SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2016: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The LORD said to Moses,
“Go down at once to your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out,
‘This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’
“I see how stiff-necked this people is, ” continued the LORD to Moses.
Let me alone, then,
that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.
Then I will make of you a great nation.”
But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,
“Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt
with such great power and with so strong a hand?
Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,
‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky;
and all this land that I promised,
I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’”
So the LORD relented in the punishment
he had threatened to inflict on his people.
I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord,
because he considered me trustworthy
in appointing me to the ministry.
I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,
but I have been mercifully treated
because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.
Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant,
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.
But for that reason I was mercifully treated,
so that in me, as the foremost,
Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example
for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.
To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God,
honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house,
searching carefully until she finds it?
And when she does find it,
she calls together her friends and neighbors
and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’
In just the same way, I tell you,
there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”
Then he said,
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns,
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
If the majority of our biblical books weren’t self-critical they wouldn’t be in the Bible. One of the reasons people of faith saved these writings was because they helped them reflect on their own weaknesses. If we’re not willing to be analyzed, we probably shouldn’t read Scripture.
Yet, because our sacred authors didn’t have us in mind when they wrote, it’s easy to miss some of the self-critical aspects of their writings. This is especially true of today’s first reading.
As with all biblical writings we must know what was going on in the community when the writing was actually composed, not what was going on during the period the work describes. For instance, today we shouldn’t be asking about Egyptian calf gods during the 12th century BCE – the period of the Exodus. Serious students of Scripture want to know what was going on “calf-wise” in 8th century BCE Israel, where and when today’s Exodus passage was actually created.
Hosea, prophesying in Israel during that time, twice mentions problems with calves – 8:4-6, & 13:2 – demanding that Samaria “cast (their) calves away” and condemning men for “throwing kisses to calves.” Scholars tell us that Hosea’s calves are actually cherubim set up as symbols of Yahweh’s presence in various Jewish shrines and temples. A cherub is a mythological animal: head of a human, wings of an eagle and body of a bull – hence the derisive term “calf.” It was presumed gods got from point A to point B on their backs. And when they got there, they would sit enthroned astride them. So, for Jews, making and putting a cherub in a sacred place was an outward sign Yahweh was in that place. (Sort of like a sanctuary candle is a Catholic sign Jesus is present in the tabernacle.) The Ark of the Covenant even sported two cherubs. But, due to bad catechesis, many Jews eventually began to believe the cherub actually was Yahweh; they began to worship the statue, even blowing kisses to it.
Prophets, like Hosea, didn’t tolerate such practices. They blew off the argument that the cherubs originally came from the priests – Aaron in this case. The idolatrous “calves” had to go. They were drawing people from true faith. The original readers would have known this Exodus story was directed to what they were doing in 8th century Israel, not to what their ancestors had done 400 years before in the Sinai. They had created the golden calves in the shrines they frequented.
In a similar way, Luke’s original readers automatically knew the key person in Jesus’ Prodigal Son parable is the unforgiving older brother. Throughout Luke/Acts, Luke’s Jesus constantly conveys God’s mercy to individuals who have no legitimate claim to such mercy. In each of today’s three parables, Jesus’ God seems to have no problem with forgiving. We, not God, are the obstacles to that process. Rarely does anyone ever criticize us for “welcoming and eating with sinners.” Perhaps we other Christs need more forgiveness than the sinners in our midst.
The Pauline disciple who wrote I Timothy doesn’t hesitate to point out his mentor’s shortcomings: blasphemer, persecutor, arrogant. Fortunately, the Apostle reminds the readers, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” Who, hearing these words, would not immediately think of his or her own unworthiness to carry on Jesus’ ministry? Yet, each can testify, “I was mercifully treated.”
Of course, just as we critically applied Luke and I Timothy’s passages to ourselves, we can do likewise with the Exodus pericope. What golden calves have we as a church created through the centuries? Thankfully the risen Jesus, not the church will judge us at the pearly gates.