Ordinary Heroes: Jethro

September 25, 2016
by Rev. Melanie Homan

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(Series: Ordinary Heroes)

“Ordinary Heroes: Jethro”

September 25, 2016

Rev. Melanie Homan

Exodus 18:13-27

13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” 15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20 teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

Say the name “Jethro” and who’s the first person that comes to mind? For those of us of certain generations, it’s the young man in Beverly Hillbillies, who has little in the way of smarts and is forever trying to figure out what he’s going to do with his life.

That is not the Jethro we are taking a closer look at today!  Today, we’re looking at Jethro – father-in-law of Moses.  I’m sort of surprised that, with all of the Biblical names that are given to infants when they are born, that Jethro isn’t more common.

Jethro – father-in-law of Moses, was a pretty smart guy. You could even say, “wise”.

I suspect there was some intentional irony in naming the clueless young man in Beverly Hillbillies “Jethro” because his character is the opposite of the Biblical Jethro.

On the other hand, I don’t know a single person named Jethro. But I do know a handful of people who have played the same role in my life, as Jethro played in Moses’ life.  We all need a Jethro in our lives.

So who was this guy? And what did he do that was so important?  We heard part of his story in our scripture reading this morning, but I’m going to give you a bit more background on the guy.

Here’s the backdrop. We have Moses.  A Hebrew.  Whose people are slaves in Egypt.  The Pharoah is worried that the Hebrews are growing in number and are going to rebel.  So he orders newborns be killed.  Moses’ mother saves him by putting him in a basket in the Nile river, where the Pharoah’s daughter finds him and saves him.  Moses is then raised in Pharoah’s home, in the ways of the Egyptians, but he can’t shake his allegiance to the Hebrew slaves – his people.  And being pulled between these two cultures and two peoples, he kills an Egyptian who is hurting a Hebrew man.  And he realizes that in his attempt to live in both of these traditions, that instead of being embraced by both, both turn their back on him.  So he flees.  He leaves Egypt.

He runs away until he finds himself in the land of Midian. While there, he comes to the aid of some young women.  They were trying to gather water for their father’s sheep.  Water is a commodity, it’s hard to get.  And they are chased off from the water by other shepherds.  Until Moses steps in, and helps them get the water for their sheep.

The young women – their father is Jethro. Jethro welcomes Moses into his home.  Offers him food, shelter, and hospitality.  Eventually Moses marries one of Jethro’s daughters and they have children.  Jethro owns sheep, but he is also a Midianite Priest.  So this Israelite who was raised by Egyptians, settles down in a foreign land and marries a Midianite.

That right there would be enough adventure for any one life, but it doesn’t end there. The story goes that the groans of the Hebrews are heard by God, and God decides that Moses is going to be the one to free God’s people.  So Moses returns to Egypt.  Some scripture says that his wife and kids go with him, others say they stayed back with Jethro.

Thus begins one of the most important stories in Hebrew Scripture – Moses leading the people out of slavery, out of Egypt, into the wilderness for 40 years, where he dies in old age at the doorstep of the promised land. After Moses has led the people out of Egypt but before their time in the wilderness, a couple of important things happen.  And one of those things is this interaction with Jethro, his father-in-law.

Jethro meets up with Moses and the Israelites, and brings with him Moses’ wife and kids. Moses tells him all of what happened in Egypt.  They’ve just made it out alive, and yet there is so much still to do.  They have thrown off the oppression and way of life they’ve always known, but to replace it with what?  They haven’t figured that out yet.  They haven’t figured out how they are going to organize themselves.

Jethro is not an Israelite. He is a Midianite Priest.  And yet he praises the work of God on behalf of the Israelites.  They have their happy family reunion.  And then the next day comes.  And Jethro wakes and finds this long line of people, all waiting to have a word with Moses, all waiting for Moses to sort out their differences, resolve their conflicts, to administer justice.  They’re tired and cranky from waiting all day to see him, and Moses is tired from the unending line of people who need him.

Jethro observes all of this. He takes it all in, and he asks Moses some questions and then offers him some advice.  Except it isn’t advice so much as a command.  A command coming from a Midianite priest to the leader of the Israelite people.   A command coming from a father-in-law to a son.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. “What’s going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself, letting everybody line up before you from morning to night?”

Moses said to Jethro, “Because the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up, they come to me. What am I supposed to do? I judge between people and their neighbors and teach them God’s laws and instructions.”

And then Jethro said, “This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you—you can’t do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you. Be there for the people before God, but let the matters of concern be presented to God. Your job is to teach them the rules and instructions, to show them how to live, what to do. And then you need to keep a sharp eye out for competent people—people who fear God, people of integrity, people who are incorruptible—and appoint them as leaders over groups organized by the thousand, by the hundred, by fifty, and by ten. They’ll be responsible for the everyday work of judging among the people. They’ll bring the hard cases to you, but in the routine cases they’ll be the judges. They will share your load and that will make it easier for you. If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”

Moses has a problem. He’s trying to be everything to everybody and there is no way he can do it.  Administration is not his gift.  The only way he can envision leading the people is to take care of everything himself.  And there is no humanly possible way to do it.

If Jethro hadn’t had this conversation with Moses, and Moses kept on with trying to do it all, he and the people would never have made it. They would have fallen apart before they ever had a chance to survive and thrive as a people.  But they didn’t fall apart, because Moses listened to Jethro.  He listened to his father-in-law.  I suspect Jethro was not only smart, but also had a way of wooing people, because I can honestly say, that embracing the counsel of my in-laws sounds impossible.

Moses has a problem. The people have a problem.  They haven’t figured out how to be a community that governs themselves instead of being ordered around by Pharoah or Moses.  But Jethro spoke up.  He called it like he saw it, and Moses listened.  And then he implemented Jethro’s advice.

Moses picked competent people and they took over the everyday work of judging among the people. They brought the hard cases to Moses, but in the routine cases they were the judges.

Jethro’s work was done. So he packed up his belongings, said goodbye, and made his way back to Midian, to his own country.

We all need a Jethro. Sometimes a Jethro comes in the form of an in-law.  I don’t think that’s typical.  But we all need someone we can trust, who can tell us what they see happening to us, and from their perspective, what needs to be addressed.  We don’t listen to the advice of everyone who shares their two cents worth about how we are living our lives, but sometimes we need that feedback from someone we really trust, admire, and respect.

Maybe your Jethro is telling you the same thing Moses heard. “Don’t try to do it all.  Delegate out.  Let others you trust help out.  If you don’t, you’re going to burn out and you’re going to hurt the people around you in the process.”

Or maybe your Jethro is telling you something else that you need to hear. Listen to them.  And then act.

One of the things about Jethro that I find interesting is how little attention or credit we give him. The credit, the glory – it all goes to Moses.  And yet, if Moses hadn’t listened to this crucial advice, the people wouldn’t have, as Jethro said, been able to live in peace.  Jethro enters the story, says something really important, and then leaves, knowing that his advice will help the people live in peace.  No glory.  Just results.

Just as we individually need Jethro’s – people we trust who can tell us what we need to hear – communally, we need them, too. We need them as a church, we need them as a city, and as a country.  And what I find so striking in this story, is that the person who gave the Israelites the advice, the command from God that they needed – came from a different religious tradition.  Jethro was a Midianite Priest.  What if, the person or people we need to listen to now, are from a tradition other than our own.  What if, in order to live in peace as a community, the advice, the wisdom, the words to act on, come from outside our tradition?  At a time when it is so easy to fall into “us versus them” language and thinking, we run the risk of not listening to the word from God that might come to us from someone, some people, that we least expect.  We can’t limit God.  Jethro reminds us that God works through people across generations, across cultures, and across religious traditions, with the goal of helping the people live in peace.

This doesn’t just happen in Hebrew Scripture. It happens in the New Testament, too.  In Jesus’ parables, it is often the outsider, or a person from a different religious tradition – like the Samaritan – who teaches us how to live out our Christian faith more fully.

May we be blessed to recognize the people in our lives who are our Jethro’s. May we listen to them.  May we be blessed as a community to do the same, so that we might live in peace together.