“It’s not fair!” Have you ever heard a child cry out like that? As a child with two sisters I was always concerned that things be fair. They usually weren’t. At least not from my perspective. As a detector of unfairness I fancied myself as something of a child prodigy. I could smell out the stuff miles away.
But even I, the accumulator of so much of the world’s unfairness, knew when I had been beaten. And nothing that ever happened to me could compare with the injustice we just heard in the text from Deuteronomy: the unfairness of Moses not being able to enter the promised land. And what terrible thing had he done to deserve such a fate? Maybe you remember the story. Elsewhere in Exodus we are told that one time God instructed Moses to get water from a rock by speaking to it. Instead, Moses struck the rock and water poured out. For that little mistake he would not be able to enter the promised land.
When I as a child first heard the story that Moses would not be allowed into the promised land on a technicality – striking a rock instead of speaking to it – I was outraged. Children with a special gift for sniffing out unfairness aren’t usually blessed with much patience for technicalities.
For a long time I imagined that Moses must have been pretty ticked off also. As he stood there on the border looking in, remembering all he had done for the Israelites, what could he have been thinking? It is no wonder, I thought, that the Bible says he died with both his eyes unimpaired and natural force not abated (in other words, in reasonably good health). The poor guy didn’t die of cancer or heart disease, I concluded. I was sure he had died of bitterness.
Such was the wisdom of my youth. No longer, however, do I think of Moses as an embittered man standing at the precipice of a joy he would never taste. In fact, it is on this mountain of his dying, this Mt. Nebo, not Mt. Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, not at the burning bush, not even in the courts of Pharaoh, that I find myself most impressed with Moses… most drawn to him as a fellow human being.
What has changed my mind? I suppose, as much as anything else, it is that move we all inevitably must make away from the illusion that we are the most important thing in the universe. We come to that realization by various means. But come to it we must. It took a long time for humans to figure out that the universe didn’t revolve around the earth. And it can take seemingly as long for each of us to come to understand that neither does it revolve around any of us. How easy it would have been for Moses, raised as a prince in the courts of Pharaoh and later adored by the Israelites, to think otherwise. It may have taken Moses a good deal of his lifetime to come to grips with the reality of his limitations.
One of our limitations is our inability to control life. Standing on the top of Mt. Nebo in the last days of his life, I think Moses had come to learn something about letting go. It is something I am still learning, for example, where my children are concerned. It is difficult enough to watch one go off to college. Other adventures of theirs leave me even more helpless. And the day will come when I will watch them go off into lands over which I will have no control: vocations and new families of their own choosing.
Could some of this have been going through Moses’s head also? His great love for his people required this final gift of letting them go. The tremendous, overwhelming desire to protect finally succumbs to the realization that we can’t, that life is bigger than us and goes on without us. Is that not the beginning of wisdom? Is that not what it means to have faith? I have shared with you before the words of a former professor of mine that the single most important religious confession one can make is the four simple words, “I am not God.” Just four words. But they must have been difficult ones for Moses to say. They are difficult ones for us to say, are they not?
I think there lies within each of us, no matter how deeply it may be buried beneath layers of ego and self-image, the sense that our truest self rests not in isolation or in competition or in achievement or in reaching the promised land, but in connection with all others and with God. Not in being the center of the universe but in being centered in God. Somehow we sense that our enslavement to the self does not represent our deepest desire.
Every once-in-a-while we are overwhelmed by the thought that we belong to something bigger, that life isn’t, ultimately, about getting ahead, about being number one, about climbing to the top. We sense that authentic living means a giving up of the self to a higher reality. I think such moments are moments of conversion. It is the choice Jesus held out when he said we must lose our life (by which I think he meant give up our grasping to be in control) in order to gain our life. For most of us, and I suspect this was true of Moses also, it is a lifelong journey of conversion. We take one step backward for every two steps forward. The difficulty stems from the fact that we cannot achieve this thing by sheer force of will power. Indeed, the very words “achieve” and “willpower” suggest we are trying to remain in control.
I think we must be struck by grace, by mystery, by surprise, by a vision of something better. Perhaps the only thing sufficiently better, the only force capable of breaking down the barriers established by our ego, is the force of unconditional love. To be loved unconditionally is the most freeing experience we can know. Our ego, of course, doesn’t want to admit that unconditional love lies at the heart of the universe because it is not a love we can claim to have earned.
I would imagine that Moses played many of life’s controlling, competitive, ego-centered games during his years on earth. How else, after all, could one grow up to prosper in the courts of Pharaoh as Moses did? But I would also like to imagine that through it all there were a number of moments of conversion, moments in which the power of love was able to sneak past the barriers set up by his ego. He could not engineer such moments, any more than we can, but his response to them enabled him to live more authentically and, ultimately, die more gracefully.
He had loved and been loved. That proved to be enough. How else, after all, could one die as free of bitterness as Moses did?
Moses’s life has come full cycle: from the tender scene in which, as a baby, he floats past danger in a basket made of reeds to this tender scene at the end of his life in which he dies in the very presence of the God he had spent a lifetime serving. From beginning to end, through good times and bad, through periods of faithfulness and periods of faithlessness, Moses was in relationship with God. Is that not what we long for? At the very end God was with him. God did not abandon the old man on the mountain breathing his last breaths. And the old man did not abandon God. Do we not pray for the same
No, Moses didn’t make it into the promised land. But perhaps that very failure – and the face that it didn’t ruin him – reminds us that life is not about the destination, it’s all about the journey. Moses, you rascal! You gave us the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, but you turn out to have had a heart made of much, … much softer stuff. Amen.