“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee.”
Numbers 35:6 (NIV)
Last night as Wendy and I sat on the couch she expressed grief and frustration over a pattern of behavior we’ve been observing on social media. It is quite common for the discourse on Facebook and Twitter and online forums to sink into petty jabs, unnecessary name calling, and a general spirit of anger, hatred, and conflict. And this, we routinely notice, from many whom we love and who eagerly claim to be followers of Jesus.
For the past month or two my chapter-a-day journey through the book of Numbers has taken me back to an ancient times. I’ve been mulling over the lives and times of Moses and the Hebrew tribes. It was, without a doubt, a very bloody and ugly period of human society. Ancient tribal societies lived in a time without laws, law enforcement agents, and a system of justice. It was a time of blood feuds, vengeance and “an eye-for-an-eye” free-for-all of individual retribution.
I can’t help but think of the stories we know like The Godfather in which warring families get embroiled in ever escalating acts of violence and murder against one another. The Tataglia family attempts to kill but only wounds Vito Corleone. Vito’s son, Sonny, actually kills Bruno Tataglia in retribution. But, that’s not enough. Michael Corleone also kills the man who orchestrated the plot and the Police Captain who protects him. But that’s not enough. Everyone goes to the mattresses. But that’s not enough. Michael eventually kills the heads of all the other mafia families to protect himself from retribution. The violence and vengeance never ends.
As Sean Connery famously quips in The Untouchables, “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”
What Wendy was observing last night is an example of the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We’re still embroiling ourselves in petty, ever escalating feuds between political, religious, and social clans. Now, however, we do it from a safe distance and use words as our weapons. Somehow, we believe that this is better on the grading curve of human society. Name calling on Facebook isn’t as barbaric as literally sticking a knife in someone’s back. Or is it?
I’m reminded in the quiet this morning of Jesus words:
“For the mouth speaks [and the hand types] what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
In today’s chapter, God through Moses is leading a radical step forward in human history. It is a formalized system of justice. The priestly clan of the Levites are scattered to live among all the other tribes. Within those tribes the priestly Levites create “cities of refuge” to which murderers and those who commit manslaughter may flee. The priests gave sanctuary so that a trial, complete with witnesses, could be conducted and a just verdict could be rendered. The accused was required to stay under the protection of priest in the city of refuge. But get this: If the High Priest died, a period of amnesty was unleashed. The accused were free. Any blood feud or vendetta of vengeance was to end.
What great foreshadowing God gives in today’s chapter for what He is going to do on a cosmic spiritual scale in the Great Story. Jesus, High Priest (Heb 6:20) in the mysterious order of Melchizedek, comes to live among us like the priests sent to live among the tribes. [cue: Silent Night] To Jesus we may flee for refuge with all the accusation, guilt, condemnation and social vengeance nipping at our heels. When Jesus, the High Priest, dies then amnesty reigns. Forgiveness and grace (literally, favor we don’t deserve and didn’t earn) are poured out to the accused and condemned. Prisoners are freed. Vengeance ends.
Wait, there’s more. Those of us who follow Jesus are called “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Spiritually, I become a Levite of our time. I’m a priest in the order of Jesus. I am to be a person and place where “others” (even those of other tribes I don’t particularly like) may flee to find protection, understanding, kindness, mercy, grace, compassion, and justice.
So, I have to ask myself: When I allow myself to get stirred up and let that f*ing, clueless, ignorant, MORON on Facebook know just what a #*&%-eating, #@)#-faced, #)@(#* they are… am I extending the royal, priestly rites handed down to me by Jesus? Am I being marked by the Spirit of protection, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion that I claim to have received from Jesus, my High Priest? Am I fulfilling my calling to be part of that royal priesthood? Or, am I perpetuating a deep, very entrenched human part of me that is given to bloody, feudal vengeance cloaked in 21st century technology?
Lord, have mercy on me. Help me lay down my weaponized words; My vengeance which I try to costume as “justice” and “righteousness.” Make me a refuge for “others” – all “others.”