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The Beauty of Pentecost – Census

Reflections from Our Pastors

We’re in a census year here in the United States. The Bible is pretty interesting when it comes to censuses. Jesus wound up being born in Bethlehem, instead of where his parents actually lived, Nazareth, because of a census mandated by Caesar Augustus. There’s some subtle irony in this. Caesar was seeking tax proceeds, and a strict accounting of who was where in the empire. It was about control. The joke in Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is the true Lord, and he doesn’t come to take but to give – or rather, he asks everything of us and gives us our lives and joy and freedom in return.

The Old Testament book of Numbers is so called because the book begins with a counting, a census, and there’s another census in chapter 26 – both on the heels of a couple of censuses already taken in Exodus 12:37 and 38:26.

Why was counting undertaken four times right as Israel escaped Egypt? And all four were God’s will? Medieval rabbis pondered this question, and Rashi provided a simple, lovely answer: God wanted everyone counted “because they, the children of Israel, are dear to him.” Counting was an act of divine love.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores this further by pointing out an ambivalence in Scripture. Those 4 censuses were good, God’s will. But then in 2 Samuel 24, we read that David took a census. God was enraged. David confessed to his sin of census-taking. What was so different? David told Joab to count because he was trying to round up fighting men for war. He wanted to impress and intimidate his foes by boasting big numbers.

So he was behaving like all other world leaders. Babylonian emperors and Egyptian pharaohs counted only armies – and bricks. The saying was that if a construction worker fell and died, nobody noticed; but if a brick bell and broke, the rulers wept. Individual people didn’t matter.

God loathes this way of counting. God counts, and wants a precise number, because every person matters. Each one is of incalculable value to God. In fact, in Israel the word used for counting, in a census, not the word used for counting objects, literally means to “lift the head.” As Israel’s census-takers counted, each person would be told “Lift your head.” The act of counting lifts the spirits of those counted. They are granted dignity.

So lift up your head, and be counted, in the government’s census, but more importantly, in the count that is in God’s mind and heart. You matter. So does the other guy.

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