The Bible is a numbers game. Both Old and New Testaments are overflowing with literal and symbolic numbers like 12, three, and triple sixes.
Because God exists outside the confines of time and space, he has no need for numbers at all. Yet we, his creation, just have to go about quantifying and qualifying everything. It began at the very beginning, practically right after “In the beginning,” as you only get to five verses in Genesis before the Scripture chronicler begins numbering the days.
I like numbers too. Growing up in a big extended family, my parents had to figure out how to get a seemingly infinite number of family members around the finite geography of a dining room table. I was swallowed up by numbers and I loved it.
I had that wonderful, if naïve, feeling of safety in numbers growing up the way I did. I think I may have been in the eighth grade before I realized fully that there were people in the world who were not Catholic.
I could easily imagine how secure and comfortable the apostles must have felt when Jesus fed the “multitudes” with a handful of loaves and fishes. It looked like success. The numbers looked good, and it seemed like the people on the banks of the Galilee were getting the message. Of course, a free lunch may have had something to do with it.
Most people have seen those incredible images of a packed St. Peter’s Square, which can and has held 300,000 people. If everybody stands, the Basilica of St. Peter’s accommodates 60,000. I have been there for a Mass with 59,999 of my co-religionists, and the feeling of belonging and being part of something so much larger than myself was almost a tactile experience.
The downside of numbers is their tendency to fluctuate — just ask a stockbroker. When Good Friday hit and Jesus’ “futures” took a nosedive, only three or four remained to kneel before a blood-soaked cross.
The recent “leak” of the pending Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is also all about numbers, and they may not be so happy enumerations. The rage — there really is no other honest way to describe it — that pro-abortion elements in our culture unleashed at the mere thought of Roe v. Wade being overturned tells us a very large segment of the people we live with, work with, even go to Church with, do not hold the same belief (scientific and religious) of when life begins. And when the scientific evidence for life is overwhelming, as in the case of a child a day or an hour before birth, large numbers of our neighbors and fellow citizens will not ascribe intrinsic value to the person.
The numbers make me feel weak in the knees sometimes. I want to be in the sold-out stadium where my team is winning a championship. I want to feel secure and “safe” in a crowd of fellow travelers. But in my more adult and somber moments, I know God has always shown little interest in numbers outside the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, and the 3 days between Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Mustard seed-sized faith is all that we need, according to Jesus himself, and in the 2,000 years since that advice was given, we have seen countless examples of majorities of “one” or small groups turn a kernel of truth into a massive movement. St. Francis Assisi and the Franciscans certainly started out small in number.
And the other day, driving around town looking for more numbers, gas under $6 a gallon, I heard a factoid on the radio that reinforced my less-than-stalwart heart. According to the Talmud, 80% of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt stayed in Egypt. All those miracles and the power of Moses was only able to muster one out of five Hebrews on the road to the Promised Land.
If and when Roe is made a case law asterisk, the numbers will reveal themselves to us, and they may not instill courage in those among us who like to be part of a “big” movement. In fact, my guess is that, if Roe goes the way of Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson, the pro-life movement will be only beginning.
We may even be outnumbered when it comes to this looming defense of life on a whole new scale, but if Moses can achieve greatness by batting only 200, we may win this numbers game in the end.