The Daily Bread, 26th March 2020.
Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 105(106):19-23; John 5:31-47
The “golden calf” has made its way into colloquial conversation in many languages. It’s usually said when commenting, with a hint of mockery, on someone else’s attitude to something as the “be all and end all.” There’s a sense in which the person is giving too much importance to something, maybe even to the point of losing a sense of reality and proportion.
Our first reading today recounts the original golden calf story. It amounts to this: although freed from slavery in Egypt by the Lord through the hand of Moses, the people quickly weary of the Lord and of waiting on Moses; having formed the golden calf with their own hands, they stupidly and ceremoniously say that it was the god that freed them.
The Lord’s reaction is blistering and caustic. He tells Moses that Israel is now his, Moses’, people (the Lord thus disowning them), that they are an idolatrous and “stiff-necked” people, that they have “apostatised” from the Lord and that he will “blaze out against them and devour them.” Not pretty!
The reading then relates how Moses intervenes with the Lord to be merciful, not to forget the promise He had made to their ancestors that they would be as many as the stars of heaven and would enter the promised land. Moses appeals to the Lord’s “vanity”, too, we might daringly say, by telling Him that the Egyptians would only mock Him, accuse Him of treachery by alleging that the real reason He took them from Egypt was not to free them but to wipe them from the face of the earth. Moses is successful: “the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
So, what is this reading really telling us? What are its deeper lessons?
What set the Israelites off in making the golden calf was impatience. Moses was up the mountain with the Lord too long, to the point that they wondered if he was dead. But don’t forget that right from the start of the exodus from Egypt, the people were always complaining, and usually about their material needs: food and drink. Along with that, there were constant grumblings against Moses and Aaron, his brother. Every single time, the Lord understood that their problem was not with Moses, but a lack of trusting faith in Him. He felt continually betrayed and rejected by the very people he loved and saved and wanted to shower his gifts upon.
So, the golden calf moment did not happen in a vacuum. It was the culmination of all the previous defiance. The smaller sins, you might say, festered into the mortal sin of apostasy. Apostasy is the wholesale rejection of God, of his law, of faith. It’s a form of original sin, since Adam by his disobedience sought to place himself, his own judgment, his own priorities, before God. It wasn’t that he denied that God existed; it was that he did not really care, he was indifferent. It was not even that God was not important; it was the Adam and his illuminating choices were more important.
The golden calf simply expresses externally the internal decision of a person to replace God with self. Anyone can see that this is a distortion of the truth. Because I say God is not there no more changes who God is or where God is than if I were to declare that I don’t need air to breathe. The golden calf reflects the story of the tower of Babel, too, because in both instances man, be it individually or collectively, seeks to reach heaven by his own strength, i.e. seeks to self-proclaim as divine just like any so-called Lord.
Of course, no-one articulates it just as bluntly as that. For now, at least, it would be too crass to say, “I want to be god without God”, or “I am my own alpha and omega.” But these things are nevertheless the effect of the pursuit of any created thing (golden calf, tower of Babel, power, money, position, etc.) as if it were the “be all and end all” of our life.
More traditionally, the term apostasy means the total repudiation of the Catholic faith. Here, too, it need not be said in so many blunt words by an individual. But if their life in fact, in practical terms, amounts to “squeezing the faith out” of their lives because they have chosen other things to substitute for it, then the reality of apostasy is sadly dawning upon them. The fact that people have doubts about their faith, especially as the result of tragedy in their lives, or go through periods of uncertainty and hesitation is not apostasy. Times of trial like these are part and parcel of everyone’s life, including of many great saints and mystics. But in all these situations, people are fundamentally still seeking the true and living God, their hearts are facing outwards towards him. Indeed, it can be God himself who takes them through the desert to try their faith, to test them and thus to strengthen their trust in Him.
The toughest words on unbelief, and thus practical apostasy, are reserved for those whom we can call “professional religious people” and it is Jesus himself who speaks them in no uncertain terms. In today’s Gospel Jesus “lays into” the chief representatives of the Jewish faith. While they pretend to be believers, they are in fact devoid of both the word and love of God. They hosanna Moses, but Jesus points out that if they truly believed Moses’ words, they would accept Jesus as the Son of God. Instead, they want to kill him. They say they want to do that because Jesus blasphemes, but it is jealousy and the fear of losing their power and money which is the real motive, as Pontius Pilate even grasps. Jesus does not say it, but it does not seem beyond reasonable to think that these leaders actually did not care whether Jesus was God or not: their indifference to his identity is outpaced by their feverish determination to hold on to their money and position. Blasphemy was just a handy tool to get Him out of their hair.
From both readings today, then, we are all faced with the question about the authenticity of our faith in the living God and in Jesus his Son. The prophet Elijah remonstrated with Israel in his time that they were “hobblers.” One minute, they believed in Yahweh, but the next in some false god. Choose Yahweh, he cries, and live for Him so that you can stand up straight and walk firmly. It is this same appeal that Jesus was making to the professional religious of his time. The difference is, though, that they were not hobbling: they had already in fact apostatised radically within, for all the smoke and mirrors of their external religiosity.
At a challenging time for all of us, the Lord understands our anxiety, our anguish even, our sense of his absence. In his love for us, he is seeking to strengthen our actual and practical trust in Him, in His presence and in His active attentiveness and compassion towards us. Don’t let this time of trial tempt you to give up on Him! Rather, come yet closer to Him! If there are those who have apostatised, let our response be to pray for them, to entrust them to the King of Mercy! And may His Holy Spirit purify all of us of anything that would weaken our glorious and life-giving faith. Remember your mercy, Lord, and remember me, now and when you come in your Kingdom.