord forgave them.  The people are by no means pure; they’re quite dysfunctional, actually.   But bit by bit, as they accept God’s mercy and forgiveness, the people become holy.  If in Numbers the people are a “chosen race,” it is not because they are racially pure; if the people are a “chosen race” it is because they are the ones whom God has chosen to call to account; it is because they are the ones able to accept God’s forgiveness.

We might think it is easy to accept forgiveness, but accepting forgiveness takes courage.  Accepting forgiveness means not merely admitting that we did something wrong—deep-down, we know we do wrong; admitting wrong is not what is difficult.  Accepting forgiveness is difficult because accepting forgiveness means entering more deeply into relationship.  And that—entering more deeply into relationship— is what takes courage!  Accepting forgiveness means peeling away yet another layer of the carapace with which we so often surround ourselves (the masks), and this peeling leave us more open, more vulnerable, for relationship.

It is just this rhythm, of asking forgiveness and of God forgiving, that we see in Numbers.  God forgives the people again and again—seven times!  Which is Bible-speak for “fully and completely and always.”   The people in Numbers—like us—are anything but pure.  But they—and we—are called to holiness.

The image of the Prodigal Son returning to the welcoming embrace of the Father is one of Pope Francis’ favorite images, and he uses it regularly to talk about God’s love for us.  In the context of the Prodigal, Pope Francis writes the following:

God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.

forgiveness_2.jpgI hope that, as we move through Lent and draw nearer to Holy Week, we can dare to be like the Prodigal.  I hope that we might recognize our need for God.  I hope we might turn and take steps to return to God.  I hope we might not be afraid—and that we might not tire—in asking God’s mercy.  For though we might think that God tires of forgiving us, “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”   When we have messed up, when we turn to God, God always gives the opportunity to start anew.  God gives us the chance to grow, not in purity, but in holiness.  Which is about being fallen and forgiven.  Which is not about trying harder but about letting God in.  And which is what our hearts, deep down, really want.

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