Thursday, March 18, 2010

Remember Us, O Lord, As You Favor Your People

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Reading I
Exodus 32:7-14
The LORD said to Moses,
“Go down at once to your people
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out,
‘This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’
The LORD said to Moses,
“I see how stiff-necked this people is.
Let me alone, then,
that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.
Then I will make of you a great nation.”

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,
“Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up
against your own people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt
with such great power and with so strong a hand?
Why should the Egyptians say,
‘With evil intent he brought them out,
that he might kill them in the mountains
and exterminate them from the face of the earth’?
Let your blazing wrath die down;
relent in punishing your people.
Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel,
and how you swore to them by your own self,
saying,‘I will make your descendants
as numerous as the stars in the sky;
and all this land that I promised,
I will give your descendants
as their perpetual heritage.’
“So the LORD relented in the punishmen
he had threatened to inflict on his people.
While Moses was up on the mountain conversing with God and receiving the law from him, the people below became impatient. “That Moses, the man who brought us here from Egypt - we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron, the brother of Moses, then collected all the gold that the women and children wore and melted it down to make a golden ‘calf’.

The word ‘calf’ is somewhat derisive because it was in fact the statue of a young bull, a symbol of divinity in the ancient East. It seems that a group in competition with Moses’ group, or a dissident faction in Moses’ group, wished to have the figure of a bull to symbolise the presence of God, instead of the Ark of the Covenant. However, the God being worshipped was still the Yahweh who had brought them out of Egypt. The bull was itself an image of Yahweh but regarded as the footstool of the unseen deity (as indeed was the Ark which the bull was intended to replace).

In paying worship to the bull they saw the saviour who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. They were worshipping a god of their own making - something people in all ages, including our own, tend to do.

God is portrayed as reacting very angrily to this and asks Moses, who is still in his presence, not to stand in his way. “Leave me, now, my wrath shall blaze out against them and devour them.” But Moses, while not denying their sin, pleads on behalf of his people. Later, he will plead on behalf of his sister, Miriam, and frequently on behalf of the people all during their journey through the desert. His intercession foreshadows that of Christ, who won forgiveness for our sin on the Cross.

Moses’ argument is that, if God destroys his people, he will become a laughing stock among the pagans for rescuing his people and then destroying them in the wilderness. In addition, Moses reminds God of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of the great and unending future of their descendants. So, God seen here in very human terms, relents and withdraws his promise of vengeance.
Of course, this is not at all the kind of God the New Testament asks us to believe in. We should be careful about speaking of our God in such anthropomorphic terms. God does not get angry, he does not take revenge… Our sinfulness brings its own punishment because every sin is a denial of what we are meant to be and become.

As with most passages of Scripture, what we need to look at here is not what is being said and done but at the underlying meaning of the passage. The emphasis here is on the thanklessness of God’s people and on God’s readiness to forgive and give them another chance.

We are constantly in the same situation. Let us be aware at this time of the countless gifts God has given us and continues to shower on us. At the same time, we know that, when we fail, his mercy and compassion are there for us always. But let that compassion draw us closer to him and to Jesus and help us to leave behind every lack of love in our lives.
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 106
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
Our fathers made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
Withstood him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath.
Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.
+++ +++ +++ +++
John 5:31-47
Jesus said to the Jews:
“If I testify on my own behalf,
my testimony is not true.
But there is another who testifies on my behalf,
and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true.
You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth.
I do not accept human testimony,
but I say this so that you may be saved.
He was a burning and shining lamp,
and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light.
But I have testimony greater than John’s.
The works that the Father gave me to accomplish,
these works that I perform testify on my behalf
that the Father has sent me.
Moreover, the Father who sent me
has testified on my behalf.
But you have never heard his voice
nor seen his form,
and you do not have his word remaining in you,
because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.
You search the Scriptures,
because you think you have eternal life through them;
even they testify on my behalf.
But you do not want to come to me to have life.

“I do not accept human praise;
moreover, I know that you do not have the love of God in you.
I came in the name of my Father,
but you do not accept me;
yet if another comes in his own name,
you will accept him.
How can you believe,
when you accept praise from one another
and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?
Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father:
the one who will accuse you is Moses
,in whom you have placed your hope.
For if you had believed Moses,
you would have believed me,
because he wrote about me.
But if you do not believe his writings,
how will you believe my words?”
Today we continue with yesterday’s words of Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus re-affirms that God himself is the witness - in four ways - to the truth of all that Jesus says:

1. The testimony of John the Baptist, although that was only human testimony (vv.33-34)

2. The works of Jesus give clear testimony of the divine origin of all that Jesus does:
"The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” The leaders could not see this but the crowds often testified to it with enthusiasm. (v.36)

3. The Father himself has given testimony, although that has not been seen directly by some of the Jews. “The Father who sent me has testified on my behalf but you have never heard his voice nor seen his form.” (vv.37-38)

4. A careful reading of the scriptures will show they give testimony to Jesus. “You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.” This is clearly shown later on by Jesus when explaining the scriptures to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. (vv.39-40).

Although Jesus clearly comes in the name of his Father, he is not accepted or believed in.
Yet some individual will come in his own name and they will accept him. Further they keep looking into their own traditions rather than looking further to someone who clearly comes from God.

Jesus will not accuse them before his Father. Moses, in whom they claim to believe, will be their accuser. “If you have believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me. But if you refuse to believe what he wrote, how can you believe what I say?” By “Moses” is meant the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch and whose authorship is attributed to Moses, although we know now by the dating of the various parts that this could not be possible. It was common in ancient times to attribute the authorship of a work to a well-known personality.

How much of all this applies to us? Where do we ultimately put our faith? In the Christ of the New Testament or in a Jesus we have tailored to our own wants? How familiar are we with the Word of God in the New (and Old) Testament? Where do we clearly see the Risen Jesus bringing God into our lives every single day?


Sarah in the tent said...

In the first reading there seems to be a disagreement between Moses and God over who the people belong to. God says they are Moses' people and Moses brought them out of Egypt; while Moses says they are God's people and God brought them out of Egypt. (In the preceding discussion between Aaron and the people, the people say Moses brought them out of Egypt, whereas Aaron says God brought them out of Egypt).

I think there is a hint of this divergence in the reading from St John, too. If the Jews see themselves as Moses' people, they will be judged by Moses. Moses is a powerful and selfless intercessor on behalf of his people, but he does not have the authority to be merciful and on occasion fails to live up to his promises. God, on the other hand, is uniquely merciful and always keeps his promises. But people are generally more ready to be led by a man than by God.

The Gospel passage continues Jesus’ defence against the accusation that he had broken the Sabbath. The Exodus reading follows on from commandments regarding the Sabbath. It seems almost as though, even while God is defining the Sabbath as a sign of the special bond between Himself and the Israelites, the Israelites are showing how little it means to them. Over 40 days (a kind of Lent – or rather anti-Lent!), a weak priesthood found itself led by the people, rather than leading them, with disastrous consequences. If it was possible for Aaron to make stupid decisions about the right way to worship, how much more possible is it for Jesus’ accusers to make stupid decisions about the right way to observe the Sabbath.

Does this passage from Exodus reveal Jesus? Our Lord says ‘it is these scriptures that testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me to receive life.’ Moses pleads for life with a very ‘human’ God, who has humbled himself to be accessible, who even gets angry, and who allows himself to be defeated by Moses in an argument for mercy. It’s as though Jesus is telling them that, rather than Him pleading for His life from them, they should be pleading for life from Him, as Moses did!

The testimony of John is for their benefit, because it should lead them to plead for life from Jesus. Jesus does not need it to prove he was sent by the father, because he has testimony from a higher authority than John, the source from which John’s own authority derives, the one for whom he prepares the way.

The two most powerful testimonies that Jesus was sent by the father are the testimony of Jesus himself and the testimony of his works. These are both available to us in the four testimonies of the Gospels.

For those who accept the two testimonies of Jesus and His works (believing in Him and wishing to come to Him to receive life) two additional, divine testimonies are available: the testimony of the Father (for those who have His word in them) and the testimony of scripture read in the light of belief. I suppose that, for us, the testimony of the Father comes through prayer and the sacraments and blends with the testimony of scripture.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Moses considers the Israelites to be God’s people; God reminds Moses that He has appointed Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. The people say that Moses brought them out of Egypt; Aaron says that it was God who led them to the Promised Land. Truth told, the difference is one of perspective. It is the LORD who appointed Moses to lead His people to freedom in a new land. It is the LORD who provided the pillar of smoke by day, and the pillar of fire by night to guide them on their way. As long as Moses kept to the paths the LORD set before him, the caravan proceeded forward toward the goal. But there were times when he did not pay attention to the LORD’s direction, and the people wandered forty years on a journey that a caravan could complete in about a week. Further, Aaron had problems of his own in taking heed of the LORD’s direction: while Moses was at the summit of Mount Sinai receiving the tablets engraved with God’s law in His own hand, Aaron was leading the people in the worship of a golden calf.

The conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus about the Sabbath rules reflects a similar difference of perspective about the Law of God (aka the Law of Moses). The Pharisees’ teaching is that the law is meant to be observed to the letter (but they make exceptions for themselves). Jesus says “The Law is made for man, not man for the Law”. Many years ago, when I was first ordained, I heard the confession of a youngster in the fourth grade who said, “Father, I accuse myself of having missed Mass last Sunday.” “Why didn’t you go to Mass?” “Because I was sick, Father. I spent all day Friday and all day Saturday running between my bed and the bathroom. I was going at both ends!” (Only a fourth grader would be that forthright!) I told the young fellow, “I’m going to give you absolution for all the sins you have admitted. But missing Mass is not one of them. Better you stay home from school and from church and not run the risk of spreading that flu bug to other people.” That is the principle Jesus teaches: “The Sabbath is made for God’s people, not God’s people for the Sabbath.”