It looks like both Moses and John accept the homeopathic principle—that like cures like, that a hair of the dog that bit you does you good. If you’ve been bitten by a fiery serpent—whatever that is—what you need is another serpent that has been through the fire—cast from molten bronze—and lifted up on a standard.
The lectionary compilers are making the parallel with Jesus lifted up on the standard of the cross to be a cure for all who look upon him—a cure for what ails us.
But what does ail us? And what does this bruised and broken figure on the cross have in common with us to do the trick?
John seems so intent to get a message across—it’s our sins that are the disease and death their symptom. But it’s the cause that is counteracted by the cure not the symptom. A fiery serpent’s bite is cured by a fiery serpent. What does Jesus have in common with the sin John says is killing you and me?
Maybe it’s like a short circuit—put a sinless person where there should be sin and the whole system explodes?
Or maybe it’s this… the root of sin is a lie and in this undeserved death the lie is exploded?
The crucifixion makes a spectacle out of punishment—look at the power to punish, to force obedience … look at it and tremble. Look at your hope and your culture and your fancy ideas—they can vanish in an instant. Look at how vulnerable you are. Look what violence can do.
That’s the tit-for-tat power calculation at the root of all that serpent stuff in the first place. Be good or you’ll pay.
Who told the Israelites that God was punishing them for their grumbling? Who tells us the wages of sin are death, the price of life obedience? Not this innocent on his cross.
Where is God in this drama of crime and punishment: hammering home the nails or bearing every blow? God is literally on the side of sinners and the victim of all who punish their way to power.
Tit-for-tat doesn’t cut it. A hair of the dog does no good. Because God is already on our side.