September 11, 2016
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
People aren’t always easy to read. Sometimes a person is scowling and everyone thinks they are royally unhappy, when in fact they are interiorly serene (C.S. Lewis complained about how people misunderstood his mood because of his frowning expression). On the other hand, a person may appear “laid back” or happy-go-lucky, when in fact deep down they are suffering terribly and looking for solace. But we humans have our foibles. One would expect that God would rise above such silliness and that he would be straightforward, simple, if demanding. However, as we find in this Sunday’s first reading from Exodus, even God is not always as he seems.
In this reading, we are air-dropped into the middle of a dramatic crisis in the life of God’s people. After being delivered from the mud-pits of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea by divine might and watching the Egyptian cavalry be swallowed up by the waves, the Israelites are standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They have received the Ten Commandments and entered into a covenant with God. However, at the height of their seeming success in relationship with God, everything falls apart. While Moses is up on the mountain with God, the people recruit Aaron the high priest to make a golden calf idol for them to worship: “and they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (Exod 32:6 RSV). The Israelites entered into a debaucherous pagan feast right at the moment when they should have been celebrating their new-found covenant with the Lord.
During this time, Moses is blissfully ignorant of what is happening with the people down below. Yet the Lord knows and he tells Moses “your people…have corrupted themselves” (Exod 32:7). After recounting the details of the people’s idolatrous betrayal of the covenant, the Lord decides on his response which he shares with Moses: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Exod 32:10 RSV). Instead of solving the conflict, forgiving the people or seeking peace, the Lord decides on extermination. It will be like Noah’s era all over again—just wipe out the bad people and start over with the good. Moses will be a like a new Abraham. His descendants, not Abraham’s, will be the new people of God.
A Death Sentence
Before looking at Moses’ intercessory response, we have to stop and consider why God would say this. Why would God threaten to annihilate his own people, the ones that he himself saved from slavery in Egypt? We just have to turn back a few pages to Exodus 20 to find the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). Not only that, but the Israelites had sworn to obey the covenant in a ceremony in which blood was sprinkled upon them—a not-so-subtle hint of the gravity of the oath (24:7-8). The punishment for worshipping other gods was set in stone. Anyone who does “shall be utterly destroyed” (22:20). The Lord is not being inconsistent by suggesting the whole people be wiped out after their idolatrous worship of the golden calf. In fact, the Lord is being completely consistent with the legal demands of the covenant that he and the people had just agreed to. Under the terms of the Mosaic covenant, death was the punishment for idolatry and here the Lord states his intention to enact it.
Moses’ Threefold Intercession
Moses reacts to the Lord’s announcement with a threefold plea. Moses’ response is not a rancorous rejection of the Lord’s proclaimed death sentence, but rather a generous response, a “faithful disagreement” (in Michael Widmar’s words). First, Moses recalls the miracle of the Exodus. God just saved his people, so why would he want to destroy them now? Second, he alludes to the opinions of Egyptians, who would marvel at the “evil intent” of a God who would take his people out of the land of Egypt only to slay them in the wilderness. God’s reputation as powerful and just would be besmirched among the very Gentiles who were supposed to be blessed by the covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:3). Third, Moses recalls the loving promises that the Lord had made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had promised them land, descendants and a royal dynasty. How could he now destroy their progeny and fail to fulfill his oaths? In response to Moses’ pleadings, God relents and decides against destroying the whole people. However, we have to note that though the people in general survived “about three thousand men of the people fell” (32:28) in the ensuing punishment phase.
What is God up to?
This confusing dialogue boils down to a simple question: What is God up to? Why is he seeming to say one thing and do another, to change his mind, to speak out of both sides of his mouth? It would be easy to look at God here as a hard-hearted curmudgeon who wants to annihilate people on a whim and then gets convinced by Moses not to. But in fact, God’s death sentence is revealing something important about sin and our relationship with him: Sin has deadly consequences. It brings death wherever it goes. Rejecting the Author of Life is akin to embracing death. We want to avoid sin because we want to avoid death! To enact the death sentence would be to enact strict justice and indeed some of the Israelites are executed for the golden calf apostasy. However, Moses’ act of intercession plays a role in God’s plan. He appeals to the mercy and covenant fidelity of the Lord against the demands of strict justice. Without overlooking the mortal gravity of the sin of the people, the Lord consents to show mercy in accord with his previous promises and not destroy the people as a whole.
This conversation between Moses and the Lord brings to the surface the inherent tensions in our relationship with God and in the Old Covenant in particular. When we have sinned, we deserve punishment: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Yet God’s mercy intervenes and he makes life available to us. Under the Old Covenant, these underlying tensions could never be resolved because the problem of sin could not be dealt with: “for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Yet under the New Covenant, Jesus has died for our sins so that when we repent of our sins, the demands of justice can be met by his blood and the way of mercy is be opened for us, for “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).