‘Did I do something wrong?’ or ‘What did I do wrong?’ are quite common question many Christian parents of adult children ask themselves, when they see that their offspring have drifted away from the church and faith. ‘I took them to church every Sunday, we kept Christian traditions in our home, they had their sacraments…‘ If you are one of those parents, I can tell you with a very high dose of certainty that you’ve done your best. If your children are not interested in the faith, it’s pretty much their ‘fault’ or – to use a better word – their decision. How can I be so sure? Well, I know you’re good people and you always try to do your best, whatever you’re up to.
Look at today’s first reading. It’s main character, Moses, is the Israelites’ ‘national hero’. He punished their Egyptian oppressors with a variety of plagues while sparing the Israelites. Subsequently they were allowed to leave the slavery of Egypt and set out on their way to the Promised Land, the land of their ancestors. The Israelites’ seemingly inevitable massacre by the Egyptian army was miraculously averted when Moses split open the Red Sea; they crossed it dry-shod while the army was defeated by the closing waters. Moses did a lot for them at the expense of his own life. Were they grateful? Not much. They kept moaning, whining and daydreaming of returning to Egypt. When Moses went off to the holy mountain to form a covenant, a special bond between God and the people of Israel, how quick they were to produce an idol, a molten-metal calf to worship it in place of the God of Moses. That is where we are with today’s first reading. While Moses is doing his best to secure his ‘children’s’ future, they’ve gone mad.
So, who is to blame for the Israelites’ mischief? There’s a rather interesting exchange between God and Moses in the first reading. It begins with Moses being ordered by God to go down, back to the camp, ‘because your people […] have acted perversely’. ‘Your people’ sounds like the blame is being laid at Moses’ feet. In other words, it’s as if God says: ‘as they’ve gone astray, as they are idolatrous, so they are not mine.’ The plan outlined by God looks simple and reasonable: ‘My wrath shall blaze against them and devour them,’ followed by an unrefusable offer made to Moses: ‘of you, however, I will make a great nation.’ Considering middle eastern culture, it’s hard to overestimate how tempting such a prospect was. Moses’ response always makes me smile: ‘Lord, why should your wrath blaze out against this people of yours whom you brought out of Egypt?’ Moses seems to refer to the initial call on him at the burning bush, when he was sent to Egypt to liberate God’s people (Exodus 3). At the time Moses was reluctant – to put it mildly – and looking for reasons or excuses not to go. Eventually God had it his way and since then Moses had suffered ingratitude, dissent, grumble and all manner of discontent from those he was supposed to liberate. So now Moses has a great chance to get rid of that unenviable burden (the people) and to become the founding father of a new, great nation. What a prospect, what a temptation!
You’re welcome to disagree with me, but I think that’s exactly what this was: a test for Moses. Idolatry can take many forms and shapes. Everything and anything can become an idol in my life: things or people, little comforts or peace of mind – the list is virtually endless. In Moses’ case his own importance, freedom of responsibility for the people and shaping independently his own life could have become his idols. Instead, Moses pleads for God’s mercy and forgiveness – and they are instantly granted. This whole situation goes against quite a common perception of God as angry and mean, waiting for the slightest failure to punish us remorselessly. The story of God and man is the story of God looking for the lost ones to bring them back: from the Garden of Eden, when God seeks the first man and his wife, throughout the times of the patriarchs, kings and prophets all the way to Jesus, his only Son, who came into the world to save it, not to condemn it. It’s the story of a merciful God who never tires of our failures, but always comes to our help. You and I are indispensable, irreplaceable parts of that story. God never gives up on you; nor should you ever give up on yourself.