I began reading the story of Moses at our primary school this morning,a very gentle retelling of the story of the dominant figure in Old Testament history.
I remember us reading the story of Moses with Miss Rabbage, the head teacher of the two teacher primary school I attended. Miss Rabbage was always very thorough in what she taught—nothing got left out, stories were not softened to make the easier on young people’s ears.
The story of Moses seemed, for me, to be most unfair. Moses had led the people all through those difficult years; he had made mistakes and had been told that he would not reach the promised land. An old man, he climbs to the top of Mount Nebo and he looks out across the land; and there his story ends. God had said this would be so. God, for me, seemed like a vindictive parent who shows a child what they might have enjoyed, had they not misbehaved and the sends the child to bed without allowing the child even a chance to enjoy what everyone else was going to share in.
I did not like this story when I was a child. I am not sure I particularly like it now. But I do think I better understand what the story has to say to us.
Back in the early days of Christian history, almost seventeen hundred years ago, a strange thing happened in the Church. The emperor at the time, Constantine, perhaps for reasons that were not entirely spiritual, became a Christian. The Church became part of the established order of things.
Over the centuries, the Church became so much a part of the established order of things that by the 11th century—a thousand years ago, there appeared in Europe what became called “Christendom”. Church and society went together so closely that if you were a member of society you were a member of the Church. No-one was allowed to have views, no-one was allowed to say things, no-one was allowed to do things that were not approved by the Church. The Church commanded great power, prestige and wealth. Church leaders were concerned with success and influence; they openly engaged in politics and in wars. Whatever the Church said was right, so no-one dare criticize or suggest that the Church was not telling the whole truth. Pope Benedict’s words in Paris today that, “it is fundamental . . . to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion,” rings hollow with even the most peremptory reading of the history of the Papacy. For century after century, the strongest Churches in each country commanded power and respect and influence.
The Church surely lost its way somewhere. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Where was the self-denial, where was the way of the Cross in bishops living as princes; in the Church owning vast lands; in fantastic, ornate buildings in places where people lived in hovels; in sumptuous vestments and grand houses? Is this what Jesus called his followers to?
Jesus called his followers not to success, but to faithfulness. The story of Moses is a reminder that even the greatest can end their days without success. Moses does so much and yet he never reaches the Promised Land; he never gets what he so longed for. Trying to tell the story of Moses as it is rather than as I would prefer it might not be easy.