On today's Mass Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; John 5:31-47
At different times in the Old Testament we come across what I have seen called a “cycle of mercy.” Today’s first reading is an example. With mighty hand and outstretched arm, the Lord had liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, and they are on their journey to the Promised Land. Moses had climbed the mountain to commune with the Lord and receive the Law, the Torah, the Commandments, the principles by which the Hebrew people would be able to live in harmony with the Lord and with each other.
But while Moses is on the mountain they rebel and worship a golden calf. This is a reference to the Egyptian God, Apis, a young bull, who symbolised power and sex. The Hebrews would have been very familiar with the drunken sexual orgies that were part and parcel of worshipping Apis. (Some say that this worship even involved human sacrifice.) So, it says, the Lord is angry. But Moses intercedes with him. Actually, Moses “bargains” with the Lord, and – this is the important bit – reminds the Lord of his covenant. The Lord then “turns back his wrath” and shows mercy to his people, caring for them and sustaining them on their journey. Of course, this is what the Lord wanted to do all along. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus says that Moses “bears witness” to him, that because he is God, he was there, hidden in the folds of Jewish salvation history.
I guess what you really want today is for me to give you an easy answer as to whether Moses really changed the Lord’s mind by interceding for the people? Well, it IS one of the tricky passages of the Bible! What I am inclined to think is that at this very early point in the “progressive revelation” of God to his people what we have is the best way there was, culturally speaking, of explaining that the just and holy law-giving God is also the God of mercy and love, who has bound himself by a covenant to his people. In other words, he is not ONLY “just and holy”, angry at the depraved worship of Apis. He is also, by his very nature, “merciful” and “loving.”
As the Scriptural revelation unfolds, we see him always WANTING to show mercy and forgiveness. Do you remember Psalm 103: “As far as the East is from the West – so far does God put our sins away from us.” Or Micah 7:15: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity? . . . You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” And think back to last Sunday’s Gospel, Luke 15, the Prodigal son). That parable told us how God wants to pour upon us his forgiveness and love, and receive us back to himself. It was not God’s fault that the relationship went wrong. But his love is as endless as his holiness is real. Both those things matter. We can cut ourselves off from him, we can fall into the mire of absolute depravity, but we can never stop him loving us or giving us the chance of a new beginning, if only we will surrender to his love.
That is not, of course, to deny that throughout the Scriptures a real tension continues to exist between the reality of God’s love and his justice. It is a tension that is only resolved on the Cross, where “Steadfast love and faithfulness … meet; righteousness and peace … kiss each other" (Psalm 85:10). Or in the words of the old Gospel hymn, the Cross is the “trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet.”