Attending a chapter of the Order brings back memories of earlier chapters. The readings at Mass today bring to mind the observation of an older friar made at a chapter many years ago. He thought we were replacing the far too specific with the far too woolly. It is difficult to keep a balance in these things just as it can be difficult to maintain a balanced view of God's judgement. We can swing between understanding God as severe in his justice and understanding Him as candy-floss-like in his mercy.
This swing in the readings today brings the earlier comment to mind. The first reading lists the characteristics of God as, on the one hand, mercy and grace, endless kindness and compassion, even forgiving wickedness and crime and sin. But on the other hand the same reading says that God will not declare the guilty guiltless but will punish children and grandchildren for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. An easy solution would be to suggest that a second author intervened to correct what he thought was too woolly a picture of God. But we end up with what looks like a schizophrenic God, forgiving everything but leaving nothing unchecked.
Logically the two are not incompatible, to take full and due account of wickedness while forgiving it always. But it does seem harsh and unjust to punish the grandchildren for the sins of their ancestors. Unless there is something about sin and wickedness that we are under-estimating, bringing far too superficial an understanding to it so that we do justice neither to God's struggle with sin (if we can talk like that) nor to the miracle of God's mercy in the face of sin.
Moses stands and bows low in the presence of God. It is a terrifying and transforming experience. God speaks with Moses face to face, as a person speaks with his friend. At the same time Moses bows down and worships, as is only right, in the presence of God. Rising and bowing, standing and kneeling: the postures of Moses seem to endorse the contrast we see in the characteristics of God. We are called into friendship with God. God accepts Moses' invitation, 'do come along in our company'. But God remains always God, infinitely holy, faithful to His covenant, but demanding that the people too must become holy if they are to live together with Him.
In the gospel reading Jesus, the one who speaks most about judgement and hell in the New Testament, says that the parable of the wheat and the weeds is about the last judgement. The angels will separate out the evildoers from the righteous, sending the first to the fiery furnace while the righteous shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father. We need to bow down and to stand up, both, if we are to understand anything here. We need to remember always that we are creatures and sinners, in need of contrition and forgiveness. And we need to remember always that we have been called into friendship with God. In that friendship we learn how these things hold together, what the reality of sin is that destroys even that friendship, what the consequences of sin are that corrupt relationships for generations, what the power of God is that is ready to find a way to forgiveness, even at the price of taking those consequences on himself.
Another way of putting this is to say that we need to be people of hope. On the one hand we must not presume on the friendship which God has established with us as if sin meant nothing now. On the other hand we must resist any temptation to despair, as if there were a sin or a sinful situation that was beyond the reach of God's mercy. The person of hope stands between these two temptations, bowing and standing in the presence of God, worshiping and loving, grateful for the mercy in God's truth and the truth in God's mercy.