Today’s find: Numbers game

At times, some of the holy ones in our midst are inclined to focus on scarcity. Today, we celebrate a feast that counters this point of view. It seems to say to them, ‘Not so fast!’

It is the feast, of course, of All Saints – the day when we call to mind (and join our prayers to) those who have completed their pilgrim journey and are taking part in the heavenly banquet.

So just how big a feast is it?  How large a table has the Lord set for those who love him?

As a teenager, I remember being startled—frightened, really—when a pair of itinerant evangelists knocked on our front door and inquired as to whether our household had been ‘saved.’ It was an urgent inquiry, they assured me, because only 144,000 people were getting into heaven. ‘Look it up,’ they told me. ‘That’s what it says in the book of Revelation.’

With a teen’s instinctive skepticism, I found it hard to believe that what they were saying was true. Could such a finite number be attached to the promise of salvation? So soon after they left, I did look it up—and there it was, Revelation 7:4

I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand…

It didn’t take me long to discover, however, that the proselytizers had been playing a little fast and loose with their numbers game. They’d left off the remainder of the verse—the part that said ‘marked from every tribe of the children of Israel.’ Even so, their Bible-based calculus managed to set my heart to churning, because I knew Israel had just 12 tribes. Multiply that by 144,000…and you still wind up with just a little over 1.7 million souls who were going to ‘get in.’

Not great odds, my teenage self decided—especially not if you’d had the misfortune to be born almost 2,000 years after Christ. All those previous generations had quite a head start on me!

The whole point of this great feast day, of course, is to set us free from that line of thinking. It’s not a competition with generations current or past. Nor are we called to earn our way into heaven. Our lives are not about successfully completing a celestial transaction, or even about working to true-up the balance sheet between ourselves and God.

Read a bit further in chapter 7 of Revelation, and all that becomes clear:

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.

And the secret to their joy…their glorious state?

They have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.

'Worthy is the Lamb' fresco - San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

‘Worthy is the Lamb’ fresco – San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

The thing is, we can get sucked into a numbers game, because we tend to desire a different road to salvation – the path of achievement, accomplishment, fame, worthiness – that’s how we are inclined to measure success. We know that not everyone comes out a winner in life. And we might start to wonder if there’s enough ‘salvation’ to go around.

But Jesus says, ‘Follow me’ – and gives us the example of the Lamb – the one who empties himself, lays down his life, for others.

So on this day of abundance…on this feast of the multitudes…we acclaim: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, indeed.’ And we rejoice in Him, who shows us the one true path to holiness.

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3 thoughts on “Today’s find: Numbers game

  1. Pingback: Sunday Snippets–Joining A Catholic Carnival | With Us Still

  2. Revelation is such a dangerous book to read literally. I am making friends with it as I get older because I’m learning about Scriptural numerology–like “40” means “a lot” and “7” means “perfect”–and about the literary form of the revelation, which is not a prediction of the future but a vision of comfort to a beleaguered people. I get so upset when people try to “scare the hell out of” others by Scriptures like this. I think so many people have turned their backs on Christianity altogether because of this incorrect and inappropriate interpretation of Scripture.

    • I think you and I are on the same page here, Kathleen: There’s a lot of powerful imagery in Revelation — stuff that stirs a writer’s soul. It’s powerful in part because it defies the logic of our literal minds. (And provides endless fodder for our blogs!)

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