September 15 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Theme: Well, it's not immediately obvious to me! Something about repentance, perhaps, particularly if we want to take the lead from the psalm set for today (51:1-11); but there is no indication that Aaron and his fellow idolaters did any of that. That reading may be more about the mercy of God – or the power of intercessory prayer? But I'm going with "Backwards or Forwards?" Here's why.
Introduction. The people have committed the dreadful sin of idolatry; an offence against God. God's initial reaction is to strike back; his justice demands nothing less. But Moses pleads with God to think again. Instead of looking back at what the people have done, should you not look forward to what comes next? St Paul draws on his own experience to pursue a similar line. Instead of punishing Paul for his vendetta against Christ's followers, God called him into a new future. And in our two gospel stories, the emphasis is not on the past loss, but the future restoration.
Background. As I started reflecting on our first lesson today I was struck by the extraordinary way it speaks to the Syrian chemical weapons attack that the world leaders are presently grappling with. There does not seem to be any real doubt that a grievous sin has been committed; and most likely the principal offender is President Assad. There is something in our human nature that calls for retribution, for punishment, for such a monstrous crime again humanity. We understand why President Obama contemplated a military, punitive response. We understand it in principle, and we understand the pragmatic underpinning he has offered in support of his proposed strike. If the world "does nothing" in response to this gross offence does that not give the green light for repeat offences? Must we not punish this offence in order to deter further offending?
But the case against President Obama's argument is no less strong, in principle and on the ground of pragmatism. What will it achieve in practice? Will it not increase the number of people killed or injured in this beleaguered country, rather than reduce it? If these weapons are so "heinous" as to put them in a different class from "conventional weapons" (as Secretary of State John Kerry has argued) why does the USA (and many other countries, including Russia and France) have huge stockpiles of their own? Why shouldn't they put those weapons under international control with a view to their destruction?
All these are tough and valid questions; but as so often happens in these things the debate is moving from these cores issues to ones of reputation and the related need to save face. Can President Obama change his mind (that is, "back down") without a drastic loss of mana and influence? As the leader of the world's superpower will he not render the USA super-impotent? Already the press is assuring us that President Putin believes that President Obama is "a weak waffler". Against this sort of background can President Obama accept the Russian proposal for a way out of the present impasse, even though the idea of President Putin being a pure-minded apostle for peace with no ulterior agenda may be a little hard to swallow?
Cut to our first lesson. There is no doubt what Aaron and his cohorts have been up to. They must be punished. While it seems that God did not feel the need to argue his case as fully and coherently as President Obama, the thrust is the same. I cannot let the people get away with this. Where will it end? They must be held accountable! Now get out of my way – I'm ready to launch my punitive strike.
But Moses wouldn't get out of God's way. He argues for a different approach. He does not attempt to defend the people in the sense of denying their guilt – he doesn't argue the core issues – he turns the spotlight on God's reputation. What will the neighbours say? Look at it from their point of view. You went to enormous lengths to bring the people out of Egypt. Will it not look to the outside world that you brought them out here to slaughter them? What about all those wonderful promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Did you not promise to them and their descendants for ever, if not the whole earth, then certainly a specified portion of it? Do those promises count for nothing?
President Obama made many wonderful promises to his people, promises of peace and security, promises to end wars and bring the troops home, promises of a new, more humble approach in foreign affairs. Are those promises no longer binding on the man who made them in good faith (there's an interesting, expression!)? God, we are told, somewhat astonishingly, "changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people". Can President Obama do the same?
The question comes down to this: should his focus be on what has happened, or on what should happen in the future? Can we create a better future by repeating past wrongs? If we object to the use of chemical weapons is it not better to seek ways of ridding the world (and not just Syria) of those weapons? Would the world have been a better place if God had gone through with his original plan, wiped his people out, and started again with Moses? Yes, there would have been a lot less sinners on the earth, but also a lot less people to turn back to God and offer their worship to him instead of a golden calf. Would the world be a better place if God had wiped the villainous Saul of Tarsus off the face of the earth instead of transforming him into the fearless and peerless propagator of the Christian faith? Should the exasperated shepherd have slaughtered the roaming sheep to teach the others a lesson – or slaughtered the whole flock and imported a new ram to start over again? Should the housekeeper have burnt her house down so that she would never again know the irritation of losing a coin down the back of the sofa?
What lessons might there be in all this for us? Before I heard of the Russian proposal I had thought of the position President Obama found himself in as a large version of the one anyone in pastoral ministry knows only too well. In the presence of suffering we have a strong desire to "do something" – to relieve the pain – to right the wrong – to make things better. Sometimes there is something we can do; but usually there is not. We have to accept that we are, in the practical sense, useless, and that can be frustrating and humbling. All we can do, perhaps, is be there – remembering that compassion means to suffer with, not to magically cure the suffering. I "saw" President Obama by the bedside of the people of Syria, feeling their pain, and feeling his own powerlessness. There seemed to be nothing he could do that would make things better: in fact, whatever he did might make things worse.
But then someone – lots of someones, probably – prayed, and suddenly the darkness lifted a bit – the black despair became penetrated by a slim ray of hope – not from a source any of us might have expected. But why shouldn't the God who used Cyrus of Persia to liberate the exiles in Babylonia use Vladimir of Russia to show the path forward in Syria? When people pray circumstances change, said the great man of prayer, Father Gilbert Shaw in his famous "deathbed homily". We don't know how it happens, we just know it does. So the lesson for us today is quite simple – keep praying, and watch what happens.
Exodus. Taken at the surface level, this is a very odd passage, particularly when we remember that the expression "changed his mind" is a euphemistic translation of the word "repented"! At Moses' urging God repented! But if we take it at a deeper, inner level, perhaps it goes something like this. Moses discovers Aaron's treachery. He is absolutely furious. He turns to God in prayer, but what should he ask God to do about it. His first instinct is to ask God to strike them all dead – but slowly he calms down enough to start considering the implications of that. He has been telling others of the power and wonder of the God of Israel who rescued the people from the armed might of Egypt's Pharaoh. How's that story going to look if this same God then wipes his people out? And where does that leave Moses himself – back at square one. Has all his own part in the struggle with Pharaoh been in vain? And what about the sacred promises to the Patriarchs? And so Moses did not ask God for vengeance, but for another chance for his people.
Taking It Personally.
· Is my version a legitimate interpretation of Moses' religious experience, or does it depart too much from the clear meaning of Scripture?
· What image of God do you get from this passage? Is it more human than divine? Does God's "change of mind" speak of his mercy, or does he seem more like a "weak waffler"?
· Is the purpose of intercessory prayer to get God to change his mind about something? Is that what you are trying to do when you intercede for someone in need? If not, what are you trying to do?
· Continue to hold the Syrian people in your heart, mind and prayers. May God's will be done for them.
Timothy. Notice the wonderful way in which Paul's theology emerges from his personal experience. When he says "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners", he is not helping to draft a creed or liturgy: he is speaking from the inside of his experience. "For that very reason", says St Paul, instead of being punished for his persecution of the Church, God was merciful to him so that he might be an example to others. This experience was the driving force of all Paul's astounding missionary work: he did it for me, folks, so he can surely do it for you. When people doubt the reality of Paul's experience on the Road to Damascus, I always ask them: what do you say, then, caused Paul to have such a complete personality transplant? I haven't received a convincing answer yet.
Taking It Personally.
· Can you recall an experience of God's mercy – an occasion when you felt guilty but then experienced an assurance of God's forgiveness?
· Have you ever felt God was punishing you?
· A good day for self-examination and confession. And for thanksgiving for God's mercy and forbearance.
Luke. We have all had experiences of this kind, more as we get older. Glasses, keys, biros, telephone numbers we wrote down somewhere – and boy, does it bug us until we find the missing article. But then there is the party bit – isn't that going just a tad overboard? Yes, if we take it literally – no if we understand that we are talking at the emotional level. The joy, the relief, the sheer ecstatic triumph of finding the blanket-blank thing feels like an occasion for celebration. That's surely the point. And by the way; notice that in our first reading there was a party as well – revelry, no less. Aaron and his partners in idolatry held a party to celebrate – what? In these two stories that which was lost is now found – that is worth celebrating. Notice that no economic considerations enter these stories. The loss of one sheep out of 100 may not have justified going to great lengths to find it; and it may not have been fiscally advantageous to spend hours of her time – not to mention burning oil in her lamp – to recover one coin. But some things are always beyond price, aren't they?
Taking It Personally.
· Do you hate losing things, and keep looking until you find them? Why?
· Is there something or someone you have "lost" at the moment? Have you given up the search? Is it time to resume?
· Are you more inclined to conduct an inquest into what went wrong, than set out to put things right? (Nothing is said about how the sheep or the coin was lost.)