By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking forward to the reward.
Many years ago, I found myself with a friend in a Judaica store on Harvard Street in Brookline, buying a mezuzah. For those of you who don’t know, a mezuzah is a small ornamental tube that contains a tiny scroll of verses from Deuteronomy. In those verses, Moses says to his people, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart …. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house….” For centuries, Jewish people have placed these verses on their doorjambs in mezuzah, to fulfill Moses’ command.
I am not Jewish, so why was I buying a mezuzah for my new condo? The friend with me, who is Jewish, agreed to go shopping with me, but he found the whole enterprise hilariously funny. Finally I said to him that I wanted a mezuzah because “Moses is my guy too.” He couldn’t really argue with that.
And that, more or less, appears to be the message that the anonymous author of Hebrews is attempting to convey to his (or her) audience. Hebrews is essentially an extended argument that the personalities and precepts of the Jewish faith are all unswerving historical and spiritual precursors to Jesus and the Christian faith. Moses, among other heroes of the Old Testament, is especially lauded for his acts. The early Christian author may have been trying to assure Jewish converts that they wouldn’t need to abandon Moses in order to become Christians.
I’m not convinced that Moses believed that Jesus would be the messiah, or that Jewish people would recognize the Moses of Hebrews as “their guy.” However, you and I, as Christian laypeople, can leave these questions to the Biblical scholars. More relevant to us are the Christian virtues identified by the author of Hebrews. What qualities did he or she see in Moses and his story that would add to our conception of ourselves as Christian people in the twenty-first century?
As we know from Exodus, Moses was born into a Jewish family at a time when Pharaoh was becoming nervous about the Jews, and had ordered the murder of all sons born into Jewish families. Moses’ mother didn’t want this to happen to him, so she hid him for three months and then put him in a floating basket in the river, hoping that he would somehow be rescued. Pharaoh’s daughter found him and adopted him, thereby protecting him both from the river and from her father. However, after Moses had grown up in the wealth of the palace, he returned to his people and ultimately led them out of Egypt. According to Hebrews, he chose “to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking forward to the reward.”
Moses gives us a narrative that differs from that of Jesus, which may be one reason why the author of Hebrews took this approach. Jesus was not raised in wealth. Although he learned a trade, he left it behind to become an itinerant preacher and healer. He frequently told stories about rich people and talked about money, but he never seemed to have very much of it. Moses, on the other hand, was raised in the lap of luxury, but rejected it in favor of his bond with his people and his God.
How do we, as Christians, make sense of this? Many of us can’t be high-minded about money. Most of us worry about it: do we make enough, do we spend too much, what if we lose what we have? The treasures of Egypt might look pretty good to us, even if we might feel guilty enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. The disparities of wealth in our society are clearly evident within two blocks of this church.
But the point that the author of Hebrews is making is not really about money, I think. It’s about faith. How was Moses able to leave behind the fleeting pleasures of sin? “By faith.” Why was he willing to suffer abuse? He was “looking forward to the reward” of his faith.
Each of us has our own version of the treasures of Egypt, of something powerful and seductive in our lives that can distract us from the purposes that God has for us. That version may not be about money. It may be the temptation of giving up under pressure, or allowing others to define us, or holding on to the unhealthy habits developed by our own personal insecurities. It may be the luxury of losing confidence in ourselves and our sense of accountability. It may be fear of change, even when we’re unhappy with the way things are. It may be a relationship that has become difficult, but we don’t have the courage to change it, take the heat and move on.
How did Moses resist the treasures of Egypt? He believed in himself, although he had his moments, just like us. He believed in his people, even when they got whiny. But most of all, he believed in his God. As is inscribed within every mezuzah, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
If Moses is our guy, too, there’s the message for us, here and now. If Moses could resist the treasures of Egypt by faith, then so can we. We can be honest with ourselves about what they are and work to overcome them. It’s January, after all – a terrific time to make resolutions. As my late pastor, Peter Gomes, liked to say, get up, get over it and get on with it!
Thanks be to God.