Thursday in the 18th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
National Day of Singapore
Readings: Numbers 20:1-13; Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Matthew 16:13-23
My guess is that few of us will find it difficult to resonate with the question that the Israelites pose to Moses at Meribah. Why did you bring us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place? … There is not even water to drink! Why indeed! And the question becomes even more pointed when one considers who the Israelites are. They are not enemies upon whom the Lord might desire to wreak vengeance. Neither are they individuals of no consequence about whose welfare the Lord might be indifferent. No! Quite to the contrary. As they themselves rightly observe, they are the assembly of the Lord. They who were once no people, individuals scattered and oppressed, have now been liberated and gathered together, assembled, by God and promised a new and fuller life. Why then have they been led into this wilderness to suffer? Why… why… why…?!
This might well be the same question in the mind, if not on the lips, of Peter in today’s gospel. The place has changed: Meribah gives way to Caesarea Philippi. But isn’t the situation strikingly similar? Isn’t Peter being led by Jesus into a wilderness of sorts? Shortly after professing his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Peter finds himself having to wrap his mind around the news that Jesus is destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously… Shortly after he sticks out his neck and commits himself to following Jesus, Peter finds himself being led by Jesus to an apparently wretched place. Why?! As with the Israelites, the question becomes even more pointed when we consider what Jesus says of Peter: you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. The parallel with the situation in the first reading is quite striking, especially when we consider that ekklesia, the Greek word for church, means assembly.
Each in its own way, the two readings present us with situations in which God’s chosen ones find themselves being led to a place of trial. They suffer hardship precisely because they have allowed themselves to be assembled by God. Is it at all difficult for us to identify with these biblical situations? Do we not also have similar experiences of meeting difficulties precisely because we decide to follow the Lord, precisely as a result of trying to live out our identity as church, as members of the assembly of the Lord? And when this happens, do we not find ourselves spontaneously asking the same question? Why?!
It’s possible to come up with various answers to this terribly poignant question. It’s possible, for example, to say that God is helping to wean the people from the death-dealing waters of Egypt so as to help them acquire a taste for the life-giving waters of Meribah. And this may well be true. But what seems more important to note is that, in the first reading, God doesn’t offer a direct answer to the question. Neither does Jesus in the gospel. Instead, in the first reading, God simply responds by making water flow from the rock, so that the people might assuage their thirst. The early Fathers of the Church saw the rock at Meribah as a figure of Christ on the Cross. Just as water flowed from the rock when it was struck by Moses’ branch, so did blood and water flow from the side of Jesus when it was pierced by a centurion’s lance (see John 19:34).
When we do find our throats burning with thirst and our parched lips mouthing the question why?!, perhaps we might ponder the mystery of Meribah and Caesarea Philippi, and in the process, find ourselves acquiring a taste for the waters of life.