Rev. Teri Peterson
Marchmont St. Giles
Exodus 18.1, 5-27
30 July 2017
Jethro, Midian’s priest and Moses’ father-in-law, heard about everything that God had done for Moses and for God’s people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife back to him in the desert where he had set up camp at God’s mountain. He sent word to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you along with your wife and her two sons.” Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him. They asked each other how they were doing, and then they went into the tent. Moses then told his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on Israel’s behalf, all the difficulty they had on their journey, and how the Lord had rescued them. Jethro was glad about all the good things that the Lord had done for Israel in saving them from the Egyptians’ power.
Jethro said, “Bless the Lord who rescued you from the Egyptians’ power and from Pharaoh’s power, who rescued the people from Egypt’s oppressive power. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, because of what happened when the Egyptians plotted against them.” Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought an entirely burned offering and sacrifices to God. Aaron came with all of Israel’s elders to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in God’s presence.
The next day Moses sat as a judge for the people, while the people stood around Moses from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?”
Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them. I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions.”
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing isn’t good. You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone. Now listen to me and let me give you some advice. And may God be with you! Your role should be to represent the people before God. You should bring their disputes before God yourself. Explain the regulations and instructions to them. Let them know the way they are supposed to go and the things they are supposed to do. But you should also look among all the people for capable persons who respect God. They should be trustworthy and not corrupt. Set these persons over the people as officers of groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times. They should bring every major dispute to you, but they should decide all of the minor cases themselves. This will be much easier for you, and they will share your load. If you do this and God directs you, then you will be able to endure. And all these people will be able to go back to their homes much happier.”
Moses listened to his father-in-law’s suggestions and did everything that he had said. Moses chose capable persons from all Israel and set them as leaders over the people, as officers over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They acted as judges for the people at all times. They would refer the hard cases to Moses, but all of the minor cases they decided themselves. Then Moses said good-bye to his father-in-law, and Jethro went back to his own country.
I have never experienced this myself, but I have a number of friends and family members whose voices are filled with dread when they utter the words “my in-laws are coming to visit.” For many people it seems that particular family relationship is one of the trickiest there is. Of course some people manage it beautifully, and then they talk about winning the in-law lottery, as if it’s a rare and beautiful thing to get along with the parents of one’s spouse.
When Moses received the letter saying his father-in-law was coming for a visit, we don’t know if he sighed and looked around at how much the tent needed tidying up, or wondered how quickly he could get rid of him, or if he smiled in anticipation and waited eagerly for his arrival. We know from their first encounter, several chapters ago, that Jethro was good at hospitality, that he was a successful farmer, that he loved his seven daughters, and that he was a priest of a people who shared a long-ago common ancestor and possibly a common god with the Israelites. But did Moses dread the arrival of the older man? Or look forward to it? Or just put it out of his mind because there was too much work to do?
When the two were finally together again, out there in the Sinai desert, surrounded by thousands of tents of people who were so newly free, they talked well into the night, marvelling at all the things God had done since they'd last seen each other. They worshipped together, and shared a meal with the elders in the makeshift traveling temple. And then the next day, Jethro stood off to the side and watched his son-in-law at work.
He observed carefully for the whole day, seeing how many people came seeking justice and instruction. He saw how they stood waiting, and how hard Moses was working to do the right thing for every person who sought him out. And at the end of the day, in private, he asked Moses to tell him about his work.
Only then, after watching the whole process and asking Moses directly about his job, did he utter the only words that may strike more fear than “in-laws coming to visit”—he said, “let me give you some advice.” And the combination of these two things—unsolicited advice from one’s in-laws—it’s a miracle families survive.
Yet Moses was able to receive this advice as the grace that it is. He knew that Jethro had been watching how things were going, and he’d had the chance to tell his father-in-law himself about the work he was doing… and also they were alone, not standing in front of the council or in the crowd of people clamouring for Moses’ attention. He didn’t get defensive, assuming that his father-in-law thought he was doing a bad job or believing he had to prove himself right. He didn’t accuse Jethro of meddling, nor turn to Zipporah and ask her to deal with her dad. He listened, and took the advice to heart.
For his part, Jethro gave his advice following the same spirit with which Paul would later instruct the church: “speak the truth in love.” He worried about Moses getting burned out, and about the inefficient system that was sure to result in people being unhappy or maybe even unruly. He reminded Moses that no one person can fulfil God’s kingdom vision alone. It is too big a job, and requires many people working together.
All the while, Jethro kept the conversation centred where it belonged: on God. This wasn’t about whether Moses was good or bad, or about what Jethro wanted or thought was best. It was about teaching people God’s ways, and communicating between God and the people, and leading the whole community in becoming the people God made them to be. If Moses was able to focus on teaching and big picture issues, then the people would be able to be faithful without having to always come to him with every question. He could, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, “equip the saints for ministry.”
By centering his advice on God, rather than on himself, Jethro acted like a good spiritual director, a mentor who helped Moses see God’s way more clearly. He became a vehicle for grace, not just another unsolicited advice-giver. And Moses was able to hear his advice in the spirit in which it was given—literally, by the Spirit of God whose desire is not for one person to do all the work, seeking glory or power, but for the whole Body to function together in harmony so that all might have abundant life.
In this exchange, we can find the roots of the way we still organise the church today. Some are called to lead and equip the saints for ministry, and some are called from among the congregation for all the day to day tasks that make up the church: teaching and caring and organising and reaching out and singing and praying and repairing and planning and serving.
All of that from one ancient visit from the in-laws.
There’s one last thing about Jethro’s advice to his son-in-law that I think is so interesting. In addition to his gift of observation, listening, discernment, and direction, he also stayed for just long enough. He didn’t give his advice and then get up from the table and say “well, good luck with that, I’ll be going now.” Nor did he move in permanently and micromanage Moses’ life and work. It appears that he stayed as a support through the tricky time of transition, as Moses sought the right people and equipped them, and as he taught the congregation this new way of living together. I imagine he was there at the end of the day when Moses wanted to talk, and he probably helped keep both Moses and the people focused on what God was doing rather than on their own desires for honour or accolades.
And then, when the system was up and running, he went home. He trusted that God was leading this people, and that Moses was perfectly capable of equipping the saints, and so he went on his way, back to his flocks and his people.
I think all of us need a Jethro—someone who can help us see how we might better live out our calling. And all of us need to be a Jethro, too—to guide and teach, in a spirit of love and compassion, without attaching ourselves too closely to the outcomes. That’s part of what it means to be the family of God: we are all always both learning and teaching, as we seek to be faithful together, generation to generation.
May it be so. Amen.