Today’s Gospel reading continues an extended dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees. I believe one of the reasons the Gospel writers, especially St. John, highlight these exchanges is they draw to our attention competing conceptions of God. The Pharisees were in many ways similar to their ancestors, who, although fed by God as they journeyed through the desert to the promised land, nonetheless sought other gods and the first opportunity to usurp Moses.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time - most of them, anyway - gestured toward Mosaic fidelity. Yet their zeal for fencing off the Torah led them to fence off their hearts and blockade their minds. They became blind to God acting in their midst, to the Lord Most High coming among them. The inward turn caused in them a conception of God that could be fully contained in their minds and held fast by their words and deductive casuistry. It caused them to grumble against God when the very God they spoke about dwelt in their midst, as He did in the desert of the Exodus.
Jesus calls their attention to the plague of serpents in Numbers 21:4-9. To be saved, the Israelites had to look up to the bronze serpent. They had to gaze upon the source of their condemnation - their own rebellion - and thereby recognize that divine grace was their only hope. The act of looking upon the serpent was an act of contrition and acknowledgment that only the mercy of God could save them.
Jesus says “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM…” The continued self-identification with the I AM revealed to Moses is unmistakable. When Moses' ancestors lift up Jesus on the Cross, they will realize, as did their fathers, that God has come among them. They will look upon the source of their condemnation, the wretched injustice of sin, and know that divine grace is their only hope.
Despite the grumbling of man as he stumbles around kicking rocks like a defiant child, God offers grace to His own people, and to the whole world. The Son of Man was indeed lifted up, and whoever looks upon Him, whoever believes in Him, will have eternal life. The effects of the serpent bite and the infection of sin is healed.
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