Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 15, 2019
Early in their journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised Land, God's people became restless and untrusting. But Moses reminds an angry God that the Covenant must be preserved.
Saint Paul enjoyed God's mercy, and uses his experience as an example for potential believers.
Jesus tells three parables that explain to certain snobbish, judgmental people why he, Jesus, welcomes sinners and dines with them. Jesus is expressing the mercy of God.
The Liturgical Setting: Today's third reading, Luke 15:1-32, relates three of Jesus' parables about sinners' need to repent and God's readiness to forgive. Our first reading is an early story about God's forgiveness. (See this interesting essay about the parable of the prodigal and meritocracy.)
The Literary History: This paragraph of Lector's Notes usually describes when and why a passage was written, differentiating that from when and why the events described happened. It helps to know, for example, that a passage about the Hebrews' desert wanderings took its final literary form among the Jews just returned from Exile, six centuries or so after the events described. But with Exodus 32-34, that precision eludes most scholars. They're not sure how these passages came together. Most hold that the statue was of a bull, and only derisively labeled a calf. It was probably not an idol, properly speaking, but served as a footstool for the invisible God, and so was an alternative to Moses' Ark of the Covenant. Thus it may represent not a false god but a challenge to Moses as mediator between the people and God. Dan Nelson, often cited on these pages, has more detail. That will have to suffice for historical-critical scholarship this week.
The Story Thus Far: When Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, they did not go very long or very far before they lost confidence in Moses and in the path on which he was leading them. They were camped in the Sinai desert at the foot of a mountain, while Moses was up the mountain receiving extensive instructions from the Lord. The people grew restless, then nostalgic even for the ways of their Egyptian former masters. (Read the first verses of Exodus 32.) They melted jewelry and formed an idol (or a token of rebellion against Moses) from it in the shape of a calf, then worshiped it with exuberant ceremony. (Dan Nelson calls this a typical motif in the story of the people of God, "... Aaron and the people were trying to work out their own destiny." Of course the Lord is outraged, and Moses has to intervene, reminding the Lord of the covenant, lest the Lord revoke it.
Your Proclamation: Capture the Lord's fury about this faithless behavior. The congregation won't know the context (unless you read them the paragraph above, or actually start the reading at Exodus 32:1). So don't unleash the fury in your voice until you get to the clause that actually gives the context: "making for themselves a molten calf (!) and worshiping it (!!), sacrificing to it (!!!), and crying out 'This is your God, O Israel, (!!!!) who brought you out of the land of Egypt (!!!!!!!!)."
Make Moses sound desperate and persuasive. At the end of his speech, pause dramatically before reporting that the Lord relented.
The Literary Situation: For an interesting discussion of whether Saint Paul is the real author of this letter, see the Introduction to 1 Timothy in, for example, The New American Bible. In any case, the self-deprecating portrait in today's second reading fits nicely with our common understanding of Saint Paul: honest to a fault about his past, willing to give all the glory to God for his conversion.
Your Proclamation: Emphasize his statement about the purpose of Christ Jesus' coming into the world: to save sinners. Read the whole thing slowly, pausing briefly between clauses, especially in the long sentences.
If you've ever had the privilege of hearing the testimony of a recovering alcoholic, remember what you can about how it felt to hear that (or, perhaps, to give that testimony). That should help you get in the mood to relate Paul's testimony. It might help to imagine Paul dictating this passage and shaking his head as he reflects on his unworthiness of God's great gift.
The gospel's image of the forgiving father sighting his wayward son "a long way off" reminds me of members of my community distressed about their loved ones who are in trouble. How can we make it easier for them to ask us to share that burden? Can we become a community where it's less necessary to put on a brave face or to conceal our family worries? A columnist syndicated in the Catholic press in the United States recently wrote of a parish where every member knew every other member's sorrows and woes. (Well maybe not everybody, but there was a remarkable mutual openness among the people described.) A great loyalty held these people together, making their parish proof against the demographic changes that gut other parishes.
In the story Jesus tells, the father does a risky thing even before the prodigal returns.
The author of I Timothy overstates the drama of Paul's conversion. What Paul was doing before Jesus intercepted him was just being a very good Jew. He was rigid in his interpretation of God's will for the Jews, but he wasn't consciously defying God. Quite the contrary. God's call to Paul in Christ was to convert from something good to something better. And that's more descriptive of the struggles of most of the people with whom we worship. Sure, it's good to remember God's lavish mercies, but the people listening to the Word with us are not the ones squandering their inheritances on loose women and riotous living. We're preaching to the choir here. And their struggles are likely about giving up something good for something better. Like the woman who has a well-paying job but would like to become a teacher. Can we help her afford that change? Can we help enrich her life in non-monetary ways, so she feels better off even if she makes less money? Can we do that for people who have already chosen less lucrative service-oriented careers? There may be members of our community pondering religious life or the priesthood. They'll have to give up the joys of virtuous marriage and parenthood. How can we support them in that? They'll still want to feel like they belong to our community, so we shouldn't treat their possible vocations as oddities.
Let's assume the golden calf business in the first reading is about an alternative to Moses' Ark of the Covenant, as described above, not just an episode of simple-minded idolatry. That reminds us of how important symbols are in forming a community. What do our symbols say about the character of our community? (See a discussion of liturgical symbols (the lectionary and others), elsewhere on this site.) A friend of mine once described a monastery chapel that was very spare--with almost no decoration, not even a crucifix. Her conclusion was, "The design told me that the assembly of worshipers itself was the principal symbol." What a powerful image! What a powerful symbol is our very coming together! Think about that. Except for our shared allegiance to Christ, many of us would be at best uninterested in each other, or mutually suspicious, or rivals or even enemies. We'd be like the people on television, God forbid, because we'd have no more commanding model. Think of how different we are, and yet God is making a unified assembly of us. Our tradition's first word for "church" was ekklesia, meaning "the ones called out." From the beginning our assembly itself has been for us and for the world a symbol of God's call to a more gracious way of life. We're supposed to be different from the people held up to us by the Hollywood writers and the style-mongers of soulless materialism. Those forces offer very attractive golden calves. We have to choose very carefully the symbolic things and actions by which we say who we are and by which we reinforce that for ourselves. We don't want to be assimilated.
*The premise of Hearing the Word as a Community is that it's relatively easy to hear the Word as a personal call to conversion or to greater piety; anecdotal evidence suggests it's easy to preach the Word that way. So those endeavors don't need as much help as the more subtle and more demanding task addressed here. That is to apply the Word to the shared life of the community. That means asking how a community forges its corporate identity in response to the Word, how individuals might contribute to the common good in response to the Word, and how the Word calls people to identify themselves more closely with the community. Persons trying to hear the Word this way ask each other "Who are we to become in response to this Word" more than they ask themselves "Who am I?"
Sébastien Bourdon (French, 1616 - 1671)
The Israelites Dancing around the Golden Calf, about 1645, Pen and brown ink, brown and white oil paint
47.6 x 64.9 cm (18 3/4 x 25 9/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Click here for larger versions.
This page updated July 31, 2019