Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday of the Third Week in Lent

Numbers 20:1-3, 6-13 / John 4:5-42

In The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien, we meet the likable Beregond, member of the Guard of the Citadel in the city of Minas Tirith of the Kingdom of Gondor. Beregond loves Gondor and its traditions fiercely, but he loves them too well to avoid criticism of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, whose unchecked grief at the death of his favored son, Boromir, led him into madness, and threatened the safety of Minas Tirith and Gondor itself, and with them all the free peoples of Middle Earth. When Denethor's folly drives him to immolate himself along with his injured but still living son, Faramir, upon a funeral pyre as the city under his care lies under siege, Beregond abandons his post and his duty as a guard, and in his, ultimately successful, efforts to prevent the heinous deed from being accomplished, gives enough time for the wizard Gandalf and the hobbit Pippin to rescue Faramir from otherwise certain and terrible death, but at the cost of Beregond's having slain the porter of Rath Dínen and three other of Denethor's servants.

We are likely to applaud Beregond's efforts, to expect the killings in the line of duty to have been regrettable, but ultimately pardonable in the face of the evil he was seeking to prevent, and because of the love of Gondor, its people, and Faramir, which motivated his actions. So, we are surprised when, following the defeat of the Dark Lord, Sauron, and the return of the King, Aragorn, to the throne of Gondor, this same king, the survival of whose kingdom rests in no small part on Beregond's actions, nonetheless pronounced judgment upon the guard for his having slain innocent men of Gondor. Although the capital punishment normally due for such a crime is set aside in favor of exile from the city, and with exile a promotion to serve as Captain of the White Guard under Faramir, now made Prince of Ithilien. A promotion, true, and service under one he loved, but nonetheless exile from the great city of which he was no proud.

In the book of Numbers, we are also likely to be surprised at the punishment given to Moses. After all, it was not Moses or Aaron, but the people of Israel who, yet again, doubted God's generosity, and in their murmuring required Moses' intercession on their behalf for the gift of water in the desert. If Moses grew angry with the people, if he struck the rock twice with his rod rather than merely speak to the rock before them as the Lord had commanded, did not God nonetheless bless his people with water in great abundance, so that the people and their cattle drank? Why should this failure on his part, which nonetheless brought what God desired for his people, require that Moses not bring these people into the land, which God shall give them? Why, that is, should Moses remain in exile of the land, the promise of which had sustained his hope in guiding his people out of Egypt and through years of trial in the desert?

In our confusion about Beregond and Moses, we are overlooking two important facts about the spiritual life. The first is that acts which gravely misrepresent the goodness and wisdom of him in whose name and in whose service one has acted are morally and spiritually more destructive than merely the badness of the acts themselves. To be sure, Beregond was guilty of manslaughter, and Moses of berating the people. Worse than that, however, was that Beregond's killings suggested that Aragord, the promised heir, sat on the throne not by right and justice, but by blood and force. What made Moses' berating of Israel so grave was not merely the words he used — Hear, ye rebellious and incredulous: Can we bring you forth water out of this rock? — and the symbolism of beating the rock. Rather, it was that God had not intended to berate or punish his people as he had at Sinai; he meant to show mercy even in spite of their murmuring, to bring forth water merely by Moses word to the rock, and not to the people, but because of Moses' hardness, the people, who knew God through his ministry, lost sight of the very mercy which God had meant to show.

The second truth, however, is that, while our grave failings as ministers of the King's mercy may well exile us, may well require our forfeiting of goods we had once been meant to have without any chance of appeal, God never closes out access to even greater and, in their own way, even more desirable goods to all but the finally impenitent. Beregond, no longer able to live in Minas Tirith, nonethless was no longer a mere guard, but a captain, in service of Faramir, the man for whom he had risked and lost so much, and a key figure in the restoration and protection of the land he loved so dearly. Moses, while not able to enter the land of promise, nonetheless saw God, even if only his back, and spoke to him as men speak with their fellow men. In light of that glorious good, what are the pomegranites, milk, and honey of Canaan?

We, all of us, have betrayed our Lord in our service to him, and we have already, even if we do not yet see it, merited exile from goods we might well have been meant to enjoy. Yet, we are also, every one of us, beneficiaries of a greater good beyond compare, a good we come to know not by pining after the spires of Minas Tirith or the hills of Judah, but by looking ahead to the living streams that flow with life-giving water from the side of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O almighty God, that we who trust in Thy protection, may by Thy help overcome all opposition.

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