The first and second readings for the services for Pentecost this year provide an interesting study in contrasts. The first reading tells us of the building of the tower of Babel. Built on the plain of Shinar (today part of Iraq), it was intended to reach to heaven, to be a landmark to all of the people of the world, demonstrating human power, ingenuity, and prestige. The Greeks have a word for this: hubris, often translated as “pride,” which in Greek tragedy was illustrated by a fatal flaw in the chief protagonist’s character which ultimately led to his or her destruction. In this Biblical account, God, seeing the extent to which human pride led the people to try to “make a name for themselves,” confused the languages of the people so that the work on the tower could not be continued. The result was that the people of the world were scattered, spreading throughout the world as God had intended. But with this spread and with the confusion of languages, the pride of the human heart continued to grow, not to unite people for a particular task (whether God-pleasing or God-displeasing), but to turn them against one another, each trying to gain an edge over the other, whether for the sake of wealth, power, or prestige.
Anyone who has traveled to a country dominated by a different language experiences a number of feelings: there is isolation, not being able to communicate with the local people even for the most basic necessities. If you happen to find a person who can serve as interpreter, things can go a bit better. But even that interpreter can remain a barrier between you and the other, since you cannot communicate directly. Only when you begin to learn the language can you begin to feel less isolated. Division and estrangement go hand in hand when you cannot communicate properly.
God cursed the human race with the division in languages, and we continue to see the effects today. But on Pentecost, God provided a miracle that began to undo that damage. In sending the Holy Spirit in all His power, the Good News of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ was preached in Jerusalem. There, from the mouths of the apostles, everyone who was there from throughout the known world heard that message in their own language. Already Jesus’ promise that the apostles would be His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth began to be fulfilled as the hearers then took that message with them back to their homes. The sin of human pride, the universal human desire to rebel against God and to set oneself up as a god, was overcome through a word that meets that condition by calling for repentance and providing forgiveness in Christ. Now, as the Gospel continues to spread, Christians, even though they may not speak a common language, join with one another to praise God, receiving His gift of forgiveness, rejoicing together and carrying that gift to the world. For this, we, too rejoice!