Moses the rationalizer? (So like us.)
Moses the rationalizer, eh? I don’t mean any disrespect; I think Moses was already a better man some 3,300 years ago than most of us Catholics are today. He was certainly in close touch with God, took on serious responsibilities for God’s people, and was willing to endure many hardships in following God’s instructions. Moses was frustrated from time to time, and he even free-lanced every now and again—meaning he did not always follow God’s will with absolute perfection. But he was a man of great courage and strength who frequently found himself exhausted as a result of doing what God asked.
In late April, I wrote about the nervousness Moses experienced in accepting God’s appointment as the one to lead the Jews out of Egypt to the Promised Land (see Does Moses foreshadow Christ AND each of us?). On that occasion I pointed out that God punished Moses for choosing his own way to bring water from the rock, the punishment being that Moses would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land after spending forty years guiding his people toward that goal. This is recorded in Numbers 20:10-13—which, by the way, is one of the Mosaic books.
Like the rest of us, however, Moses did not always like the punishments he received for failing to follow God’s will both whole-heartedly and, as we might say, to the letter. We are all prone to shave off some of the harder bits, or take credit for the good that is primarily God’s doing. The most we can do, if we are honest, is to cooperate with God’s plan. We cannot write the script. Nor can we bring about the desired results. Sometimes we try to bask in the glory of God’s achievements, as if he could not have raised up somebody through whom He could accomplish something better than whatever it is we think “we have done”. Still, the story of Moses’ leadership of the Jews is sufficiently compelling that we remain surprised that even Moses was not immune to the temptation of blaming others for God’s punishments.
Surely Moses would never shift the blame for his failures, would he?
Great as Moses was, yes he would, and occasionally yes he did. The most obvious instance of this is found in another of the Mosaic books, Deuteronomy. There we find that when God was giving the final instructions for the entry of the Jewish tribes into the Promised Land, Moses really, really wanted to be allowed in—and really, really did not like taking the blame for being kept out. Well may we read again this stunning passage, and weep for both our sins and our evasion of responsibility for them:
“And I besought the LORD at that time, saying, ‘O Lord GOD, thou hast only begun to show thy servant thy greatness and thy mighty hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as thine? Let me go over, I pray, and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill country, and Lebanon.’ But the LORD was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me; and the LORD said to me, ‘Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and behold it with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him; for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land which you shall see.’” [Deut 3:23-28; cf. 4:21]
Note the classic human way in which Moses describes his own transgression: “But the LORD was angry with me on your account.” Now, perhaps all Moses meant by this expression was that God was angry with the way Moses had taken credit for providing water to the people, which was in effect an injustice to the people. But in this translation at least, the words “on your account” make it it seem as if Moses is suggesting that God was angry not because of any deficiency in Moses’ behavior but because of the behavior of the people themselves. If so, this is an evasion of responsibility, for in Numbers 20:12, God told Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people” of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”
As I suggested in that earlier commentary, this seems to have been because, rather than attributing the miracle of bringing water out of the rock to God, Moses and Aaron had gathered the thirsty and complaining people and had said, “Hear now, you rebels: Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Num 20:10; emphasis added).
This is a cautionary tale, and it may well be an everyday cautionary tale. Especially when others are complaining about what we haven’t done for them lately, we are prone to take credit for any good results that really depend on God, and to deflect blame onto the complainers when anybody (including God) suggests that we are in any way at fault. Here we can raise our hands and say, “Me too!” More astonishingly, we can say, “Even Moses!”
Interestingly, Moses was not the greatest of Old Testament figures, at least not according to the One who should know: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). This leaves open the possibility that Moses was just as great as John, but I suspect John was greater partly because he was willing to suffer much in the opportunity given to him to point more clearly to Christ. Always willing to forego worldly comfort and prestige, John even freely abandoned the honor associated with his own spiritual leadership. He was not sensitive about the honor due his achievements, nor did he complain of the weight of the children of Israel who had been entrusted to his prophetic witness. And of course he had been given what was, spiritually speaking, a far nobler task than that of Moses.
How easy to slip
So what about us? Well, Our Lord ended his assessment of John’s greatness by stating as part of the same thought: “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Why? Because our greatness consists in the grace we receive—the share in the life of God that brings us to the height of perfection and fulness in Christ Himself.
The moment we start justifying ourselves in terms of those who have dragged us back or weighed us down, at that moment we forget how everything that happens to us is turned into an incomparable gift by the grace to conform ourselves more fully to Christ. It is never a question of our own accomplishment, or our own reputation. It is always a matter of precisely what John himself taught us: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven…. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
John said this in response to those who asked what he thought of the fact that his followers were leaving him to follow Christ. But John knew that the real question is not what we can be recognized for accomplishing but rather how much more we can be transformed in Christ. For this purpose, we are offered more than Moses was offered, and even more than John was offered. Yet who in his right mind would boast in what he has been given? We must rather realize that though we have accomplished less than they, we have the opportunity to grow even greater than they in Christ.
St. Paul understood this: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul boasted now and then for rhetorical effect, but his greatest personal claim was made in this very context, right here in this place, in the very next sentence. It is the only claim that matters, and the one claim we must make our own. He took just eight words to say it: “I do not nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:20-21).
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