One of the most interesting and colorful figures in the Church’s history is the African monk and martyr St. Moses the Ethiopian, who was born around the year 330. He had a big, muscular physique, and an even bigger temper, along with a vicious personality. Moses was a servant for an important Egyptian official, but after he was dismissed for stealing his master’s property, he became leader of a fearsome gang of robbers who terrorized the countryside. At some point, however, the example of prayer, charity, and sacrifice shown by the monks of a local monastery led to his conversion; Moses became a monk himself, and undertook the difficult task of learning to control his temper. One night four robbers broke into the monastery and made the mistake of attacking Moses while he was praying in his cell, or room; the invaders didn’t stand a chance. Moses picked up two of them—one in each hand—and knocked them together, rendering them unconscious, and after he did the same thing with the other pair, he slung all four of them over his shoulders and dumped them in front of the priests of a nearby church, asking what should be done with them. Legend says the four unsuccessful robbers repented and became monks themselves. St. Moses eventually died as a martyr, for when the monastery was attacked by other invaders many years later, he refused to defend himself, having learned to take very seriously Our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek.
On one occasion one of the other monks committed a serious sin, and the abbot, or head of the monastery, called a meeting to decide how he should be punished. Moses made a point of not attending, so the abbot sent for him. He came, but only after filling a broken jug with water. The others noticed the jug leaking water, and asked about it. Moses responded, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them—and yet I am supposed to come and judge the sins of another?” These simple but profound words caused the other monks to rethink what they were about to do—and as a result, they forgave their brother, rather than condemning him (Brian Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds, p. 13). A once-fierce and unforgiving man, big enough to intimidate and dominate everyone, had become a gentle, humble servant of God unwilling to pass judgment on a fellow sinner. God’s grace can do the same thing for anyone, and it’s only through divine grace that we can follow the teachings of Jesus and become worthy of a place in His Kingdom.
Because of our human weakness and limitations, there are very few ways in which we can imitate God. We cannot create things out of nothing, we cannot work miracles, and we cannot know the future. However, Jesus lists for us those ways in which we can imitate our Creator: namely, we can choose to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who mistreat us, forgive those who harm us, and refuse to pass judgment on others, even when they sin against us. In this way, Our Lord says, we will reflect the love and mercy of our heavenly Father, thereby opening ourselves to the fullness of His blessings and peace. David was merciful in sparing the life of King Saul, despite his unjust persecution, and God rewarded David by later making him a great and successful ruler of Israel. However, being kind and merciful has even greater spiritual benefits. St. Paul speaks of Adam, the first man, as having earthly life; Jesus, the second Adam, is the source of heavenly life—and through God’s grace, we can share in His image and thereby achieve our destiny of heavenly glory.
These are all very noble and inspiring ideals—but they do us no good unless we find a way to put them into practice in our daily lives. In this regard, St. Moses the Ethiopian has some valuable advice. He tells us, “God will not hear our prayers unless we acknowledge ourselves to be sinners. We do this when we ponder our own sins alone, and not those of our neighbor.” Another way of saying this is by the common expression that “when we point our finger at the sins of others, we have three fingers pointing back at ourselves.” This is important to remember, because most of us have an easier time of recognizing the failings of other people than we do of our own—and we can make no real spiritual progress unless we sincerely try to change this fact.
When someone hurts or offends us, we should try to give him the benefit of the doubt, thinking, “Maybe he’s normally not like this at all, but is having a very bad day, or has just received some terrible news.” When someone acts in an annoying or obnoxious manner, we should try to think of excuses for her, saying to ourselves, “Perhaps she doesn’t know any better, and actually has many wonderful hidden qualities.” When another person deliberately tries to wrong or hurt us, we can remind ourselves, “Jesus died for sinners, including this one,” and then say a prayer for his or her conversion, while recalling that such a response on our part is very pleasing to God. When we’re tempted to judge another person, we can call to mind some of the foolish and shameful things we’ve done and would rather forget. When we encounter a person we simply don’t like, regardless of the reason, we can try to picture Jesus lovingly embracing him or her, and silently asking us to accept him or her in His Name. Above all, we can try to form the habit of always asking the Holy Spirit to guide us and give us the right words to say in any situation, so that our encounters with other people—especially the unpleasant ones—may become occasions of blessing and grace.
Is all this impossible or unrealistic? The world would say so—but then the world would never have expected a fierce and ancient terrorist like Moses the Ethiopian to become a gentle and loving apostle of peace. The more we live by worldly values, the harder it will be for us to enter Heaven; the more we try to imitate the love and mercy of God, the more we can look forward to our own experience of divine judgment not with fear, but with confidence. Jesus didn’t just pronounce beautiful teachings; He practiced what He preached—and He offers us the grace needed to follow His example. This is the invitation, and the challenge, He places before us today. Everything depends on our response.