This past week a parishioner sent me an email in which he asked about the relationship between Moses and God. He noted that in the reading from Exodus for last Sunday, Moses and God seemed to be on intimate, even casual terms. They talked together as two friends might talk. Moses asked to see God’s glory and God responded by saying that direct sight of God’s glory would kill him, so God instructed Moses to hide behind a rock as God passed by him, and Moses would be able to see God’s backside. It’s a wonderful story, told in earthy imagery that doesn’t quite seem to fit the majesty of God and doesn’t seem appropriate for the serious matters of the law and Israel’s sinfulness that had previously focused their attention.
In today’s reading, we see another aspect of that relationship, and we’re provided perspective from the authors and editors who brought the five first books of the Hebrew Bible together as they look back on Moses hundreds of years after the events recorded here, and written, most likely, hundreds of miles away, in exile, in Babylon, after the Promised Land only seen by Moses has again become a distant memory and hope.
So looking back on Moses, the writers of this text may be feeling their own homesickness and sadness, which they write into the story of Moses’ last days. God takes him up to the top of Mt. Nebo and shows him the land of Canaan, telling him that this is the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses sees the promised land from the mountaintop, but is not permitted to enter it himself. The reason given for this is that God is punishing Moses for something he had done, disobeying God’s instructions on one occasion. That Moses struck the rock to bring water from it instead of commanding it as God had said, seems to us an arbitrary and mean-spirited reason for preventing him from entering the land that had been his goal for more than 40 years. And we might wonder at the character of God depicted in this way.
But there’s more to the story. Although the NRSV translation obscures what comes next, it’s pretty clear from the Hebrew that when Moses dies, God buries him. In that little detail, downplayed by the editors of our text, is a profound symbol for the relationship between Moses and God. It’s also a symbol of God’s love and care for humanity. As such, it’s an important reminder here, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, at the end of the Pentateuch, or Torah, of the very beginning of Genesis, and the creation. In Genesis 2, God shows the same intimacy and care when creating the first man out of the dust of the earth, and the first woman out of the man’s rib.
Throughout these five books that tell the story of the beginning of the world and the human race and the story of God’s chosen people, we have heard of God’s love and care for the world and for human beings in spite of or rebellion and sin. The covenant that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, cemented that relationship of God’s love and care, as well as God’s demands of God’s chosen people, to love God and to love their neighbor.
In the gospel, a lawyer, an interpreter of Torah, comes to Jesus to test him. The series of confrontations that has been occurring finally reaches its climax as the Pharisees appoint someone to “test” Jesus. On the surface, it’s not quite clear what’s at stake. The lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. In response, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy and from Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
As I said, Jesus is not making something up here. He’s quoting scripture and it’s likely that if someone had asked the Pharisees the same question, they would have replied similarly, for the rabbinic tradition preserves the exact same statement. In other words, there’s nothing controversial here, there’s nothing in what Jesus says that would put him in conflict with the Pharisees. But that doesn’t make it any easier. It doesn’t let us off the hook.
I repeat these very same words every Sunday morning in our 8:00 service. They stand before us as a great challenge and like so much of the liturgy, it’s easy for all of us, myself included, to let the words wash over me without paying close attention. What do they mean?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind—love God with your whole being. We think of love as an emotion; it’s a way of expressing our response to something we enjoy: there are foods or pastimes that we love. Our culture has programmed us to think of falling in or out of love. But the love that’s prescribed in the first commandment is something much deeper. It’s not a feeling or emotion, it’s deeper, more profound—a fundamental trust or faith we might say, that is expressed by our whole being, body, mind, and heart. And it’s a response to God’s prior love for us, God’s choice of us, as God chose Israel.
All that may be hard enough. But there’s more: love your neighbor as yourself. In that little statement lies another or two great challenges. To love yourself, and to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Some of us find it difficult to love ourselves. We may struggle with who we are, what we’ve done, our pasts, mistakes we’ve made. Some of us may even think it’s not appropriate to love our selves—it sounds wrong, self-centered. But how can we love our neighbor as our selves, if we don’t first love our selves?
There’s something in that image of God burying Moses that helps me make sense of all this. For in that very human, incredibly intimate action—I bet most of us are turned off by it, by the idea of the transcendent, immortal, invisible, omniscient, omnipotent, being though of performing that very intimate even offensive act, who of us could imagine, in this day and age, actually burying a loved one with our own hands—in that incredibly intimate action, we see a parable of God’s love for us. Imagine God lowering Godself to care for us so intimately. Imagine that love. If God can love us so powerfully and intimately, how can we not love God with the same intensity, with our whole selves, hearts, minds, and souls. And if God can love us, how can we not love our selves? And how can we not love our neighbors, and the stranger with our whole being, loved, as it is, by God?