In the first reading this Sunday God threatened to destroy the Israelites, and make Moses’ descendants the sole inheritors of the land of promise. After the Israelites had constructed an idol to worship, God said, “Let . . . my wrath blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10) This is an image of God that is often associated with the ancient history of Israel, an image of God as jealous, angry and needing to be appeased.
The parable in the Gospel offers a very different image of God. The father in the parable dotes on his two sons. He is unnaturally forbearing with the profligate son who squanders half of the family estate, and he is equally patient with the whining son who stayed home. (One wonders if the father would have preferred that the whiner leave home instead of the one who was willing to be treated as a hired worker.) If we cast God in the role of the forgiving father in the parable, we have an image of God as surprisingly generous to sinners who don’t merit generosity or mercy.
Through the centuries of Christianity many people have taken note of the apparent differences in the portrayals of God in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. Some of the more interesting heretical sects of the past have gone so far as to propose that these two testaments of Scripture refer to two different Gods: one angry and vengeful, the other merciful and forgiving.
Our inability to see these two distinct images as both referring to the One, True God might be a reflection of an inadequate understanding of God and an inadequate understanding of the purpose of religion.
In the event in the book of Exodus God put Moses in the position of having to take responsibility for a people who had sinned grievously. They had violated the central tenet of the Covenant; they had engaged in idol worship. Moses accepted the challenge to be mediator and tutor to the people of Israel. He did not abandon them, and he reminded God that God had not abandoned the faithful patriarchs.
In the Gospel parable the father takes on a role similar to the roles of Moses and God in the first reading. The father was not tempted to reject the son who had rejected his family, and he avoided alienating the son who felt alienated by his brother’s shameful behavior. In each case the father took the initiative to reconcile those who would otherwise be lost.
In both Exodus and Luke, God is the God who acts first, the one who initiates the Covenant and the one who creates the possibility of repentance for those who break the Covenant. Both images are the same: a God who acts first on behalf of sinners.
This should lead us to examine our understanding of both God and ourselves. What is the purpose of religion and religious practices?
Is religion what the faithless Israelites made of it in the desert? Is religion something we choose for ourselves when life is challenging? At the time of this event in Exodus Moses had been on the mountain top with God for forty days. The Israelites had grown fearful that Moses would never return. They didn’t feel prepared for life alone in the desert; as a consequence, they made a god for themselves as a way of finding comfort and solace in a frightening situation. It’s easy enough to understand the temptation to seek self-made security.
Is religion what the Pharisees in Jesus’ time made of it? The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel was Jesus’ response to a complaint by some religious leaders who said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) They used their religious practices as a means to feel superior to those around them. In our era, that prizes self-esteem above all else, it’s easy to see the allure of such a religious practice.
Is religion what Moses and the father in the parable did? Moses accepted responsibility to lead the Israelites, not just through the desert but also back to the righteous path of faith. The father in the parable accepted the burden of reconciling his two sinful sons to one another and to himself. Perhaps religion is for the purpose of serving others rather than ourselves. This is certainly not a perspective that we are likely to receive from our culture, or arrive at through our own deliberations.
Both the Israelites and the Pharisees used religion to give themselves a sense of security; the Israelites were afraid of being alone in the desert, and the Pharisees were afraid of being perceived as too much like the majority of people. Both groups were entirely self-serving. In contrast, Moses was willing to burden himself for the sake of his people, and the father in the parable was willing to burden himself for the sake of his sons. The Scriptures offer an image of religion as other-centered rather than self-centered.
If religion is primarily about serving others, rather than ourselves, what might we do with this time we’re spending in Church? How can we use this time to serve others?
First of all, our primary purpose in gathering here is to give thanks to God for God’s goodness. The Sunday celebration of Eucharist is less about counting our blessings than it is about showing gratitude to the One who has blessed us. Secondly, our faithful and full participation in this sacrificial meal serves as an example for the world to follow. Our community’s celebration of the Eucharist ought also to inspire us to greater charity and mercy.
A religion that serves our own needs first is corrupt and idolatrous. (Exodus 32:7-8) A religion that condemns others is a betrayal of God’s own mercy. (Luke 15:1-2) A religion pleasing to God is one that focuses our attention beyond our personal worries and concerns. A religion that brings forgiveness and reconciliation does so because it is an imitation of God’s own mercy.
What is your understanding of the purpose and nature of religion? More to the point, what does your religious practice say about your understanding of God?