One Tough Act To Follow

Moses by Michelangelo

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Moses is easily one of the most significant figures in all of Israel’s history. We can look back on his life as recounted in scripture, and marvel at his extraordinary rise from obscurity to prominence in Ancient Israel. He was born in slavery, the last of 3 children. When Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, decreed the execution of all baby boys among his people, his mother sent him downriver in a woven basket under the watchful eye of his sister. He was pulled out of the river, adopted by the king’s sister, and raised in the king’s own household, where he was considered a son and accorded every royal honor and privilege. As he went about the city one day, he witnessed a taskmaster beating a slave. Believing he was acting justly, he slew the taskmaster. News of the confrontation reached the king, and Moses had to flee the country to escape punishment for his crime. His life overturned and expecting never to return, he disappeared into exile and built a new life in Midian, an oasis under the shadow of the mountain of God at Horeb. But God had witnessed Israel’s misery, and heard the people’s cries for deliverance. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and sent him back to Egypt to demand from Pharaoh liberty for his people. Accompanied by terrifying and awesome signs, Moses led Israel from bondage to freedom. Ten plagues were visited upon Israel’s oppressors before the king set them free. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, while the king’s chariots drowned in pursuit. At Mt. Sinai God established a covenant with Israel, and Moses received the Law engraved by God’s own hand on stone tablets. Repeatedly, Israel cried out to God in their hunger and thirst. God sent them abundant manna and quail, and made refreshing water flow from a rock in the desert. Still the people in their weakness struggled with God all through the desert journey, and Moses was God’s face and God’s voice to Israel. But he was also Israel’s advocate, speaking to God on Israel’s behalf, defending them when God grew weary of their unfaithfulness.

The story of God and Israel is the story of every believer who struggles with adversity but who is always called to faithfulness. Along with the stories of creation, King David, and Jesus (which make really great movies and TV mini-series), the story of Moses is a refreshing reminder of God’s tremendous love for the human family. Ever since, the desert journey from Passover to the Promised Land has provided the context for Israel’s observance of religious festivals throughout the year. And Moses walked alongside them all through the journey, a prophet larger than life, who spoke God’s word and conveyed God’s tender care for Israel, yet very much one who knew Israel’s struggle, who pleaded their cause, and joined with them in praise of God’s saving grace and mercy. So when Moses handed down to Israel the Law of the Lord, explaining and detailing various points in what would become the Deuteronomic Code, he shared with them God’s response to their request at the mountain of Horeb, that God not speak to them directly, but instead through a prophet. But why would they ask this? They feared God’s holiness in light of their own sinfulness. Moses assured them kindly, “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.” This would be one tough act to follow. Could there ever be another prophet just like Moses?

jesus-casting-out-demons1

The passage from Deuteronomy carried some messianic undertones, pointing to a future figure who would command from the people the same respect as Moses, and be favored similarly by God. So when Jesus appeared so unlike the scribes and teachers of the Law, commanding unclean spirits and teaching with authority, his listeners were amazed and wondered who he might be. Many generations have passed since his first appearance on earth, and many people have come before us proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ unique role in God’s plan for the human race. He is the new Moses of whom the scriptures spoke, that prophet God would send to manifest his great love and his might. Jesus proclaimed God’s word boldly and challenged his listeners to a renewal of their minds and hearts, and he wielded extraordinary power over unclean spirits and forces in nature, multiplying food for the nourishment of the hungry, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, restoring to wholeness the mute, the deaf, and the lame, even raising the dead to life. And like people in his time, we desire more certainty and clarity, so we need not wonder who this Jesus truly is. Yet many in this present age are just as unmoved and unbelieving as people in Jesus’ time. In seeking to understand mysteries beyond our grasp, we also need the gift of faith, a gift only God bestows.

So the church Jesus founded has been sent to continue his saving mission in the world, to speak boldly God’s truth, to encourage the baptized to continued conversion and spiritual renewal, and to prepare all creation for the awesome wonders that God chooses to manifest his holiness and his tremendous love for us.

pope-francis1

Lately, God has given us Pope Francis. And I for one continue to be amused and encouraged that he is drawing attention from non-Catholics, while making some Catholics nervous. Perhaps his message of God’s great mercy and love, though not new, is challenging to those who have regarded God with suspicion, who perceive God as beyond reach, who have only known judgment and rejection and guilt whenever God’s name is mentioned. In light of recent events in the world, Pope Francis reminds us God violence is not of God, and those who commit atrocities against their neighbor cannot be doing God’s work. It is unfortunate that we may have contributed to that impression ourselves in some ways. So this time around, some people may be giving the Holy Spirit room to bring about conversion and renewal in their lives, just because their curiosity is piqued. They may not know it yet. But ultimately, it is God’s purpose that is fulfilled.

As we come to know God’s love for Israel in the stories of her journey in the desert from bondage to freedom, so we come to know God’s love for all the human family in the stories of each of our journeys, from bondage to freedom, from blindness to sight, from darkness to light, from emptiness and dissipation to purpose and commitment, from sorrow to joy, from fear to faith, from selfishness to service, from sin to reconciliation and forgiveness. Israel’s story is the story of the church, and the story of each one of us. But this new prophet does not speak to us in God’s name, as though bridging a gap. Rather, he is God’s word come to show us the depth and fullness of God’s care and love for us. God will have no further need of prophets and intermediaries. Jesus is God’s love in our midst, ever-present, within easy reach, transforming, renewing, amazing.

Someone at the Saturday mass came up to me and asked, “So you decided to just pass over that second reading?” I thought I was home free. But the first letter to the Corinthians was written with the second coming of Jesus in mind, like next week. It was not because Paul wanted everyone to be celibate. Instead, if God is our top priority, whether the world ends tomorrow or not for many more generations, everything else will find its proper place. Yesterday, I was hearing confessions at the Young Adult & Youth Ministry Conference in Charlottesville. Many young people expressed frustration that they have to juggle school and family and relationships and work. I had to look them in the eye and tell them, “I’m sorry. It doesn’t get easier.” But if we are able to make God our top priority, even then, everything else will find its proper place. Jesus is God’s presence in our midst, evidence of God’s work in our lives. There is no one else to come after him. Put him first.

keep-calm-and-put-god-first-7

Now that is one tough act to follow.

Rolo B Castillo © 2015