The Great Quest (A Reflection on Deuteronomy 30.11-14)

One of the great archetypes of world literature is the Quest: one hero given a mission to do something that seems impossible, whether that’s to conquer the unconquerable enemy, or scale the unscalable mountain. It’s such a stirring trope to the human imagination that it forms the basis of the Hero’s Journey, the universal narrative structure made famous by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

There are many examples of quests in the Scriptures: Abraham called out of his own people to create a great nation; Moses called out from his father-in-law’s pastures to go back to Egypt and free his people from slavery; and most importantly for Christians, Jesus, whose mission was to conquer death itself.

And yet, today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible tells a different kind of story. It’s a short passage from Moses’ farewell speech to the Hebrew people as they are at the cusp of entering the Land of Promise. He is exhorting the people to follow the Law God gave to them on Mt. Sinai:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

What they are being called to do is not a quest in the traditional understanding. They aren’t being asked to go to some distant land, but to stay put. They aren’t being asked to climb into the heavens or travel across the sea, but to lay down roots, to get to know and work the earth where they are. They aren’t being asked to look for something big that will change everything, but to understand that the something-big-that-will-change-everything has already been given to them and they just have to live out what is already on their lips and in their heart.

But yet, as I reflect on this this morning, I can’t help but think that in our difficult and broken world and in the day-to-day of our difficult and broken relationships, sometimes this simple mission is the most harrowing adventure of all. Facing a great beast may indeed seem impossible, but facing our daily beasts is just as hard: dealing graciously with a passive-aggressive comment from an in-law, picking up your spouse’s laundry off the floor again, trying to make ethical decisions in the grocery store, or — perhaps most frightening — managing the onslaught of the automatic negative thoughts that stream through your mind day in and day out. 

We may not all be called to found nations or slay dragons, but — all due respect to Moses — that doesn’t mean that what we are called to do is easy. It just means our quest is more accessible, both what we are seeking (what is on our lips and in our heart) and the challenges to finding it: what too often comes out of our lips and blocks our heart from loving whole-heartedly.

Thankfully, as the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, our God is not aloof to our struggles but has been tested in every way by the world and its problems. And this God who gets it and gets us, has also given us the gifts we need to do undertake this great quest of everyday life. And, unlike so many of the heroes of our myths and legends, we don’t have to undertake it alone, but rather side-by-side, in community with one another.

So then: Who’s ready for an adventure?

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