Homily Notes: Snakes, Poles, the Cross, and our Hero’s Journey

rod_of_asclepiusA.k.a. A homily on the Old Testament?!
Matthew 22:1-14 (The Wedding Feast) & John 3:13-18

Exodus is one of the most powerful stories of human history: from bondage to freedom

  • The place of this story created the capacity in the human heart for the coming of Christ
  • Our own “hero’s journey” can follow the same contours, if we have the courage:
    • Bondage to sin and all the gods of this world
    • The decision to leave our slavery of self-indulgence and pleasing others in the quest for perfection through Jesus Christ; the one who, like Moses, offers us a way out and a meaningful goal
    • The trials and temptations that come along the way, with many giving up and heading back or settling for “good enough”
    • The joy of finishing the race, and encouraging others to do the same.

Today’s Gospel reading for the cross references an episode during the time of temptation between when the Israelite’s decided to leave and actually arriving at the Promised Land beyond the Jordan.

As with us, God had showered them with blessings… but also like us, they soon took things like the miraculous manna from heaven and His glorious presence at the Tabernacle for granted.

  • I say like us because we take our own blessings for granted; the tremendous wealth God has given us and this Holy parish of St. Mary’s where He makes Himself manifest to all who come to Him in faith.

But they didn’t just take these things for granted… they complained. They claimed that they were better off under the dominion of the fallen gods of Egypt than they were under the dominion and care of the One Uncreated God, Yahweh. They were eating His manna and enjoying His protection, they were on their way to the Land He had promised them. He was continually with them… but like the well-cared for husband who dreams of – or even finds – a mistress, they dishonored God.

  • And so, in Numbers 21, the snakes came; and the people repented and asked for the Lord to save them.

And God gave Moses the command (Numbers 21:8-9); “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”

  • The snakes were the manifestation of the sin of the Israelites.
  • The golden snake on the rod was the cure for those snakes

Jesus Himself, the God that commanded that the serpent staff be made; compared the serpent on the staff to Himself on the Cross (see patristic quotes below).

  • But why a snake?
    • Well known sign for rebirth (sheds its skin).
    • rod_of_asclepiusA symbol of healing and even of eternal life

You are on the hero’s journey. You are tempted by the gods of this world and your own falleness to turn back, to settle, to gripe against the God who sustains you. You are bitten by sin; the sins of living in the desert of this world and by the sins of your own mind and flesh. The pain from these bites are as painful as those the Israelites experienced from the fiery serpents.

  • There is one cure for the pain these sins cause you: Faith in Jesus Christ.


A Warning. Not everyone was able to complete the exodus of the Jews. The situation is similar for our own journey: many are called, but few make it. Similar, but much worse for us; for us it is a matter of salvation… for them it was the simply the matter of where they died.

  • As in the parable of the wedding feast, all of us have an invitation. We can all come to the promised land. Some of us refuse, preferring the feast the fallen gods offer us.
  • But even some who do come are cast out! The man without the wedding garment!

As with those who refuse to come, this is not an arbitrary damnation. Everyone who comes to the feast is given a garment. When someone becomes a Christian, we pray that they keep that garment undefiled.

  • Part of the hero’s journey is the process of keeping that baptismal garment and keeping it clean (knights with their armor). In practical terms, this means living a moral life. There is whole list of immoral activities – sex outside marriage, not caring for those in need, worshiping false gods – that amount to showing up at the feast without the proper garment.
  • But know this: God forgives. He will wash that garment clean if you repent and change your ways.
  • In the end, the failure to repent and accept God’s forgiveness and mercy is the only way that the hero’s journey can possibly end in failure.

Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, seek His mercy, seek His forgiveness… and make your way into the promised land with all the saints and feast with them in glory.


Sources Referenced

The Lord is aptly made known by the bronze serpent, since he came in the likeness of sinful flesh. Just as the bronze serpent had the likeness of a fiery serpent but had absolutely none of the strength of harmful poison in its members—rather by being lifted up it cured those who had been stricken by the [live] serpents—so the Redeemer of the human race did not merely clothe himself in sinful flesh but entered bodily into the likeness of sinful flesh, in order that by suffering death on the cross in [this likeness] he might free those who believed in him from all sin and even from death itself. HOMILIES ON THE GOSPELS 2.18.  Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 241). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Just as those who looked with bodily eyes at the sign which Moses fastened on the cross lived bodily, so too those who look with spiritual eyes at the body of the Messiah nailed and suspended on the cross and believe in him will live [spiritually]. Thus it was revealed through this brazen [serpent], which by nature cannot suffer, that he who was to suffer on the cross is one who by nature cannot die. COMMENTARY ON TATIAN’S DIATESSARON 16:15.  Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 242). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[T]he Lord took on himself the likeness of a sinner in his body but, in actuality, was without sin. In this way, he imitated a serpent through the deceitful appearance of human weakness, so that when he laid aside the slough of the flesh, he might destroy the cunning of the true serpent. On the Holy Spirit 3.8.50.  Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 123). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

This story is a type of the whole mystery of the incarnation. For the serpent signifies bitter and deadly sin, which was devouring the whole race on the earth … biting the Soul of man and infusing it with the venom of wickedness. And there is no way that we could have escaped being conquered by it, except by the relief that comes only from heaven. The Word of God then was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, “that he might condemn sin in the flesh,” as it is written.  Elowsky, J. C. (Ed.). (2006). John 1–10 (p. 123). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.