Who am I?
Third Sunday of Lent. fr Gregory Murphy reflects on Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush.
Moses, an exile tending the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, priest of the Midianites, sees something strange: a bush blazing, but not consumed, and ambles across to inspect it further. There’s no sense in the opening lines of this episode of any particular urgency on Moses’ part, rather a welcome interruption of the tedium of herding. Moses is as yet cheerfully unaware that in approaching the mysterious fire he is about to encounter the far more awesome mystery of the God of his fathers, the living God of Israel.
Who was Moses? Born a male Hebrew at a time when his very existence was proscribed by law, drawn out of the Nile to become the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, his early religious experience was doubtless shaped and moulded by the complex theologies of Egypt’s many deities. And yet if as a young man he had become so involved with the Hebrews as to kill in their defence it is probable that he had learned something of their religious traditions. Now, threatened with betrayal by those he had defended he was an exile, married to a priest’s daughter and presumably adopting their customs as they had adopted him. Moses then is precisely not an exotically or impossibly remote figure but in his life’s story prefigures the experiences of many people today. Where does he belong, where can he make his home?
In the course of this encounter Moses’ life takes on a purpose and direction that will endure to the end. ‘Moses, Moses’ comes the compelling, repeated call from the blazing bush. The voice from the fire proclaims its identity: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’; declares a deep and compassionate involvement with Israel ‘I have seen the affliction of my people’ and announces their deliverance. So far so good. But then Moses learns of his own role in this ‘Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people …’. Moses immediately protests ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ To Pharaoh Moses is a renegade and possible murderer, to the Hebrews a suspect upstart they have already rejected. To these not unreasonable objections God simply replies ‘But I will be with you’. Moses counters, ‘If they (the Hebrews) ask me, what is his name, what shall I say?’ Then God answers in threefold repetition: ‘I am who I am … say … I am has sent me to you … say YHWH, the God of your fathers, has sent me to you.’
‘I am who I am’. Much ink and effort has been (and doubtless will still be) spent by exegetes and theologians trying to elucidate this statement. One of the more persistent misreadings goes back as far as the Greek translation of the Old Testament which introduced a shift from the first to third person ‘I am who is’, which, while creative in its way somewhat misses the point. It might be a more faithful reading to see that the triple answer insists on the profound actuality of God (I am really there) and associates that reality with Moses’ mission in the context of God’s relationship with his people. Another suggested reading is that the verb here means not so much ‘to be’ as ‘to effect’ or ‘to be effective’; that is, the name is a promise that God will be with Israel in an effective way. Moses is to know that what he meets is the God of Israel’s past (of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), of its present (who sees its suffering) and of its future (the God who will lead them from slavery to freedom). It is a God of presence and action who addresses Moses – not remote, uninvolved, but a God who has acted, acts and will act.
The initiative is God’s. God calls us, as he calls Moses, to let go of our idols and false securities and risk the adventure of loving, of living lives of mercy and compassion because ‘I am’ will be with us. That is perhaps the point of the challenging parable in today’s Gospel. The tree must bear fruit, or perish. We must learn to keep company with the living, loving God, walk in his ways, or bring ourselves to destruction. Yet we are not on our own in this – there is the half-recognised figure of the gardener, who works with us to bring us to the new life of Easter.
Readings: Exodus 3:1-8,13-15|1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12|Luke 13:1-9
The image above is the detail of a sixth century mosaic from San Vitale.