Sunday, May 13, 2012

Moses - "When you want justice..."

When we read in Heb. 12:1 that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses”…we may picture a stadium in which men and women of faith who have gone before us, are cheering us on as we run; but instead of being at the end of the race, let’s picture ourselves, as John Maxwell does, entering the stadium somewhere in mid-race, to the cheers of onlookers; drawing inspiration and energy from the crowd.  Great heroes of the faith one by one come down from the stands to encourage us on our journey. As we begin our third lap we see a bearded man with a great staff approach us, a humble man who speaks softly but with authority. His name, he says, is Moses, and as he jogs alongside us he says, “God loves to set captives free!  I know this because the first captive to be set free from among my people was me.  It was my mother who saved me from death at Pharaoh’s hand by placing me in a papyrus basket beside the Nile."

It was Pharaoh, Moses explains, who enslaved the Israelites that had journeyed to Egypt decades before. They had come long ago to escape a worldwide famine when Joseph their kinsman was the wise overseer of the grain storehouses of Egypt…but that’s another story! This new Pharaoh knew nothing of Joseph…only that the population of Hebrews was increasing at an alarming rate.  After Pharaoh orders the death of every male Hebrew child, a Levite mother hides her baby in a papyrus basket on the bank of the river. By God’s providence, Pharaoh’s daughter sees the baby and draws him from the water.  She brings the child into Pharaoh’s house, naming him Mosheh, which means, “to draw” (Ex. 2). And so, Moses explains, he really was the first captive to be set free… not simply because he was rescued as an infant from slavery and death, but because (i) by God’s mercy he was able to remove his own blinders to that injustice…

We read that, One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” – Exodus 2:11.  Imagine!  From Moses’ birth, he had lived in the privilege and comfort of Pharaoh’s palace where he was shielded from the oppression of his people. Then one day he went out…and saw the truth with his own eyes, and it sickened him.  All of us have blinders to oppression and injustice; and we can only remove them by going outside and seeing it with our own eyes.  It is easier to ignore prejudice, poverty, child or spousal abuse etc. than to get involved.  But if we will allow ourselves to see it or hear it, we will be moved!  

I saw a cartoon of two turtles. One says, "Sometimes I'd like to ask why God allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it." The other turtle says, "I'm afraid God might ask me the same question."  

I’m thinking about a man I’ve never met…who lives in India.  His name is Ramen, and for 32 years he carried bricks on his back for 18 hours a day before he was rescued from a life of forced labor with the help of  men from International Justice Mission (IJM). I heard him give his testimony at a Benefit Dinner I attended with Lisa two weeks ago.  He said that during his enslavement, he would wonder to himself, “If there is a God, why doesn't he come down as a man to rescue me?” After he was set free from that soul-crushing existence he said this: “Now I know there is a God, because he did rescue me.” Someone saw him, someone cared about him…and that’s when he knew God could see him too. So Moses removed his blinders to injustice, but then, 

(ii) Moses responded to injustice by taking action.  On one occasion, "[Moses]saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he [killed] the Egyptian and hid him in the sand – Ex. 2: 11-12. Even before Moses was called by God, he had a God-given concern for the weak, and on more than one occasion, he took action.  

Now what we can honestly say about this action is that it was both decisive and debatable.  We’re told that in the act of defending a Hebrew slave from his Egyptian master, Moses “kills” (NRSV) the Egyptian and “hides him in the sand.”  Here is the interesting thing about this verse.  The root of this verb, נָכָה (naw-kaw') actually means “to strike down,” not "kill" in the sense of "murder." It is the same word used to describe what the Egyptian was doing to the Hebrew slave (11a) and what another Hebrew slave was doing as he struck his kinsman (see ahead to Exodus 2: 13). I agree with John Durham that there is nothing in the text to suggest that Moses intended to murder the Egyptian, anymore than that the Egyptian or the Hebrew man was attempting to kill his adversary.  It was a violent encounter to be sure, but I believe Moses was trying to stop the Egyptian, not execute him.  Nevertheless, as I said earlier, Moses' action is debatable... 

Certainly some may question whether it was right for Moses to answer violence with violence based on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to "turn the other cheek."  I’ve always found Dale Bruner’s insight here to be helpful…namely, that while Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek, he never told us to sit by and watch as someone else is being beaten senseless, abused or raped. There is a poem by German pastor and Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer that still challenges my idealistic need for un-debatable certainty before taking action.  It goes like this… 
Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment.Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.
Nevertheless, in taking decisive action, we must beware of two things.  First, that victims of injustice can become victimizers.  For, “When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, "Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” – Ex. 2:13. Moses had no sentimental regard for his people as mere “victims.” When he confronted the Hebrew slave who was “in the wrong” as he fought a fellow Hebrew, he was not blinded by race…assuming that only Egyptians could be abusive!  He knew that his own people could be in the wrong. One of the biggest temptations that those who want justice must face, is becoming unjust themselves. 

Secondly, in taking decisive action we should know that getting involved will usually cost us something. When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh [and] settled in the land of Midian….” – Ex. 2:15  Moses had to leave a life of comfort, opulence, wealth and power behind as a result of taking action against injustice.  Often it is the cost (whether it be time, money, our comfort, or our reputation) that keeps us from doing the right thing.  

Gary Haugen makes the point that the road to justice is often long and boring.  In fact most of the work IJM does, says Haugen, bluntly put, is boring and tedious.  Hours and hours are spent gathering evidence, doing paperwork, and collecting signatures.  He asks us to imagine standing outside a tow truck company 8 hours a day every day for 6 months, waiting to get your car back…or driving from LA to Las Vegas 40 times to appear in court, and on many days, to return with nothing to show for it.  It’s that kind of long and tedious work that IJM teams endure to end some of the worst kinds of injustice.  It’s truly a work of costly love. But that’s what real love is…not a short-lived incendiary kind of love that feels great but burns out before it gets started, nor a love that only perseveres in the good times when the sun is shining and life is easy…but that tedious, diaper-changing, dish-washing, nose-wiping, messy kind of love, that says I’ll stand by you, whatever it takes, whatever it costs.  Moses was learning about that kind of love. Would any of us be alive today without it?

(iii) So Moses removed his blinders, he responded and, finally, Moses sought justice not only for his people, but for those who were not. When Moses flees to Midian, we clearly see him taking action to stop injustice in a situation unrelated to the oppression of his own people – a situation involving non-Hebrews.  We read that “The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock…” – Genesis 2: 16-21.

These shepherds deliberately waited for the Midianite women to do the hard work of drawing water from the well and filling the water troughs for their sheep (water being the lifeblood and wealth of the desert); and then prepared to drive them away, using the water for themselves and their own sheep.  At that point, Moses “comes to the defense” of these women.  He was learning that injustice which did not directly concern him or his people; was still a concern to God – and therefore, it had to be a concern to him!  Indeed we read later that rooted in God's law is the protection and care of the stranger: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21).

I was eating pizza yesterday with about 30 attorneys in downtown LA…attorneys who were about to spend their Saturday offering their legal services at a Christian Legal Aid clinic free of charge.  CLA LA's mission is "to bring God's love and justice to the poor in Los Angeles."   Many were under 40…and they were glad to be there.  This was not a chore; it was a passion… a passion inspired by their faith in Christ. I talked with several who received help, but the Executive Director Patricia Oliver described one lady who she couldn’t help…all she could do was pray with her; and yet the woman left with these words: “This was one of the best days of my life.”  Why?  Patricia clearly stated that she was not able to help her!  Yet, because someone took off her blinders and saw this woman, because someone responded to her situation with compassion, because someone went beyond her own tribe and tried, even prayed with her to the One for whom all things are possible, she was reminded that she was not alone, that she was justified, validated, loved by God and his people, and it was one of the bests day of her life. Setting captives free is often a hidden and humble kind of work… it begins with a willingness to listen, a readiness to give, a persistent love, a simple prayer.

As we come to the end of our lap with Moses, he cautions us not to put him on too high a pedestal.  It's not hard to imagine him giving these disclaimers:  “Don't forget that before God called me, my commitment to injustice wavered more than once. I could have approached Pharaoh about the oppression of my people when I was living in the palace, but I didn't. I could have stayed in Egypt and faced Pharaoh’s wrath, but I didn't. And when God first spoke to me out of the burning bush, and sent me to confront Pharaoh and lead my people out of Egypt, I could have said, “Yes, Lord!” but instead I said, 'O my Lord, please send someone else' (Exodus 3.13). I think my mother had more courage than I did when she hid me in that basket in defiance of Pharaoh.  The truth is, I had forgotten about my people long ago, but like a loving parent, God had never forgotten them or me!  It was God who chose me because of his steadfast love  – who heard the cry of his people in prayer  and called me to be the answer to that prayer.”    

Moses prays for us before he returns to his seat in the stands: “God of steadfast love, I ask that you would help my friends know that you do care, that you do listen to the cry of those in need, and that you invite us to join your Servant Son, who suffered the greatest injustice that he might proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and set the captives free. Amen."

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