Be the Mirror
Moses dies – he gets to see the land God has promised to the people, but does not enter it, and neither does his brother Aaron. Why? They disobeyed a direct order from God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 20, we read: In the first month all the people of Israel arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. 2 There was no water for the people, so they came together against Moses and Aaron. 3 They argued with Moses and said, “We should have died in front of the Lord as our brothers did. 4 Why did you bring the Lord’s people into this desert? Are we and our animals to die here? 5 Why did you bring us from Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain, figs, grapevines, or pomegranates, and there’s no water to drink!”
6 So Moses and Aaron left the people and went to the entrance of the Meeting Tent. There they bowed facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7 The Lord said to Moses, 8 “Take your walking stick, and you and your brother Aaron should gather the people. Speak to that rock in front of them so that its water will flow from it. When you bring the water out from that rock, give it to the people and their animals.”
9 So Moses took the stick from in front of the Lord, as he had said. 10 Moses and Aaron gathered the people in front of the rock, and Moses said, “Now listen to me, you who turn against God! Do you want us to bring water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted his hand and hit the rock twice with his stick. Water began pouring out, and the people and their animals drank it.
12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe me, and because you did not honor me as holy before the people, you will not lead them into the land I will give them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah,[a] where the Israelites argued with the Lord and where he showed them he was holy.
14 From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom. He said, “Your brothers, the Israelites, say to you: You know about all the troubles we have had, 15 how our ancestors went down into Egypt and we lived there for many years. The people of Egypt were cruel to us and our ancestors, 16 but when we cried out to the Lord, he heard us and sent us an angel to bring us out of Egypt.
“Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your land. 17 Please let us pass through your country. We will not touch any fields of grain or vineyards, and will not drink water from the wells. We will travel only along the king’s road, not turning right or left until we have passed through your country.” 18 But the king of Edom answered: “You may not pass through here. If you try, I will come and meet you with swords.” 19 The Israelites answered: “We will go along the main road, and if we or our animals drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to walk through. That’s all.” 20 But he answered: “You may not pass through here.” Then the Edomites went out to meet the Israelites with a large and powerful army. 21 The Edomites refused to let them pass through their country, so the Israelites turned back.
22 All the Israelites moved from Kadesh to Mount Hor, 23 near the border of Edom. There the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 24 “Aaron will die. He will not enter the land that I’m giving to the Israelites, because you both acted against my command at the waters of Meribah. 25 Take Aaron and his son Eleazar up on Mount Hor, 26 and take off Aaron’s special clothes and put them on his son Eleazar. Aaron will die there; he will join his ancestors.”
27 Moses obeyed the Lord’s command. They climbed up Mount Hor, and all the people saw them go. 28 Moses took off Aaron’s clothes and put them on Aaron’s son Eleazar. Then Aaron died there on top of the mountain. Moses and Eleazar came back down the mountain, 29 and when all the people learned that Aaron was dead, everyone in Israel cried for him for thirty days.
So that is the background of the story we read today with the death of Moses. Here is my take-away from this story: Moses is still an important figure. He made mistakes, he paid for them. He was not perfect, there are several stories about him that are, shall we say, quite colorful? The only one that gets him into really serious trouble is this disobeying God directly. The other ones have to do with killing people, passing his wife off as his sister and giving her to Pharoah as a concubine, but those do not get him into the really deep trouble that this does. He gets into trouble, but he survives. This one, he does not survive. However, Moses makes me think of Peter. He is a great man, no question about it. But, as my grandfather used to say, he still put his pants on one leg at a time. Never mind that they did not wear pants in those days! In other words, he may have been a great man, but he also made mistakes, he was human, and while we can honor him for the great work he did, we can also remember that he was human, just like we are. Fundamentally, like them, we are called to do important work – it does not matter whether the world thinks it is important or not, only whether God has called us to do this work – and therefore, what matters is whether we do it!
When we go on to look at the Gospel, we see Jesus being asked about the commandments. Remember that this story builds on the last one where the Herodians – that is, the folks who were part of the government – had joined up with their enemies, the Sadducees – who might be something like the Religious Wrong in our country. Hmm, where have we heard this before? But I digress! So two big and important groups had sent their representatives to get Jesus into trouble. They thought they had the perfect question: should we pay the tax?
It’s not much difference now, is it? It’s an easy answer, if you ask someone, do you like paying taxes? Do you think we should pay taxes? Those are different questions, of course, but they often get inflated. No one likes paying taxes, but that is very different from the question of whether we should pay them. At any rate, they thought they had the perfect question, because if he said yes, we should pay the tax – the emperor’s tax, the oppressor’s tax – all of that is in this question, and if he said yes, then the people would turn against him. If he said no, then the Herodians would immediately call treason in front of witnesses. It was the perfect trap, except, of course, it didn’t work. Whose face is on the coin that pays the tax? This reminds us that there were two monetary systems – the Roman coinage system, and the temple coinage – which did not have an image on it, of course. So when they bring him a Roman coin, it has the emperor’s head on it, and he says the famous words: Render unto Caesar what is Caeser’s, and to God what is God’s. Pay the emperor’s tax with the emperor’s coin. Give the Holy One what is due.
So now the questioners are back, but this is a different group, and it is important that we recognize that the Pharisees were the really religious people. They were the ones who were trying to do right by God, and they were severely challenged by this man who did some things very right and some things very wrong, according to what they understood the Messiah would do. The things that he did that were right were so right that they had to come question. They could not just write him off as a bad joke. So they sent a group, headed by a lawyer, to test him.
If we understand that “testing” was an honorable action, if we understand that for people of “the Law” that a lawyer has a different function that we think of, then it puts this whole encounter in a different light. Think of “testing” with the idea of a scientist who has offered a radically new concept. The rest of the scientific world is going to test the concept, and demand demonstrations, right? If the concept is too radical, it may take some time to move from the fringe, but when it moves from the outer fringe to closer in, the scientists are going to take sides pro and con, hoping desperately that their tests are strong enough to hold up under scrutiny, hoping that they end up on the correct side.
So here comes the lawyer, a leader of the community, to test him. He asks a laughably simple question. Which law is the greatest? Jesus gives the answer, and then, because he was a rabbi, he had the right to ask the group a question. But it is not a simple question, and they do not have an answer, not even the lawyer. After that, no one dared test him.
What do we do with all of this?
The laws that Jesus calls us to follow are simple, but not always easy, are they? Love God above all else with all of our being, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It was St Augustine who said, Love God and do as you please, but the full quote is important, it says: “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”
Do we think of God as the Beloved? What would happen if we did? When we have someone who is beloved, everything in our lives reflects that love, doesn’t it? I was just reading a sad story about a woman whose child had died, and her love for him was reflected in a very beautiful way. It is like becoming a mirror for God, that what we do either reflects the love of God, or it does not. Are our lives a reflecting mirror of the love of God? Or do we reflect our concern for money and power, are we caught in fear and pain, so that we do not reflect anything except those emotions? Perhaps we are like the moon, but having a choice about whether we reflect so much light back with a full moon that one hardly needs more light, or whether we have turned away from the sun and do not reflect light at all. Perhaps we hint at some light, being beautiful as a crescent, but not really giving enough light to light the way for others. And even then, giving beauty is also important!
But here’s the message from Moses: no matter what, it’s important. Even when we mess up, even big time, it’s important. It’s important that we try to do what we are called to do. Period.