What was it that led the people to make the Golden Calf? In what did their sin consist? Impatience, perhaps, waiting for Moses to return from his latest tryst with God. Coping with the invisibility of God is a real challenge for creatures for whom sight is central, creatures designed to know and understand through physical experience. How are we supposed to relate to what cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled?
A golden calf would at least be visible and tangible. And we would have put a lot of ourselves into it, the most valuable things in our possession. Perhaps if we sacrifice them, our jewels, some power somewhere in the universe will appreciate what we have done and reward us for it. It doesn't really matter which power, as long as somebody somewhere shows signs of benevolence towards us.
Keeping alive the memory of what God had already done for them: this was another challenge. Memory depends on sensation, the things we've seen and heard, touched and tasted. And if we've had no experiences like that with God how can we remember what God has done for us in the past, even if at moments in the past we have been convinced of His presence and action? How can we hold on now to what happened then?
Perhaps the main problem was simply boredom which is bound to come in when there is such a gap - a transcendent gap if we understand anything about God - between our desires and the ways in which those desires are to be fulfilled. Here we are, parked in a desert, uncertain of the way back or the way forward, unsure of where food and drink will be coming from, having our doubts about the man we agreed to follow ...
A key to this, as to any 'pagan' relating to God, is the thought that the divine is a power somewhere in the universe. This is the difficult teaching which the Lord, the God of Israel, has chosen to undertake, to lead a people into a knowledge of Himself, God who is living and true, Creator and Lord of all things in heaven and on earth. How is he to teach them about himself so that they will not confuse him with one of the idols or with one of his own creatures? Because He is Creator of all, God is not one of the things, not anything in the universe, not caught in time or space, not a supreme being among beings, not 'the biggest thing around' ... what kind of purchase can we hope to have on what we would regard as a proper understanding of God?
It is a very difficult lesson the people are being asked to learn and there is a long road ahead of them yet. There are very difficult lessons we are asked to learn if we persevere in seeking God and we have a long road ahead of us yet. Impatience, invisibility, fickleness, boredom - any of these things might be enough to distract us into hedonism, indifference, or idolatry of one kind or another. All of them together might be practically irresistible.
The parables of Jesus offer a contrasting picture which might just be the thing we need as we reflect on what the first reading reminds us about ourselves. He gives two parables about the eventual blossoming of things that for most of their lives remain hidden. The smallest of all seeds disappears into the earth and is invisible and forgotten until the great bush appears which is the blossoming of that seed. The yeast disappears into the flour and again becomes invisible and forgotten until its effects in the baking become clear.
Jesus speaks in parables which might seem to be the last thing we need. In spite of our boredom threshold and lack of patience, our need for external stimulation and our poor remembering, Jesus comes to teach us about 'what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world'. He has come to put a face on the Divine Mystery and to give us the capacity, finally, to dispose ourselves correctly towards that Mystery, to worship the living and true God in spirit and in truth. As we read through the gospels we see again and again the kinds of difficulty it presented to the disciples, the many ways in which we tend, always, to misunderstand. But Jesus persevered in his mission and has won for us the Spirit who enables us to remain joyful and energetic in the search for God, to remember what He is doing for us until we see Him face to face.