I Have Seen the Promised Land: A Reflection on Deuteronomy 34.1-12

On an early April evening in 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in support of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It had been a long and difficult stretch for him and for his fellow workers in the Civil Rights Movement. That evening, in the face of increasingly hostile opposition — his flight to Memphis had been delayed due to a bomb threat — he said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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. (“I See the Promised Land,” April 3, 1968)

The very next day, his presentiment came true, and he was killed by an assassin’s bullets.

It was fitting — one might even say prophetic — that Dr. King, that tireless worker for the cause of God’s justice, had, just the night before his death, taken up the example of Moses. Our first reading today recounts the scene Dr. King referenced in that final speech: God takes Moses up the mountain just before his death, to a place where he can see the Land of Promise laid out before him it all its beauty and potential. It was not for Moses to enter the Land, but God granted him the grace to see it, a glimpse of what his life’s work was to accomplish.

There are few characters of history or legend that capture the imagination like Moses. For millennia now, Jews and Christians alike have taken Moses as a paradigm of a faithful life. And yet, Moses’ life was not marked by victory and success. His early days were marked by questions of identity and belonging, an internal conflict which ended with him exiled in a strange land. He was deeply self-conscious about the way he spoke and begged God to give the job of freeing the Hebrew slaves to someone else. His leadership was tested time and time again, marked by grumbling, aimless wandering, political wrangling, and periodic apostasy. And, after all of that, he was not even permitted to enter the Land of Promise.

And so this great hero of our faith, the paradigm of the faithful and spiritual life, lived with constant setbacks and frustrations and died with his life’s work incomplete.

It’s a sad and poignant ending to a great life. It’s also fitting, because it is so very human.

Our culture these days sells spirituality as being about overcoming all barriers and manifesting our dreams in the world. And this may be a needed corrective for people used to religion that was often more about our past mistakes than our future potential. But this framing of spirituality is also a lie. The life — and death — of Moses reminds us that spirituality is not about ‘victory’ or ‘manifestation’, but about faithfulness, about showing up day after day after long, disappointing day. It is about the hard, grumbling, hungry, wandering days in the desert just as much as it is about the glorious days spent on the mountaintop.

It’s a hard but important lesson for us. We get so caught up in outcomes and our preconceived notions of what success looks like, but — as 2020 has been a great reminder — so little of what we achieve is in our control. We can’t control outcomes. We can’t control the weather, how people will react to us and our work, or when a global pandemic will set fire to our business plans, career trajectories, and communities. We never know if we’ll reach the promised land. But, as disappointing as that is, it is a reality that we all must face. And, as counter-cultural as it may be, outcomes are not what counts in the life of faith. All that matters is that we set our eyes on something beautiful and show up faithfully for it every day.

In my Bible, Moses’ death is related in a rather perfunctory manner: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab” (Deut. 34.5f). But, the Midrash — authoritative ancient Jewish Torah commentary — presents a rather different scene from the same Hebrew words: “Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died … with the LORD’s kiss. He [God] buried him in a valley…” Read in this way, it’s a beautiful and touching end to Moses’ earthly life. The Bible describes God in may ways, but “gentle” and “sentimental” are rarely among them. Yet here we have an image of God taking Moses up onto the mountain to catch a glimpse of what he had been working towards for so long, then bending down to end his servant’s earthly life with a gentle kiss, and then personally burying him away from the public spotlight that Moses found so uncomfortable.

This is an earthy, tangible expression of the same sentiment Jesus expresses in his Parable of the Talents. There, he likens the Kingdom of God to a noble lord who welcomes those who — like Moses and like Dr. King — took what was given to them and worked with it, invested it, and bore fruit with it, with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Mt 25.23).

“Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Moses wasn’t an example because he succeeded and overcame all odds. He was an example for us because he showed up every day, trying to do the next right thing for God and for the people he was called to lead.

Dr. King wasn’t an example because he succeeded in manifesting his Dream of a country where race would no longer determine someone’s worth, and of a world wherein the Jericho Road itself was torn up. He was an example for us because he too showed up every day, trying to do the next right thing for God and for his people.

They were examples for us because they saw just how long the road was going to be and chose to walk it anyway, because it was the right road.

They were examples for us because they took what they had and worked with it to create something beautiful for God.

This is what faith is.

And so, let us follow their example, taking that next step down the long road, doing the next right thing, investing in what we’ve been given for the sake of something beautiful, confident that we too will be welcomed with those beautiful words: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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