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James T. KeaneJuly 19, 2023
Photo by Erik Mclean. Courtesy of Unsplash.

A Reflection for Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Find today’s readings here.

First Reading:

Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the LORD appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.” (Ex 3:1-3).


At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike. (Mt 11:25-27)

If you spend enough time around Jesuits or those affiliated with their ilk, you will inevitably hear a story about a statue of St. Ignatius Loyola in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. It is adorned at its base with the Latin phrase St. Ignatius purportedly said to St. Francis Xavier when sending him off on mission: “Ite Inflammate Omnia”—”Go forth, and set the world on fire.”

Carefully tucked behind the statue? A fire extinguisher.

We focus too much on the wise and the learned sometimes at our own peril, when the call of God is more obvious and direct.

It really is there—I looked. And whether the story is told to mock the Jesuits or praise them for being eminently practical, the joke is a reminder that we are conditioned to respond to something as startling as fire with a desire to return everything to normal. Imagine, then, Moses’ surprise on the flanks of Mount Horeb when he suddenly sees a bush on fire. And not just on fire—in flames that do not consume it.

In today’s first reading, Moses makes what might seem an unwise choice (he is, after all, supposed to be watching his father-in-law’s sheep; does Jethro know he’s out playing with fire instead?). Rather than steering clear, Moses says “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.” Moses is not afraid of the fire; nor does he seek to quench it. He is fascinated by it, drawn to the bush with a sense of childlike wonder. In fact, today’s readings emphasize Moses’ fearlessness by omitting an important phrase from verse 6: “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” It seems we are meant in this instance to see how Moses is drawn to the flame, not afraid of what it portends.

The Gospel verses with which this reading from Exodus is paired might give a hint why: God is speaking to Moses via a revelation rather different from what he or we might expect. God does not speak through “the wise and the learned,” though presumably the priests of Midian among whom Moses’ father-in-law was counted fulfilled that role for the Israelites. Nor does God’s word come through parables like those we hear Jesus using in the Sunday readings this time of year. The burning bush is a more direct and personal intervention into Moses’s life, and one that will change him and the Israelites forever. Moses’ open and curious response allows God’s divine plan to work through him in this different way.

Like many of us, my default is often to look for God’s message in “the wise and the learned,” I will admit. And I doubt my response would be edifying if I saw a bush on fire. But what does Jesus say in today’s Gospel? That the Lord has hidden much from the wise and the learned, and “revealed them to the childlike.” We focus too much on the wise and the learned sometimes at our own peril, when the call of God is more obvious and direct. This doesn’t mean we should cancel our subscriptions to America (in fact, God wants you to buy two) or throw away our Coplestons or Raymond Browns. But it might mean we should look up more often and see where God is around us.

And as for that Jesuit fire extinguisher, maybe the Torah made the same joke a couple of millennia ago: In Exodus 17, God instructs Moses to use his staff to strike a rock which will bring forth water for the parched Israelites. The location? Horeb, the mountain of God.

More: Scripture

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