In these chapters we seem to have a very different picture from yesterday, with Moses in his humility accepting criticism and praying for those who gossip about him. Today, for whatever reason, he reacts differently – first despairing and then challenging those who attack his authority.
Are all holy? Does that make all the same?
The Levites who rebelled against Moses did so in terms which sound a bit like some of the cries of the sixteenth century reformers in rediscovering the ‘priesthood of all believers’. Perhaps they’re right to say that ‘all the congregation are holy’ – though to say all might be stretching things a bit. Holiness, after all, isn’t the property just of a few individuals but of all that are devoted to God.
That doesn’t mean, though, that all who are equally holy are called to the same roles in Israel – or for that matter in the church. God has called Moses and Aaron to particular roles of leadership, and even if they are personally no better than Korah, Dathan and Abiram, they are the ones whom God has chosen for those particular roles.
Position in God’s service doesn’t always go with gifting, or depth of holiness. It goes above all with God’s calling, and so with God’s choice.
It strikes me that those who rebel and are punished here are themselves religious leaders – the heads of families of the Levites, who are set apart for God’s service and worship. I can’t help looking ahead to the gospels, where Jesus saves most of his criticism and warning of judgement for the religious leaders – scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. They, after all, have the privilege of knowing the scriptures and the opportunity to understand fully the ways of God. When this knowledge is separated from love (for God and for neighbour) and used instead to seek position, then judgement cannot be far behind.
How about us?
Without the extremes of earthquake and plague, we should still be ready to accept that our place in God’s service may not be the most prestigious, comfortable or satisfying that we could imagine. When we can do this, the odd thing is that we will probably find that the place where we are in God’s service is the right place for us, at least for now.
Yesterday I heard a quote from Archbishop Rowan Williams, just after a challenging conference of bishops from around the world. I think it’s worth repeating here.
Often we offer to God the vocation we think we can do and receive in return the vocation God wants us to do.
The critical thing is that we are seeking God’s calling, not our own ambition. And the more we know of God, the more responsible we are to find and follow that calling – not our own.