God of the Second Chance

June 15, 2014
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061514.cfm

Sometimes we mess up. Hopefully, most of the time our errors are small, easily fixed, or even overlooked. But sometimes we mess up big, really big. The people of Israel found themselves in that kind of spot. They had seen God’s power deliver them Pharaoh and the Egyptians; they miraculously crossed the Red Sea; he appeared to them in thunder at Mt. Sinai, and yet they fail. They set up a false idol, the Golden Calf, and worship it at the base of the mountain while Moses is receiving the law from God. Oops.

Context

This Sunday’s Old Testament reading presents a scene right after God’s people have sinned against him by worshiping the Golden Calf. After that happens, Moses stalks down the mountain and smashes the two stone tablets of the law in anger. Then he intercedes before God on behalf of the people, and the Lord offers to renew the covenant and write on a new set of stone tablets. Here Moses brings two fresh tablets (clean slates!) before the Lord on Mt. Sinai and awaits a revelation.

The setting for the scene looks a lot like the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19—20, but here Moses encounters God alone. The people as a whole are not hearing his voice. Moses acts as covenant mediator. The Lord shows up in power, with the full force of his presence before Moses. The Lord repeatedly declares his holy name: YHWH.

The Holy Name

The name of the Lord, YHWH, was so holy to the ancient Hebrews that they left it unpronounced and written without vowels. To this day, when devout Jews read the words of Scripture aloud, they say Adonai (“my lord”) rather than the sacred name. In fact, just a few years ago the Vatican banned the use of the name in hymns sung during the liturgy. The name is often referred to as the “tetragrammaton” because of its four consonants. The exact meaning of the holy name of the Lord is matter for debate among scholars. It might originate from the verb “to be” in Hebrew (hayah) and mean something like “the one who is” or “the one who causes to be.” Whatever its etymology, YHWH becomes the personal name for the Lord in the Old Testament.

A God of Justice and Mercy

In the course of revealing his name to Moses once again, the Lord also reveals his character. He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6 RSV). The Lectionary leaves out the more difficult verse 7: “…keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Our God is not a hufflepuff God. He doesn’t pretend that everything is okay when sin stands between us. He is not the sort of person to pretend like nothing is the matter when a major issue separates us from him. Rather, he will confront us with our wrongdoing and seek to reestablish a relationship. If we persist in our sin, then we get to suffer the consequences. The suffering caused by sin is not individualistic, but has ramifications for our families too. In Exod 34:7, a personal sin is even said to harm one’s children and grandchildren.

However, the Lord is not only a God of justice, but a God of mercy. In fact, St. John Paul II called it “the most stupendous attribute of the Creator” (Dives in Misericordia, 13). Here in Exodus, the Lord emphasizes his mercy, his compassion. He announces his nature as slow to anger and rich in hesed (covenant love) and faithfulness. The point is that while we can trust in God’s justice, his power, his authority, his omniscience, we ought not be overwhelmed by those aspects. That is, his mercy is bigger than our faults. His forgiveness can conquer even our worst sins. His fidelity is stronger than our infidelity. He is the God who gives us a second chance (and more!)

Starting Over Again

Moses responds to his encounter with God with an attitude of humble worship and submission. He falls on his face before the Lord and worships. This is exactly the right response. He submits himself and the people to the Lord once more, asking for God’s favor and his presence. Moses again repents on behalf of the people with a confession that in fact, yes, we are “stiff-necked.” He pleads for God’s pardon and forgiveness, to be restored once more into a relationship of covenant love. I love this moment, because Moses is so brutally honest, so transparent, so humbly self-deprecating. He realizes his errors, his people’s sins, the lack of commitment that they’ve displayed. Yet he hungers for relationship with God. He wants the people to have the Lord in their midst, to live in a covenant relationship with Him.

The Lord doesn’t ignore Moses’ request, but responds in mercy, forgiveness and even covenant renewal. Immediately after this passage, the Lord reinitiates his relationship with the people of Israel and so powerfully blesses Moses that his face shines with the reflected glory of God. He answers Moses’ humble petition.

The power of this story lies in the second chance the Lord offers. When we mess up, it is easy to get discouraged, to lose hope, to fall into despair away from God. Yet he invites us back. He offers us a second chance. He is “slow to anger” and rich in mercy. He wants us more than we want him and he holds his hand out to us. Our job isn’t to wallow in our faults or to clean ourselves up before we seek Him, but to come to him in our brokenness, acknowledge our failings and ask for his help. Then perhaps he will consent to “go in the midst of us” after all.

Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.coms Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.

Dr. Mark Giszczak

By

Mark Giszczak (“geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver, CO. He recently received his Ph. D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He currently teaches courses in Scripture at the Augustine Institute, where he has been on faculty since 2010. Dr. Giszczak has participated in many evangelization projects and is the author of the CatholicBibleStudent.com blog. He has written introductions to every book of the Bible that are hosted at CatholicNewsAgency.com. Dr. Giszczak, his wife and their daughter, live in Colorado where they enjoy camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

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  • Emily

    The father of lies would like us to believe that some sins are unforgivable…..some mistakes too big for God’s mercy. You are right, if we return to HIM there is always a second chance. On the website http://www.conversationwithwomen.org/ several women tell stories of the mistakes they have made (abortion, contraception, pornography), the the forgiveness and mercy they have found in God…healing that has given them peace and allowed them to go on living their life for Christ.

  • noelfitz

    Emily,

    Thanks for your post.

    In the NRSV Mt 12:32 is ‘Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.’

    This, and other passages, seem to imply some sins are unforgivable.

    How is this so? A priest in our parish says in the NT Jesus sometimes uses ‘Hebraisms’, where he exaggerates to make a point. Would this rationalize the above verse?

  • patty

    Theologians & apologists define :The Sin Against The Holy Spirit” as believing that your sin is too terrible to forgive.

  • noelfitz

    Patty & Chaco,
    I am very grateful to both of you for your contributions.

  • Emily

    Thanks Patty and Chaco! I was offline yesterday. What you have both explained is my understanding as well.

  • BillinJax

    I would agree that the most grievous of all sins could be the outright denial of the Divine Mercy of our God. Since divine mercy would necessarily include divine justice in its concluding judgment of mankind this has to be a reasonable position for us. Too often we humans, in making judgment of our actions and behavior, have a tendency to overlook the preeminence of
    this. That is the basis of what Pope Francis meant when he said “Who am I to judge”.
    We have the Law, the Scriptures, and Tradition to guide us in the pursuit of perfection to which we have been called but that perfection, if it could ever be achieved, would in truth simply be a human image of the one and only Divinity. The Pope was excusing himself from the vainglory some humans ascend to when they make declarations about others and assign definitive
    sentences regarding their activity
    The only way to find out who is in hell is to go there and the path there includes setting oneself up as an authority on its contents. This, unfortunately, is what is meant by the oft used “judge not lest you be judged” precaution we Christians have been given. Unfortunate, because it has been twisted and used by the forces of Evil to stop the faithful in their tracks anytime we attempt to reveal its presence in the minds and hearts of sinful men posing as our benefactors in their efforts to lead us to a secular Utopia.
    Nevertheless, we must understand that Forgiveness is the defining characteristic of our faith and only God knows the depths to which it extends within his divine mercy. We have to make it a central part of our perspective on life in the one body of Christ. And to the point of this
    beautiful article we can never give up hope in or doubt the magnitude of Divine Mercy for our God is all Love, endless love, which is by its nature jealous of its creation and all that it encompasses not wanting to let go of any of it but at the same time willing to give us the freedom to chose that gift of Love and live within his divine will rather than reject a leap of faith and venture on our own finite presumptions of it.

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