Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Exodus 18:13-27

     13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

     15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.”

     17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

     24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.

     27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.

Those who regularly participate in these Reflections might find this one a little odd. Just a few days ago, we said that Presbyterians and other followers of Jesus in the Reformed tradition are very uneasy with the idea of a religious hierarchy. We said that we reject the idea of individuals having religious authority, which is why we have no bishops and archbishops like other parts of the church. Our fear is that people with that kind of religious authority can misuse it, and start exercising it in service of their own agendas.

But now we come to a passage from Exodus that’s specifically about some people being given authority, seemingly with God’s blessing. It’s a passage that raises a couple of issues that are certainly worth thinking about, even for those of us who believe religious authority should always be collective – exercised by groups of people acting together – instead of individual. Actually, it raises a couple of realities about life in a community that can’t be ignored. And those realities probably call for some theological reflection.

If you remember the story of his life, Moses had been raised as an adopted member of the royal family of Egypt. But as an adult, he had to flee the country after murdering an Egyptian overseer who had been beating one of his fellow Hebrews. Moses had fled into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. He had been taken in by the family of a man named Jethro, and eventually had married one of Jethro’s daughters, Zipporah.

Years later, after encountering God in a burning bush, Moses had been sent back to Egypt to take part in God’s mission of liberating the Hebrews. Moses sent Zipporah and their children back to her father, maybe to keep them out of harm’s way during the struggle for liberation. But then after the people had left Egypt and embarked on the Exodus, Jethro brings Moses’ family back to him.

Our passage says that Jethro is “delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel.” But one thing bothers him: Moses is the only judge for the people as they wander in the wilderness. Whenever disputes arise, Moses hears each case personally.

Jethro says that personally judging each case personally will wear Moses out, and also that it will wear out the people. That’s a detail that lots of readers miss in this story. Moses was carrying a heavy workload, but doing it all himself was placing a burden on the people as well. The text tells us there were hundreds of thousands of people. And they were on the march a lot of the time. So depending on a single judge was just impractical.

So in the story, at Jethro’s urging, Moses appoints others to handle the simple cases, and he reserves his time and attention for the harder ones.

On one hand, you can look at this story as the beginning of the religious hierarchy we Presbyterians are so suspicious of.

But it seems to me that we’re meant to see the wisdom of Jethro’s advice. It’s certainly more practical and more efficient for Moses to delegate some of the cases that needed to be judged. But I think there might be more than just a question of practicality and efficiency here – I think there’s a theological issue to be considered.

Moses is being urged to give up his complete control over the process of justice among the Hebrew people. By choosing others to help in judging, Moses is expressing trust that God can and will exercise leadership through others. Moses is showing that he realizes that the Hebrews are God’s people, not his people.

That’s still an issue for the church in our time. We have such a commitment to doing things “decently and in order” that the church has often wanted to strictly control what people do and say, what kind of ministries and missions the people engage in, and so on. At one time, our denomination’s Book of Order had so many rules and regulations it dictated – in detail – nearly everything churches did.

But that’s a problem. God is still capable of accomplishing his purposes through people of integrity, so this story calls on the church and its leaders – from pastors to session members to denominational officers – to give believers some room to live out the callings they hear from God.

It can be scary to give up control – to let people serve God as they feel called. And yes, things will sometimes get messy. But the work of the Spirit has always been messy, and when “the difficult cases” arise, those in leadership should be able to have the sensitivity and discernment to work them out prayerfully. At the same time, believers who are given permission to go and serve as they feel called should always be willing to subject themselves and their ministries to the help and guidance of the greater community of faith. That’s why totally independent churches led by one powerful pastor often get into trouble – some form of accountability to the greater church is a necessary part of faithful service to God.

These are things everybody active in church life needs to keep in mind as we live and serve together. And this story invites us to stop and think about them today.

Let’s pray. Lord, let your Holy Spirit be at work among all of us who try to serve you faithfully in the church. Let it move those in positions of leadership to relax their instincts to control and give permission to others to serve you as they feel called, and let that Spirit move the rest of us to accept the guidance and accountability that comes from being part of the greater church. Amen.

Grace and Peace,