Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent: Exodus 32:7-14, John 5:31-47.
Today’s readings pull no punches in shining a light on our inability to recognize God and remain faithful to Him. But they also show us that God’s overwhelming love, mercy, and forgiveness wipe away this great affront. This is our God: deserving of all honor and glory, but as the source of goodness and love, willing to erase the greatest affront and welcome us back to Himself.
The famous incident of the golden calf is the subject of the first reading. In the verses just prior to this, the extent of God’s betrayal is shown in the person of His chosen priest, Aaron. Aaron, Moses’s brother, who has been by his side for all of the wonders God worked in Egypt, who held up Moses’s arms during the long battle with Amalek so the Jews could win, is the one who builds the calf. Aaron responds to the wishes of the people who were tired of waiting for Moses (occupied on Mount Sinai with God). He takes all of their gold rings, melts them, and casts a statue of a golden calf. Then, he says, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” and “he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.'” Now, that’s truly messed up if you asked me. I understand the desperation of a people lost and wandering in the desert without a home, but this extreme of abandoning the God who made Himself known personally to Aaron, who singlehandedly brought them all out of slavery … it’s almost unfathomable.
It’s surprising, but on second thought, not terribly different from all of us today who abandon God despite all of the blessings we’ve received. It is interesting that those who receive the most blessings on earth are often the quickest to abandon God when reflecting on the troubles that plague humanity. People in poorer countries (in South America and Africa, for instance) are the ones who comprise the bulk of the Catholic Church nowadays while rates of atheists in first-world countries are higher than ever before. Perhaps God makes up for whatever blessings of earthly pleasures are lacking for some people by blessing them with greater faith. Or perhaps striving to live with dignity in the face of great obstacles reminds us of our humility in the face of things greater than us and thereby find room in our hearts to honor God and seek His help. Either way, the poor and less fortunate seem to be more faithful to God. We begin to understand Jesus when he says, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:30) — that is, the “first” in this world will be last in the Kingdom because they have abandoned God while the “last” in this world will be first in the Kingdom because they remained faithful.
There is something of this conundrum in the Jews who are tarrying at the base of Mt. Sinai. Over the course of their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, they have benefitted from miracle after miracle: waters parting, manna and quail being given as food, water sprouting from rocks at the strike of Moses’s staff. And oddly we hear at each turn how they are abandoning God for idols or not obeying His commandments. Their ongoing blessings seem to engender a sense of entitlement rather than thankfulness. The more they receive, the less they recognize the giver of the gifts. This culminates in them so forgetting who God is that they clamor for Aaron to invent someone for them to worship: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex 32:1b). Let’s not tell ourselves that this is the work of particularly evil or callous people. The story of the Jews in the desert is the story of all humanity failing to recognize God in their blessings. It is the story of our lost wanderings, being led back to God and the Promised Land (i.e., the Kingdom of God), but questioning Him and His ways every step. Sadly, it is the story of our descent into idolatry and atheism even when we have been shown the way.
What is God’s response to this unfaithfulness? He tells Moses to go down to them and let Him purify these people: “that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” Whoa! This is the God of Love. Let’s unpack this so that we don’t think there is some sort of contradiction going on.
The Church teaches us that God is all good, complete, and unchanging. He is the origin of all creation, not a part of it, as He tells Moses: “I AM who I AM.” As the only complete and unchanging thing in the universe (or outside of the universe), he doesn’t get angry, he’s not surprised, he’s not jealous, etc. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t care, mind you, or doesn’t yearn for us more than we yearn for Him. When we encounter moments like today’s in the Scriptures, we have to remember what all of revelation has taught us about God and read the passage as it has been laid down by a mortal.
One of the better articles I’ve read on this topic was posted on the Catholic Standard by Monsignor Charles Pope in 2019. He writes that God’s “wrath” can be called “wrath” only in how it is experienced by us, not as an emotion raging within Him. He writes about the analogy of trying to mix water and fire:
God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix; they can’t keep company. Think of fire and water; they cannot coexist in the same place. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of a small amount of water poured into a large fire: the water droplets sizzle and pop; steam rises as the water boils away. … We must be purified before entering His presence, otherwise we could not tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth, turning away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change, so we must be changed or else we will experience wrath.
So we can affirm that God does not lose self-control or experience emotions in the ways that humans do. I tend to agree with our Church Father, Tertullian, though, who writes, “Angry He will possibly be, but not irritated, nor dangerously tempted; He will be moved, but not subverted” (Against Marcion, II.16). Tertullian’s point, in part, is that we can’t really know about the essence of God in its perfection since it is beyond our capacity. But, he notes, one thing is for sure: “it is yet palpably absurd of you to be placing human characteristics in God rather than divine ones in man, and clothing God in the likeness of man, instead of man in the image of God” (ibid, II.16). As I wrote in Forgiveness is Mercy in Action last week, there is something in the original Greek that points to God’s visceral reaction that we might interpret (by analogy) as “emotional” or “affective.” When he is viscerally moved to compassion, the verb has its root in the word for intestines and internal organs: σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splanchnistheis). This is a nice nuance to add to Msgr. Pope’s analogy of the fire, which is by definition an element that is impassive and will burn anything regardless of its good or evil nature. Let me tentatively put this forward: because God is all goodness and purity, the purifying fire of his nature has a valence, meaning that it is weighted with all things good and against all things evil. Thus, when goodness approaches it, the reaction is unity, which we experience as delight, warmth, and embrace. When evil approaches it, the reaction is rejection and elimination, which we experience as wrath, anger, and jealousy.
Let’s return with these thoughts to our story from Exodus. God says, “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.” Two things to note: first, He maintains His discourse and relationship with Moses, not to mention the promise to build for him “a great nation.” When he asks Moses to “let him alone,” we might see this as a the way Moses interprets this moment of sensing the momentum of God’s purifying fire and the opening Moses himself has in terms of begging for mercy for his people. For those who welcome the idea of a God who tests us, perhaps He is probing to see if Moses is able to fully inhabit the mercy of God and reflect this same mercy in a request to save his people. In any case, we can say that God is exhibiting His own mercy here in the act of conversing with Moses, giving him a chance to halt the purifying essence of God from burning through his people.
The second thing to note is that God is not consumed by wrath; He is not out of control with human-like emotions. He is measured, speaking frankly and with mercy to Moses. In fact, He presents His wrath as a fundamental part of who He is, a purifying force that simply blazes up in rejection of the sin it encounters. This shows us the mercy and compassion of God while maintaining His essential, indivisible nature, “I AM who I AM.”
Moses steps into his role of chosen prophet and law-giver admirably, reflecting back to God the mercy that he himself was shown. He pleads for the sinful people to be saved. God, ever merciful, grants his prayer. We hear, “So the LORD relented in the punishment, he had threatened to inflict on his people.” In some ways this wording is unfortunate because the words “punishment” and “threatened” feed a misunderstanding of God as one who is overly emotional and fickle (the theological terms would be passible and changing). This sentence could have also been written “So the LORD granted Moses’s prayer and mercifully spared the sinful people from His purifying essence.” In this way, we should understand his “punishment” as simply the incompatibility of sin and blasphemy with the presence of God. Likewise, “threatened to inflict” is “told Moses would occur if His presence fully encountered and burned/purified the sinful people.”
Could worship before a golden calf after God has saved you countless times be the biggest affront possible? It’s close, but I think the gospel takes the cake. After all, we take His greatest gift, His only Son, don’t believe Him, mock Him, torture Him, and crucify Him. It is the same type of affront — faithlessness — but many degrees more egregious.
Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of yesterday’s, when Jesus is talking about His consubstantial relationship with the Father, like a flame and the light it gives forth. He is trying to show the ridiculousness of the Jews’ accusations of blasphemy; they are distrustful of the only one telling the truth! But how do you convince distrustful people? You have prophets testify to your coming throughout the scriptures, including a living example in John the Baptist. More, you have the Father’s miracles coursing through you that testify to the Truth you are. What more could they want?
This is what Jesus tells them. They have the promised gift of life from God and refuse to accept it. He speaks of an interesting mindset, particularly Jewish: “You search the Scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.” This is not the disbelief of an atheist or pagan. This is the disbelief of a people who have become fossilized in what they consider to be truth, yet is only prophecy, only something that points to the truth yet to come in a very real way: Jesus the Christ. They think they have eternal life through the scriptures, that is, by living out written laws and prescriptions, but Jesus tells them this is not eternal life – it is only part of the path of living on the earth right now. Importantly, He points out the big affront: “you do not want to come to me to have life.” This is the stubbornness and pride of the “stiff-necked” people. They must acknowledge that they need something more, that they are still vulnerable and dependent on God, in order to want to come to Christ. They do not do so.
“Moreover,” Jesus says, “I know that you do not have the love of God in you.” Oh, the shame and trembling if they only knew who was saying this to them! It is interesting to me that Jesus separates this ultimate sin of turning one’s back on God from the earlier point about them not wanting to come to Him. Jesus instructs us here that one can be imperfect and prideful yet still perhaps have a kernel of God’s love inside them. Sadly, the Jews who disbelieve and accuse Him are both prideful and lack God’s love inside them, meaning that the truth they supposedly found in the scriptures is not something they have incorporated into themselves. They lack God’s love out of their own fault, not because it has been withheld from them. This is a horrible state of affairs, a great affront to our Creator, to whom we owe our lives, our intelligence, our souls, everything.
But like the Father, the Son operates by love and mercy. Despite their accusations against Him and their disbelief in who He IS, he says, “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father: the one who will accuse you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope.” Like the Father, He IS, meaning He will radiate and purify with His love through His actions and His very being. His saving mission at this moment in history is to teach, to suffer, to die, to resurrect, and to initiate the Church in Spirit and Truth. But we must remember His words from yesterday (part of this same dialogue) when He says, “[the Father] has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” This discussion, in other words, has an eschatological bent. It is concerned with everlasting life or everlasting torment. The Son’s mission isn’t done with the establishment of the Church — it will eventually conclude with His presiding over Judgement Day. He will embody the purifying love of the Father. He returns to that concept when He says “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father.” It sends a chill up my spine to imagine how these unconverted Jews will wither when they see their great hero, Moses, prostrate before the Son of God and condemning them.
The take-home message is clear: be grateful to God for your life and every blessing in it. Be faithful to God — especially when thinking and talking about Him with others. Your testimony to the Truth of God and Jesus Christ is an essential element of your salvation. And, like Jesus tells us, whether you believe it or not, the Truth has already been testified to.