Mar 31, 2022: Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

1st Reading – Exodus 32:7-14

The LORD said to Moses,
“Go down at once to your people
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
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!’
The LORD said to Moses,
“I see how stiff-necked this people is.
Let me alone, then,
that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.
Then I will make of you a great nation.”

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,
“Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt
with such great power and with so strong a hand?
Why should the Egyptians say,
‘With evil intent he brought them out,
that he might kill them in the mountains
and exterminate them from the face of the earth’?
Let your blazing wrath die down;
relent in punishing your people.
Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,
‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky;
and all this land that I promised,
I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’“
So the LORD relented in the punishment
he had threatened to inflict on his people.

Today’s first reading reports the dramatic exchange between God and Moses immediately after the incident is known as hēt’ ha‘ēggel, or the Sin of the Calf. It was a grave sin of apostasy, one which merited severe punishment.

When Moses went up into Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12–18), he was gone for forty days. While he was away, Aaron was unable to refuse the people when they pressed him to give them a god they could see and touch — the kind of god other peoples had.

The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.

The people have turned their backs on God, breaking the covenant almost immediately.

Notice how God no longer calls them “my people” but “your people,” that is, Moses’. God seems to be disowning the Israelites for their infidelity.

They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, 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!’

In the ancient Near East, it was common practice to construct images of gods for purposes of worship.

The golden calf may not have been intended as a false god, but as an image of the Lord himself, with his strength symbolized by a young bull. However, the Israelites had been expressly forbidden to create images of God under any visible form (Exodus 20:4), a commandment intended to prevent any occasion of idolatry — and indeed the calf itself became for them an idol. The people wrongly perceived it as the god who brought them out of Egypt.

The LORD said to Moses, “I see how stiff-necked this people is.

The stiff-necked description calls to mind an ox or mule that will not respond to the tug of a rope around its neck; it resists by stiffening its neck. This is a colorful way of describing stubbornness, but it also debases the person being described by comparing them with plow animals.

“Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.”

The punishment that the sin deserves is death, as the first sin did (Genesis 3:19) and the sin which gave rise to the great flood (Genesis 6:6-7).

God suggests destroying the Israelites and beginning anew with a people that springs from Moses. This was the same promise that was made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2, and would have been a tremendous blessing for Moses.

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?

Here more than anywhere else, the greatness of Moses is seen. Rather than accept God’s amazing offer, Moses pleads for the preservation of the people.

Moses uses three arguments to persuade the Lord to remain faithful to the Sinai covenant even though the people have broken it. First, they are God’s own people, redeemed with God’s great power.

God brought them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, amid signs and wonders — it would be a shame to destroy them now.

Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent he brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and exterminate them from the face of the earth’? Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people.

The second of three arguments: God’s reputation will suffer if the Israelites are destroyed.

Since their dramatic exit from Egypt, the eyes of the Egyptians and all the neighboring nations were upon Israel. If a people so strangely saved were suddenly ruined, the glory of God would be diminished.

Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’”

The last of the three arguments: The covenant with Abraham still stands.

God promised to make their descendants, not Moses’ descendants, a great and numerous people and to bring them into a land that was to be theirs forever. How could God possibly break those promises?

So the LORD relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.

As the story is told, Moses is successful in his defense of the sinful people, and God relents.

God forgives his people, not because they deserve to be forgiven but out of pure mercy and moved by Moses’ intercession.

God is faithful to God’s promises to love and protect. What began as a story of a people’s sinfulness became a story of God’s forgiveness.

Of course, God doesn’t actually get angry or change his mind. This is an example of anthropopathism, ascribing human emotions to God. In our efforts to understand God, we attempt to show his passionate involvement in the lives of the people within the confines of human language.

Depicting God in human ways has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it brings God very close to our own reality. On the other, it saddles God with our limitations. In order to portray Moses as an unselfish mediator between God and the people, God is depicted in a less than flattering manner. Still, God does listen to the entreaty of Moses; God does relent; God does give the people another chance. How else but through anthropopathism can we depict the passion God has for us?

Psalm 106:19-23

R. Remember us, O Lord, as you favor your people.

Psalm 106 recalls the sins committed by the people and how God forgave them at the Red Sea, in the desert, and in the land of Canaan.

The passage we use in today’s liturgy focuses on the episode of the golden calf and echoes the story of Moses’ intervention on the people’s behalf from our first reading.

Our fathers made a calf in Horeb and adored a molten image; they exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bullock.

Glory is something only God has; any glory ascribed to the Israelites is a reflection of God’s glory and of their status as his chosen people.

Abandoning the glory of God for something the psalmist describes as “the image of a grass-eating bullock” is an act portrayed as grossly and scandalously absurd.

They forgot the God who had saved them, who had done great deeds in Egypt, wondrous deeds in the land of Ham, terrible things at the Red Sea.

The Israelites had been endowed with God’s divine revelation, not only in the words God spoke to them but in the wondrous works he wrought for them.

This astounding revelation — that the Lord Jehovah is the only true and living God and is alone to be worshipped — was forgotten by the Israelites.

Then he spoke of exterminating them, but Moses, his chosen one, withstood him in the breach to turn back his destructive wrath.

Moses had a special relationship with God; the psalmist holds him up as a model intercessor. Moses did not pray for himself but for the people whom God made his own.

Gospel – John 5:31-47

Jesus said to the Jews:
“If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.
But there is another who testifies on my behalf,
and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true.
You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth.
I do not accept human testimony, but I say this so that you may be saved.
He was a burning and shining lamp,
and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light.
But I have testimony greater than John’s.
The works that the Father gave me to accomplish,
these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.
Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf.
But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form,
and you do not have his word remaining in you,
because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.
You search the Scriptures,
because you think you have eternal life through them;
even they testify on my behalf.
But you do not want to come to me to have life.

“I do not accept human praise;
moreover, I know that you do not have the love of God in you.
I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me;
yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him.
How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another
and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?
Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father:
the one who will accuse you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope.
For if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me,
because he wrote about me.
But if you do not believe his writings,
how will you believe my words?”

Today we continue our journey in John’s gospel, once again picking up where we left off yesterday.

Jesus is in the midst of a discourse with Jewish leadership about his relationship with God the Father.

Jesus said to the Jews: “If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.

Because Jesus is the Son of God, his own word is self-sufficient, it needs no corroboration. However, as on other occasions, he accommodates himself to human customs and to the mental outlook of his hearers: He anticipates a possible objection from the Jewish leadership to the effect that it is not enough for a person to testify in his own cause (Deuteronomy 19:15).

He will go on to explain that his claims are endorsed by four witnesses: John the Baptist, Jesus’ own miracles, God the Father, and the Sacred Scriptures.

But there is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true. You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth. 

John the Baptist bore witness that Jesus was the Son of God (John 1:34).

I do not accept human testimony, but I say this so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light.

Although Jesus had no need to have recourse to any man’s testimony, not even that of a great prophet, John’s testimony was given for the sake of the Jews, that they might recognize the Messiah.

But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.

Jesus can also point to another testimony, better than that of John the Baptist: the miracles he has worked, which are, for anyone who examines them honestly, unmistakable signs of his divine power, which comes from God the Father.

Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form, and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.

God the Father bears witness to Jesus’ identity not only by his divine power as demonstrated by his miracles; he also manifests the divinity of Jesus on other occasions: Jesus’ Baptism (John 1:31-34), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8), and later in the presence of the whole crowd (John 12:28-30).

You search the Scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.

Jesus appeals to another divine testimony, that of the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament. The Scriptures speak of the Christ, but the Jewish leaders fail to grasp the Scriptures’ true meaning because they read them without letting themselves be enlightened by him whom God has sent and in whom all the prophecies are fulfilled.

From here, Jesus will go on to identify three obstacles preventing his hearers from recognizing that he is the Messiah and Son of God: 1) their lack of love of God, 2) their striving after human glory, and 3) their prejudiced interpretation of sacred texts.

“I do not accept human praise; moreover, I know that you do not have the love of God in you.

Jesus’ defense of his own actions and of his relationship with the Father might lead his adversaries to think that he was looking for human glory. But the testimonies he has adduced (John the Baptist, the miracles, the Father, and the Scriptures) show clearly that it is not he who is seeking his glory, and that the Jewish leaders oppose him not out of love of God or in defense of God’s honor, but for their own reasons or because of their merely human outlook.

I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me; yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him.

The Old Testament leads a person toward recognizing who Jesus Christ is (John 1:45; 2:17,22; 5:39,46; 12:16,41); yet the Jewish leaders remain unbelievers because their attitude is wrong: they have reduced the messianic promises in the Scriptures to the level of mere nationalistic aspirations.

How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father: the one who will accuse you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. For if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

The outlook of the Jewish leaders, which is in no way supernatural, closes their soul to Jesus’ words and actions and prevents them from seeing that the ancient prophecies are coming true in Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).

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