Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cleansing Others, and the Thankless Job

I have two items for today, both of them related to my daily quiet time in the Book of Numbers:

1.  In Numbers 19, we see the law concerning the red heifer, whose ashes are mixed with water to purify those who have become impure through contact with a corpse.  According to vv 18-22, a clean person is responsible for purifying a corpse-contaminated person with that water, but then the clean person has to wash his clothes and remains unclean until the evening.

In my daily quiet time on this passage, I resorted to allegory.  Hebrews 9:13-14 compares the sprinkling of the unclean with the ashes of the red heifer with the blood of Christ purging our conscience of dead works so that we can serve the living God.  (I draw here from the language of the King James Version.)  Similarly, Hebrews 6:1 refers to repentance from dead works.  Essentially, corpse contamination in Hebrews is likened to sin, which is a dead work.  Perhaps sin is a dead work because it is the opposite of life----rather than enhancing life, sin detracts from life and leads to a dead end.

A person will probably need outside assistance to become clean from dead works.  From the standpoint of Christian allegorization of Scripture, who could the clean person who purifies the unclean person be?  First of all, it could be Christ.  The thing is, the clean person who purified the unclean person himself became unclean and had to undergo purification.  But did Christ become unclean, when Christ was sinless?  Could one liken that to Christ becoming sin on our behalf (II Corinthians 5:21)?  In a sense, according to the substitutionary atonement, Christ was treated as unclean so that we might be treated as clean.

Second, could the clean person who purifies the unclean person be likened to the human beings who help us to become better people?  This can occur within the church, but it can also happen within twelve-step programs, or therapy.  (But Christian allegory would probably stick with the church.)  The thing is, the person who undertakes the task of trying to help others to become clean must watch himself or herself, lest he or she be tempted by the sin that baffles the unclean person.  I think of Galatians 6:1: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (KJV).  In terms of a concrete example, I think of an AA person who wants to help someone else to become sober, and he may find himself in a bar in pursuing this task.  But that AA person has to watch out, lest he become tempted to relapse.  In helping others, we have to remind ourselves of our own values, who we are, and our feet of clay.

2.  In Numbers 22-24, we have the story of Balaam, a prophet whom Balak, the king of Moab, hired to curse Israel.  Balaam was probably attracted to the riches that Balak was offering him, and so Balaam wanted to go and do this task for Balak.  But Balaam decided to speak what God told him to say----to bless Israel, and also to predict future events, which included Israel's triumph over her enemies and the rise and fall of nations.  Balaam did not exactly get a thank-you from Balak; Balaam actually did not get any reward from Balak, and Balak chastised him.

What I thought about as I read this story was how ministry can be a thankless job.  And yet, even if people may not like what the minister is saying, the minister may still be honoring God and performing an important task.  Many people, myself included, like the pulpit because of the adulation that we receive from others.  But what happens when we don't receive adulation?  Can we still take refuge in the realization that we are serving God, and that preaching God's word is important?

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