We’ve spent a lot of time with Moses these last months, and so the reading for this morning has a kind of bittersweet quality. They’ve finally arrived, Moses and the people. They’re on the verge of completing their journey. The land is in full view from Mount Nebo where Moses meets one last time with the Lord. Up on the mountain, God says to Moses, “Well, here it is. Just like I promised,” and points out the details of the geography to the old man. God says, “This is the land I promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants so long ago.” Then God says to Moses, “I’ve let you see it, but I will not let you step foot into it.” The story tells us nothing about what Moses may have said and certainly nothing about how he felt, but I’m guessing that when you and I hear it, it definitely raises up feelings, perhaps chief among them being a resounding, “Not fair!”
The passage goes on to record Moses death and burial in the land of Moab. With comments about his vigor and keen eyesight in spite of his age, it also reports that no one knows the exact location of his grave to this day. Then, when they had mourned Moses’ death, the people did what human beings have done since we first learned to mourn. They got up and got on with their lives and their journey, acknowledging their new leader, anointed by Moses himself.
The reading concludes with a sort of epitaph. Listen again: Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. Those are some pretty powerful commendations: an unparalleled prophet, a wonder-worker in the face of Pharaoh’s absolute power and also among his own people in the wilderness.
It is not uncommon in our day and age for people to speculate about what the “legacy” of those with power and influence and wealth…and occasionally even a dash of character will be. Reflecting on this, what came to mind for me as I read what Moses is remembered for is a snippet of the obituary I clipped and saved for someone who died a number of years ago. I’m talking about the actor Paul Newman. Long a fan of those intense blue eyes and an admirer of his enduring marriage with Joanne Woodward, I devoured the numerous articles and commentaries and accolades that followed his death. A lot of ink and newsprint was devoted to his biography and career…and yes, his legacy. But of all that I read, only that little scrap of newsprint seemed worth saving. It was a quote from a man named Robert Forrester, who was the vice chairman of the Newman’s Own brand of food products. You may recall that Newman’s Own was born as the actor began to market food products he had long prepared at home, with the proceeds going to charities.