Readings: Exodus 32:7-14 ; Psalm 106; John 5:31-47
It is strange how the conversation between Moses and God in Exodus 32 parallels the conversation between the prodigal father and the elder brother in Luke 15. In the parable, which we have heard a few times recently, the elder brother disowns the prodigal son, referring to him when speaking to his father as ‘your son’. The father reminds his elder son that the prodigal is not just his (the father’s) son but is his (the elder brother’s) brother: ‘this, your brother, was lost and is found, he was dead and is returned to life’.
In today’s first reading it is God who seeks to disown the prodigal people, saying to Moses ‘go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved’. Moses then takes the place of the prodigal father saying back to God, ‘why should your wrath blaze up against your own people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?’ Jesus in the gospel reading sends his listeners back to this point also: if they will not believe what Moses wrote then they will not listen to what Jesus is saying.
The most fascinating thing about this combination of readings is that it seems to be the Lord, the God of Israel, who was the first to listen to Moses and to believe in him! Moses called God back to Himself, as the prodigal son needs to come to himself. Moses reminds God of who He is, as the prodigal son needed to remember who he was. You are the One, says Moses, who brought your people out with mighty hand and marvelous works. They are not my people, thank you very much, they are your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt. What are the nations to say now about your purpose in doing this? Was it with an evil intention, to deceive and mislead this people and only, in the end, to destroy them?
And if that does not work, Moses makes a deeper, more ancient appeal. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he says to God, and your promises to them. You are the God of our fathers, not just the God of this recent wonder at the Red Sea, these recent marvels in Egypt. You are the God who has been involved with your people from way back, fashioning a people for yourself from ancient times. You swore to these promises by your own self: are you to be true to yourself, to who you are, the God of our fathers, now revealed as the Lord, the God of Israel?
It is stirring stuff, these dramas of betrayal and reconciliation, of forgetfulness and remembrance. And we are approaching the final act of the definitive drama. Now, says Jesus, there are many witnesses to me. There is John the Baptist and there are the works I have been doing. There is the testimony of the Father speaking through these but to accept this you must believe in the Son whom the Father has sent. There is the scripture, the Word of God, written down by Moses but also remaining in the hearts of believers. With all these witnesses, a great cloud on every side we might say, why is it that you still do not believe?
Because you are stiff-necked, we hear God saying to Moses in the first reading. And Moses’ response is not to deny the people’s sinfulness and forgetfulness, just as the prodigal father does not deny the prodigal’s mistakes. Moses’ response is to remind God of who they are and who God is – they are your people whom you called long ago, and you are the God who swore by your own self that you would be their God and they your people.
Like an old married couple who have fought long and hard God and the people are inextricably bound to each other, they have grown into each other. This is not to minimize the consequences of their sins, which are great. It is to exalt the way in which God will now once again swear by His own self that He is committed to this covenant: He will seal it now in the blood of the Son, a new and eternal covenant which is yet as old as Abraham.
So God relents and repents of what he intended to do. Once again He visits His people and once again He faces into their sins and forgetfulness, to remind them and to restore them to His family: He forever their God, they forever His people.