Sunday 15 September 2019
Moses, the Calf, the Shepherd and the Sheep
Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
By Rob Esdaile
Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey
Context: a congregation of 150 of all ages in a largely wealthy middle-class suburban parish in which many have very pressured lives
Aim: to let Jesus lead us beyond a religion of denunciation to the joy of encounter
We have an interesting menagerie of animals in our scriptures today – one golden calf (inanimate, of course) and a flock of 100 sheep, very much alive (but one of them sadly lost). The Golden Calf is heaped high with opprobrium in the biblical record. It is the very epitome of idolatry, something inherently sacrilegious, blasphemous, a betrayal of the Covenant (and if we were to read on for a few verses we’d see Moses throwing down and shattering the two stone tablets of The Law in vivid expression of the fact). However ‘unreal’ and lifeless it may always have been, the Golden Calf had and has enormous symbolic power. The people didn’t want a living God. (Do we ever, really? That’s the question!) They wanted a mascot to go at their head and lead them into battle. They wanted the validation of their own choices, a ‘god’ entirely in their power, following where they chose to go, rather than showing them the way and challenging their choices; a ‘god’ to baptise their prejudices.
Idolatries, Religious and Secular
Disturbingly, Aaron the Priest was all too willing to placate the mob and give them what they wanted, crafting a petty deity as a substitute for the great ‘I AM’; an idol in their own image rather than the One who might teach them to discover God’s image in each other. The story reminds us that religion as easily cloaks self-interest and exploitation as unmasking them and protecting us from such abuses. Even when society dispenses with faith (as much of our culture claims to do), the false gods emerge regardless: the artificial idealisations of youth, beauty, image; the shameless pursuit of power; the cults of convenience, consumption, leisure, and the rest. Sun worship, too, is alive and well and is a principal motor of the travel industry! Idolatry is in our DNA. The Golden Calf is clearly damnable – and promptly gets destroyed by a furious Moses. If the incident is recalled it is offered as an awful warning to the people, not held in fond remembrance.
Not Condemnation but Joyful Homecoming
But if we turn now to the two Gospel Parables which we hear today, the atmosphere could not be more different from the Sinai scene. Here there is no room for condemnation, but rather only joy. Perhaps we do not notice the fact, but there is no criticism of the wandering sheep, although anyone who has ever gone in search of a straying dog or a lost cat (never mind a wandering sheep in desert heat) knows how utterly frustrating the search can be. The lost sheep isn’t labelled foolish, naughty, wicked or perverse. Its lostness is simply stated, because the lostness is not the point. Lostness is only the prelude to being found, to a triumphant homecoming, borne aloft upon the shepherd’s shoulders, and to a celebration among friends. As with the Parable of the Prodigal Son which follows, there is no time for condemnation in these two stories, just the urgency of gathering people to celebrate the Good News: ‘I have found my sheep that I have lost’ and ‘Rejoice with me, I have found the drachma I lost.’
The Crazy Heart of Jesus
In these Parables Jesus takes us to the heart of his mission and his understanding of his role. These stories are his answer to the Pharisees and the Scribes who criticise him for ‘welcoming sinners and eating with them.’ Moreover, so Jesus says, these celebrations here below are only a faint echo of the greater rejoicing among the angels in heaven. He is acting out the cosmic drama of redemption, one dinner party at a time! As he says a few chapters later, at the end of the story of Zacchaeus: ‘The Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.’ (Lk 19.10) and as John 3.17 famously puts it: ‘God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world but so that through him the world might be saved.’
Here we hear the heart of Jesus – and here we discover that his mission is also a little crazy. Leaving 99 sheep unattended in the wilderness in order to find one is not normal behaviour! Calling out the neighbours to tell them you’ve found a few quid down the back of the sofa would certainly raise an eyebrow in our understated suburban society … and it is also probably going to cost you a good part of that drachma in tea and biscuits!
Recognising our Story
Which face of religion are we more comfortable with? A furious Moses denouncing idolatries and safeguarding the purity of faith from the holy Mountain, or a slightly crazy shepherd going in search of the lost and holding parties in their honour when he finds them? And how great is our God – One able to lead us where we need to go or a pocket-sized deity who follows our desires? And how open are we to the ‘Friend of Sinners?’ On the one hand, are we ready to be found when we are lost, or would we rather pretend that all is fine? On the other, do we have the freedom of heart to share in others’ joy when the Lord seeks them out? For that joy amidst brokenness is a glimpse of heaven.
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