Ex. 32:7-14 Jn. 5:31-47
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Today’s first reading from Exodus sends shivers down my spine. The image of God we find here is an unsettling one: a vengeful deity quick to punish and even exterminate human beings for their sins. It’s tempting to expunge such texts from the canon or just pretend they’re not there, but its inclusion in the lectionary cycle precludes both options. As another alternative, I propose that we read this passage as an instance of divine probation. God is testing Moses’ mettle and challenging him to be the type of leader he called him to be in Chapters 3-4.
When God first called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses demurred and offered a litany of excuses for why he was a poor candidate: the people wouldn’t believe him, he would need some sign to show them, and he was a lousy speaker. God offered solutions for each objection, and Moses eventually (and reluctantly) assumed the vocation God presented before him. In the ensuring chapters, Moses experienced great success. He courageously liberated a group of slaves from an oppressive and incorrigible Pharaoh, but greater adversity was in store for him. The wandering Israelites found numerous opportunities to complain, threaten Moses, and revert to pagan worship. Is Moses really prepared to deal with this wayward bunch? God implicitly poses that question to Moses here in chapter 32, offering Moses the chance to rid himself of a people he didn’t want to lead in the first place. God even appeals to Moses’ ego by saying he will fashion a new nation from him alone. What will Moses decide?
Fortunately, Moses passes the test with flying colors. He doesn’t hesitate to intercede on the people’s behalf, imploring the Lord to have mercy on the Israelites and to be faithful to his covenantal promises. When God relents of the punishment, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, but we must not overlook the story’s implications for our own relationship with God. Everyday God presents us with choices, some of which are of great import. Amid these many choices, can we discern where God is challenging us and inviting us to grow in our relationship with him? In some cases, these choices arise because of some adversity we are confronted with. Will we seek the easy way out, or will we recognize the challenges that God poses to us and respond valiantly by doing what is right? In these remaining days of Lent, let us be more attentive to the ways in which God calls us to embrace our Christian vocation. Obstacles will often stand in our way, but hopefully we will rise to the occasion, just as Moses did.
Assistant Professor of Scripture Dept. of Theological Studies