Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year B

Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Bronze Serpent—Recovering Gratitude

March 14, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

As you read the story of the Israelites grumbling, consider where ingratitude has poisoned your own life and how you might begin to practice gratitude in those places.



Spirituality & Psychology

14 Health Benefits of Practicing Gratitude According to Science

Kori D. Miller

Article about the health benefits of practicing gratitude.

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Spirituality & Psychology

The Science Behind Gratitude (and How It Can Change Your Life)

Derrick Carpenter, MAPP

Article about how gratitude works and how it can change us for good.

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Arts & Architecture

In My Life

The Beattles


A ballad of gratitude.

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How do you practice gratitude?


From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.—Numbers 21:4-9
Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.—John 3:14

I began this week on a call with a wise leader who said, “Ingratitude gets to me.” I thought about it throughout the day. The next day another friend of mine shared devastating news about someone who is losing a vital part of her physical health. I said to my friend, “Each day, I try to remember to begin with gratitude.”I try, but often I forget.

I’ve never much liked the story of the poisonous serpent and the bronze serpent. Something about the Lord sending serpents to bite the people doesn’t sit well.

I don’t much think this is a story about God taking revenge. I think, rather, it is a story that illustrates how our choices sometimes poison and kill us—particularly our choice to be ungrateful.

This year, when I read the story of the serpents, I focused onwhat came just before—the people’s complaints. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” I particularly appreciate the last part—where the people point out they detest this miserable food. The only thing worst to some of us than no food is miserable food.

So, just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse—something is biting at their heels. The serpents have arrived. Kind of like the killer hornets coming right in the middle of a global pandemic. Okay, come on. I mean, might as well add hornets.

In this year’s reading, I saw something I’d missed in this story. The serpents are the physical manifestation of ingratitude. A poison that bites at our heels. Stopping us dead in our tracks, quite literally.

The Israelites saw it too. “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us,” they plea to Moses.

And Moses takes up their cause with the Lord.

And the Lord’s solution: a bronze serpent—icon of their ingratitude. When they are bitten with their own poison, they can look at this icon, now reified in bronze and lifted high—see what they have done—and be healed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus, like the bronze serpent, is lifted up. Icon of our ingratitude, by which we are healed.

This juxtaposition of the bronze serpent and Jesus on the cross compels me, as I think about what it actually suggests. For the first time, I hear in this comparison the revolutionary notion that looking directly at our own poisonous ingratitude is the beginning of our redemption.

It is not by hiding from our shadow selves—those grumbling voices in us that lack the mark of a grateful heart—that we find salvation. It is, rather, by fixing our eyes precisely on the source of the poison that we begin to heal.

When we look at Jesus lifted high on the cross, we are looking at the root poison that has plagued humanity since the very beginning—our failure to comprehend and receive the immeasurable, lavish love that infuses every aspect of our existence. Love so broad, so high, so deep.

That poison of our ingratitude runs through every conflict, every war, every devastating act of human greed and cruelty. It is a poison that makes us crave entitled lives—zero sum gains whereby some prosper at grave cost to others.

Seeing the suffering we have caused, in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbors, is the first step we must take on the journey to be transformed.

This past year, we have looked at the serpent in our struggle with racism. We have looked at the serpent in our examination of the ease of travel and gathering we have taken for granted, absent gratitude and curiosity about our impact on others and on this fragile earth our island home. We have looked at the serpent in the immense economic disparities reflected in drastically different levels of access to healthcare, food, and shelter. We have looked. We have seen our own poison. And, perhaps, we have begun to heal.

After we take the first step, which is seeing, the next step on our journey toward the healing of our world is recovering the habit of gratitude. A gratitude that makes us stop and see how we have been poisoning our own lives, needlessly. A gratitude that heals and restores us to right relationships.

Jesus offered himself, the new bronze serpent, that we might see. And that seeing, we might fall on our knees with grateful hearts. And be healed.