In today’s First Reading (Deut. 34:1-12) we hear about the death of the Prophet Moses. After decades of leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and toward the ‘promised land,’ Moses’s earthly journey comes to an end before he ever steps foot in or is able to enjoy that which was set before him and his people as their goal.
The LORD then said to him,
“This is the land
which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
that I would give to their descendants.
I have let you feast your eyes upon it, but you shall not cross over.”
This reading is a particularly difficult one for modern readers to appreciate. We live in a time and within a culture that has conditioned us to expect, and therefore to demand, instant gratification. I’m reminded of a great Louis C. K. comedy bit about the true absurdity of an airline passenger’s anger when the Wi-Fi connection aboard goes down and the man cannot access the internet immediately, even while 30,000 feet in the air. The entitlement and expectation is, when we step back to view it more clearly, ridiculous.
Yet, there is a timely lesson in the story of the death of Moses. So much of what it means to live the will of God, to respond to the call of the Gospel, to work for justice in our world demands of us an acceptance that we may not receive the reward promised or even witness in our own lives the change for which we sacrifice.
One may think of the powerful speech delivered on April 3, 1968 by Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly before his assassination, in which he concludes drawing on the imagery of the story of Moses’s death:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
One may think of the painfully prescient cry of Blessed Oscar Romero: “If I am killed, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
One may think of dozens of other instances when people have risked and given their lives for the causes of justice, mercy, and God’s will, yet never saw the outcome of reward or the goal sought during their own lives.
The question that the story of Moses’s death presents to us today is one that Pope Francis has also called for in terms of our care for the rest of creation. He has admonished us modern people for our obsession with instant gratification and our inability to imagine a future beyond ourselves. He has called for “intergenerational solidarity” and “justice between the generations” (Laudato Si, no. 159). We are called to work for justice, including care for creation, despite what we may personally receive in return. Can we think of others? Can we imagine those who will be born a generation or ten generations or one hundred generations later?
There are plenty of structural issues of sin and persistent instances of injustice in our world today. The racial injustice, the violence, the degradation of creation — all of these things continue to persist beyond the lives of King and Romero and others. But can we, following their example in the shadow of Moses’s death, likewise give ourselves to that mission that is doing the will of God? Can we commit ourselves to working for justice without reward?