Is it better to be slaves in Egypt than risk death in the desert?
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, "What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?" So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pihahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, 'Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert." But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers."
Foreigners received God's message more than Jesus' own audience
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!
How hard it is to really trust in God, when the chips are down and the risk is real. How often we feel like the haggard Israelites, who after escaping from Egypt were still fearful that God would abandon them in the desert. Unless immediate solutions are available to put them beyond all risk, the refugees put this bitter question to Moses: "Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert?" Unless we are determined not to endure slavery under any form, we will not take the risks of faith.
But instinctively we know that risks are an ingredient in life. Unless spouses take the risk of commitment "for better or for worse" sooner or later they abandon fidelity to one another. At crucial times in life, we must summon our faith that God does care when his people are in trouble. The Bible challenges us to sustain that spirit of hopeful faith, even if the fulfillment of our hope is long delayed.
With these as his priorities, how disappointed Jesus felt when people showed interest only in miracles, instead of listening to him about our relationship with God. Already he had shown great kindness and concern for people's needs, but the crowd wanted more than the cure of a poor cripple or words of wisdom about being poor in spirit or pure of heart. He mentions Jonah and how many Ninevites were converted by his preaching; and the Queen of the Sheba's admiration for the wisdom of Solomon. These foreigners, even the worst of them, the Ninevites, repented and were converted--and yet "you have a greater than Solomon here."
Unless we take the risk of being generous towards others, miracles will prove nothing to us. Then too, Jesus points to the sign of Jonah, "three days and three nights in the belly of the whale." We too must risk going the depths and letting ourselves be as it were "swallowed up" by the will of God and taken to wherever God brings us, as happened to Jonah. Then we will experience the sweet reward of faith, after long fidelity.
Jesus mentions two famous characters from the Jewish past, the wise king Solomon and the reluctant prophet Jonah. He goes on to speak of himself as greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon. Jesus not only speaks God's word, he is the Word of God; Jesus is not only a wise king, he is the Wisdom of God. Yet, in spite of his rich identity, many of Jesus' contemporaries did not appreciate him. In the gospel, scribes and Pharisees come to him looking for a sign; they want some spectacular sign before they will take him seriously. What Jesus goes on to say to them he says to all of us, "There is something greater than Jonah here; something greater than Solomon here," here in this place, wherever we happen to be. Someone more wonderful than all the prophets and wise men of Israel put together is standing among us, is present to us, present within us. Jesus is not only greater than Jonah and Solomon; he is greater than anything that might seem to come between us and him. As Saint Paul says, "Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." If someone greater is standing among us, our calling is to become attentive to his presence, to appreciate that no matter where we are, we are standing on holy ground..