Living in harmony

  • September 1, 2010
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Sept. 12 (Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32)

The Golden Calf is a potent symbol in our religious and even cultural consciousness. It seems to epitomize idolatry, immorality and infidelity and is the “stick” used in many sermons or moral exhortations. Worshipping the Golden Calf can of course take many forms — money, possessions, success and the like — but these are the more obvious manifestations of something that is far deeper.

The Israelites were led out of Egypt through manifestations of God’s power — the plagues, the destruction of the pursuing Egyptians and the miraculous supply of food and water in the midst of the inhospitable desert. All that was asked of them in return was faith, which is another way of saying absolute trust. One who walks in faith lives life with the assumption and conviction that God is concerned with their well-being and can be trusted. But soon the drama and excitement wore off and the Israelites were faced with day-to-day living and survival. When Moses tarried a bit too long on the mountaintop they assumed the worst and fear set in with a vengeance. Enough of this god whom we cannot see and whose ways are hidden and mysterious! Far better a god we can see and touch — and more importantly, one that we can control.

Walking in real faith, often without a road map or knowledge of what lies ahead, is far too scary and difficult for many people. It is precisely because religion is so holy that it is more prone to idolatrous practices and human manipulation. We too fashion and worship a Golden Calf when we fashion religion in a way that makes it predictable and easy to control. Structures, institutions, rules, laws and rituals can sometimes act as an escape from the demands of living in faith and trust. Faith is very difficult for those who cannot live without black and white answers and absolute clarity at all times.  

Rather than indulging in self-pity or guilty self-recrimination, “Paul” (1 Timothy was probably written after Paul’s death by one of his followers) looks upon his less than admirable pre-conversion life as witness to God’s compassionate mercy. He shakes his head at his own violence and intolerance. But God uses Paul to prove His point: our salvation is not something we earn or deserve but a gracious gift through Jesus Christ. But this is always God’s way: God meets us wherever we are and accepts us as we are — our growth in holiness is a grateful and joyful response on our part.

Is the heavenly banquet a joyful feast if there are empty places? Some of the pious religious folk in the story were upset because Jesus is friendly and kind to those deemed to be morally or religiously deficient, even reprehensible. We don’t need to look far in our own time for similar examples. Instead of becoming embroiled in an argument Jesus responded with the three parables that illustrate what our own attitude should be towards the wayward and the lost. But even beyond that they disclose God’s attitude and it should come as no surprise that it is far removed from the attitude of most human beings. Humans love to label, judge and exclude — especially those who are different and do not fit in with the group.

The first two parables show the woman and the shepherd forgetting everything else and focusing all their time and energy on recovering the lost coin or sheep. The missing portion becomes more important than all the rest and only when the whole is restored can there be peace and rejoicing. The God-figure in the parable of the Prodigal Son does not judge, condemn or punish — he is simply overjoyed that the younger son has found his way home. This example of unconditional love does not set well with the older son whose filial relationship is one of duty, obligation and hope of future reward. The father reminds him that they are all one and that he should be delighted that his brother is back. He should also realize that his father does not love him because he is dutiful but because he is his son.

In the world God yearns for us to create there are no “in” groups or “out” groups — no hated or despised “other” — only God and humanity living in harmony.