Do you believe in God? “Yes” you say. Do you believe in God everyday? “Of course!” should be the standard response. If you answer those two questions positively and truthfully, you are doing much better than myself, dear reader.
The Israelites in the wilderness had an opportunity to show their faith. Those were the descendants, estimated in about a million, of a 100 year old man who impregnated a woman well advanced in years. The ancient miracle produced in time 77 souls that were invited to live in ancient Egypt by Joseph the son of Jacob. Joseph had survived nearly insurmountably difficulties but was raised from a mere slave to be the right hand of the Pharaoh. In time the descendants of Jacob-Israel became a numerous nation within a nation. You know the story: the time to leave arrived, and God raised Moses to lead them out of Egypt to the land He had promised to Abraham their ancestor. From Abraham to Moses, the story of Israel can be seen as a series of miracles, one after the other. Amazing miracles defying all odds: true miracles that left the stamp of God in history like a gigantic “Kilroy was here” scribbled for anyone to see.
God changed the name of Jacob (“trickster” basically) to Israel (“the struggle belongs to God”) a very important fact that we should keep in mind. Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving him the firstborn rights. Esau was called Edom (“red”) which is the same as Adam (“red”) whose firstborn rights before God were obtained later by Jesus (“God is salvation”) so we can be redeemed. Esau was a man of the flesh but Jacob had the long term view of a man of the spirit, only that he did not trust that much in God and did his best to tip the scales in his own favor, even if it meant to play a little dirty: he was a real trickster.
Our reading finds the Israelites camped at the edge of the desert, ready to invade the promised land:
The LORD said to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a leader among them.” At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amal’ekites dwell in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jeb’usites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and occupy it; for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the people of Israel an evil report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim); and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Then all the congregation raised a loud cry; and the people wept that night. (Numbers 13:1-2, 25–14:1, 26-29, 34-35)
It is hard to believe that those men saw the ten plagues of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea on a dry path, and watched the manna gently fall from the sky every evening unfailingly. Yes, the same men that say the pillar of fire leading them at night, and the pillar of fire leading them by day … Those men deemed themselves and their God too small to conquer the Promised Land. They paid for their cowardice and lack of faith with their lives. The cowards were left outside.
The Gospel reading for the same Mass shows us an example of perfect faith. This unique case of Abraham-like faith comes from a Phoenician woman from Syria. She had heard that Jesus was a great prophet that could cure any sickness. She pestered the disciples until she gained access to Jesus himself, she was denied at first and then she was dissed, insulted, and called “a little dog” —one of the worse things one could call anyone in the Middle East— but in the end, she earns what she was looking through total self-humiliation.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)
The woman reduced herself to dirt to win Jesus’ heart. This is perhaps one of the most moving scriptures ever. To see that mother willing to beg and bear any insult for the sake of her daughter, moves me to tears every time I read it. She struggled with God just like Jacob the trickster did (Genesis 32:22–32) but in a different way: instead of giving her best effort, she reduced herself to the inaction of total humiliation. She won. Way to go, mom! Perfect faith, total abandonment to the overwhelming power of God. Faith.
The lesson for today
Personally, I have failed every time I have been there, before the Promised Land of a desired grace. It is hard to struggle with God. Sometimes he pretends not to hear us, because He wants us to fight, to push, and develop the muscle of faith to the fullest. Like one of those Marine instructors that shouts orders ending with something like: “Move it, ladies!” because they want to bring the fighter out of the recruits. In the end, those men end up becoming a formidable fighting machine, ready and eager for battle. That is what we have to become in the quest for perfect faith. We must have trials and suffering for breakfast, we can because our God can.
How many times God presents to us the Promised Land of grace, verdant and ready for the taking, only to see us retreat because we see the difficulties as impassable walls and not as opportunities. “It’s all the same old story, the quest for love and glory, a case of do or die.” That old line from Casablanca can be used to describe our present situation. A greater Promised Land is there behind the troubles the Church is experiencing. Yes, the forces of evil are great and have managed to gain control for a while. Yes, there are obstacles everywhere. Yes, this is going to be a bloody, unmerciful fight. But no matter how big the enemy may look, our God is bigger. Only our cowardice can defeat us. David’s struggle with Goliath comes to mind. See faith in action:
David answered [to Goliath] “You are coming against me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the Israelite armies, which you have defied. This very day the Lord will put you in my power; I will defeat you and cut off your head. And I will give the bodies of the Philistine soldiers to the birds and animals to eat. Then the whole world will know that Israel has a God, and everyone here will see that the Lord does not need swords or spears to save his people. He is victorious in battle, and he will put all of you in our power.” (1 Samuel 17:41-52)
We are all in this together. The battle looms ahead. Prepare to win. Pray.
Life or death, you choose.
Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowards, and those without faith, the vile, the murderers, the impure, those who practice sorcery, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:7-8 NIV)