I really want to believe that if I had been a part of the original audience for Jesus’ teachings, I would have been at the head of the class. Certainly I would have been supportive, hopefully even faithful. And, surely, I would have understood everything he said the first time he said it. Then, I run into texts like the one that we read this morning in Church and all of that imagination runs away. By the time Jesus gets to the part about “Moses rais[ing] a serpent in the wilderness,” I’m like HUH!?!?!
I wonder what Jesus is talking about.
Good thing for us that the Lectionary, in its wisdom, gave us some help. The story that Jesus is referring to in today’s Gospel lesson is the one that was read earlier in the service. But that’s not of too much help, either. The story of the “snake on a stick” is both obscure and hard to interpret whether or not it is a part of Jesus teaching. I’m afraid I would have been sunk had I been at the feet of Jesus on that day.
The book of Numbers tells us that the bronze serpent is provided as a cure for a plague of snakes within the Israelite camp – a plague, oddly, that God himself caused. For the moment, I’ll duck the question of why or to what end a loving God would have punished his people in this way and fall back to a simpler interpretation . . .snakes happen. What seems to be important for Jesus in invoking this obscure scene is the the way in which the bronze snake functioned in the company of the Israelites.
First, the snake was “raised up”, literally. Several times in his later ministry Jesus invokes scenes of “raising” and “lifting” to highlight both the literal way in which he would die (crucifixion) and also the irony of that particular mode of capital punishment. That is, that “raising-up” can be a form of exultation even as it serves as a means of execution.
Second, Jesus plays with the metaphorical power of the Israelites being instructed to “turn and look” to the serpent. Recall that both Jesus and John the Baptist exhort their hearers to “repent” – literally, “turn around” – from their sins to find salvation. Moreover, a consistent message of Jesus is the nearness of the Kingdom of God, often suggesting that it is “very near” – literally, “right behind you.” Thus, just as the Israelites turned to live, so those who would be saved by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection should repent and see the nearness of God.
All of this may seem a little far-fetched. I get that. In the end, however, I think that Jesus’ use of metaphor is still less strange that the original story. But, then again, that’s me. Maybe we should just bask in the strangeness of the whole thing and be glad that there’s not a test at the end of the teaching.