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In sight of the Promised Land

One of the most poignant scenes of the Old Testament is the death of Moses as recorded in the final passage of the Torah in the Book of Deuteronomy:

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons.

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the peak of Pisgah which faces Jericho, and the LORD showed him all the land—Gilead, and as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, the plain (the valley of Jericho, the City of Palms), and as far as Zoar.

The LORD then said to him, This is the land about which I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over. So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the LORD, died as the LORD had said; and he was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; to this day no one knows the place of his burial. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.

Anyone who has read through the first five books of the Bible and followed the history of the People of God, finally coming to the point of entry into the Land that had been promised for generations, should not be ashamed to weep for Moses. The one chosen for the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery has accomplished all that the Lord has asked of him, but he is not able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. What kind of mercy is it to see the Promised Land from the heights, but not be permitted to enter? I’ve read through these stories so many times, and I have never felt satisfied that this was what justice required for Moses lack of trust.

I brought my questions to my spiritual director some time ago, and he replied this way.  “Most of the time, when we read the Bible, we thing to ourselves that this is the way it ought to be. You can’t help but have that feeling when you read the stories about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes or triumphs of the great king David.”  He went on to say, “When I read the Bible, I try to forget about the words ‘should’ or ‘ought’. I follow the Walter Cronkite school of biblical interpretation. After I finish with a passage, I imagine that I am sitting in the news anchor’s chair and I whisper a little ‘and that’s the way it is.’”

My spiritual director was not encouraging me to a life of resignation and complacency. Instead, he was trying to teach me that the Bible is about God’s will in human history, and the less we complicate things by putting our own will first, the better off we will be.

The death of Moses in sight of the Promised Land is not supposed to console us. It’s supposed to teach us that none of us, not even the most favored of God’s servants, will end up getting everything we want. The path to spiritual maturity begins with renouncing the fruits of our labors. We know that Machiavellian phrase “the end justifies the means” is wrong as a justification for good actions as much as it is wrong as a justification for bad actions. It is never right to do evil to achieve a good end. In fact, the most moral principle is to do good because the deed itself is good, regardless of the good or bad end it might achieve.

Many of the parables of Jesus are particularly relevant here. A man with a huge harvest built giant barns to store the grain so he could sit back and enjoy the fruits of the harvest. “You fool, this very night your life will be required of you. How will gain your harvest then?”

Again, renouncing the fruits of one’s actions is not an invitation to stoic resignation. After all, why bother if we don’t get to enjoy what we work for? There are many parables which praise the industrious who use the talents given to them to gain more wealth and influence. But remember that Christ is not teaching his disciples an investment strategy, he is encouraging them to be as enthusiastic toward the Kingdom as bankers are about getting more money. Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven and put our desire for success in this world aside.

So back to Moses. He was called to free the people from slavery and lead them to the Promised Land. In chapter 3 and 4 of Exodus, we read the call of Moses. It is quite hilarious. Moses seems reluctant to do what God asks of him. He is a man of no standing, on the run from the law  and he doesn’t even know that name of the God who is asking him to take on the most powerful monarch in the world. But Moses doesn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” He asks the Lord some very pertinent and practical questions about his mission, and then off he goes.

And this is how almost every vocation story goes in the Bible. God calls on someone to do something for someone else. It’s not about the power and prestige that may come from doing God’s will, it’s about the good that the person who has been called will accomplish in the Lord’s name.

We are living in times that are a bit more trying on us that usual. We are asked to be patient and compliant in ways that are awkward, uncomfortable, and downright annoying. We have a hard time seeing the big picture. We are finding it difficult to trust those who are supposed to have the common good as their job when we can’t even agree on what the common good is.

These are uncertain times. It means we don’t know the outcome of what is happening. That is upsetting especially if we are used to living life totally motivated by seeking some reward. We will gladly run any race if we can be assured of a top place at the finish. Well, we are in a race that doesn’t seem to have a clear finish line. Or using another sports metaphor:  the goal posts keep getting pushed farther back.

What then is left when the motivation of reward is removed from the moral equation? In the Scriptures God acts toward human beings with “loving kindness”. God’s love is not contingent. God does not lack anything, therefore God can’t gain anything from a relationship. Therefore God’s love is the most pure love possible. This is the love that is the Word Made Flesh. What could Christ gain from becoming man? Nothing, but Christ still freely gives.

This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. God so loved the world, we read last Sunday, that he sent his only son. And the Son gives himself freely and fully, body and blood, soul and divinity the Most Holy Eucharist. We do not need to work for our salvation, because it has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.