Accept what God offers us

  • September 10, 2007

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), Sept. 16 (Exodus 32:7-12, 13-14; Psalm 51; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32)

The golden calf is a powerful religious and cultural symbol for idolatry and infidelity to God. Years ago a commentator described a particular luxury car as a “golden calf on wheels.” We might wonder why the Israelites chose to follow this dark path after God had done so much for them in such a dramatic fashion.

But for ancient peoples, the idea of following a God who was totally spirit and not portrayed in statue or painting was new and scary stuff. After all, they had just come from Egypt with its prominent pantheon of half-animal gods.

Over the course of centuries, they had to endure the taunts of their neighbours: Where is this god of yours? When Moses delayed his return from the mountaintop, they panicked. Creating a god whom they could see and touch was reassuring and familiar.

Many people do the same thing in more mundane ways. When they feel frightened or vulnerable, they reach out for something reassuring. Unfortunately, it is often not God but something unhelpful and unhealthy.

Ironically, rigid or fanatical forms of religion also fall into this category. But the strangest part of this passage is what follows. God tells Moses to step aside so He can wipe out the Israelites. This is an image of God that still lurks in the minds of far too many people. And Moses has to remind God of His promises. For the clinching argument, he basically asks, “What will the neighbours think?”

A brief reflection should bring us to the conclusion that this is not God speaking, but a very human depiction of God by an ancient people. God does not deal with us in that way, nor does God need to be reminded of His promises or shamed into not carrying through with threats of violence. It should not be a part of our own understanding of God, nor should it form our preaching and teaching.

One or a group of Paul’s followers probably wrote First Timothy, but the sentiments expressed in this passage were undoubtedly those of the apostle. There were many who feared and resented Paul, for they could not forget his violent persecution of the first believers. Paul never denied his negative past, but used it as an example of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Mistakes do not bar us from God’s compassion, nor from being called to Christian service. The key is having the honesty, humility and gratitude to accept what God offers us.

The dark side of religion is the persistent tendency for people and groups to use moral conduct or spiritual attainments as a means to exclude and separate. But Jesus taught a unitive vision — one which does not see divisions and distinctions.

Three parables use everyday objects such as coins, sheep and a family setting to portray humanity and God. The lost coin and the lost sheep are more important than all of the others. The woman ignores the other coins while she searches for the lost coin. The shepherd even leaves the other 99 sheep to fend for themselves while he searches out the wayward sheep. The parables are adamant: there is more rejoicing over those who are recovered than for all the others. There are no acceptable losses in God’s Kingdom; no one is “written off.” God’s Kingdom is not complete as long as any are missing. In the Prodigal Son parable, the wayward younger son must discover his unity with God and his true home through his wandering and mistakes. The father freely permitted this and passed no judgment or punishment on the younger son. The resentful martinet of an elder son represents the majority of humanity: he cannot understand unmerited grace and pure compassion, nor does he feel connected to his brother or his father. He is centred on the self.

He uses his moral rectitude as a way of inflating his own worth at the expense of others and is convinced that he deserves far more than his brother. It never occurred to him that he could have enjoyed God’s bounty at any time, for God is anything but stingy. The story ends with that wonderful word: rejoice! Someone has found their way home and that is all that matters.