Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the Book of Exodus. God has liberated the slaves from Egypt and sent them on the path to the Promised Land. But when Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments he learned that his people turned away from God and began to worship pagan gods. Angered, God threatened to destroy them, but Moses pleaded for mercy, and God relented. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was criticized for associating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responded with parables. He talked about a shepherd who loses one sheep and leaves the rest to search for him. He talked about a woman who lost a coin and burned a lamp to find it. Finally he told what we now know as the parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons. His younger asked for his share of his inheritance, cashed it in, and hit the road. He squandered his share and found himself in poverty. When this son recognized that his father’s servants lived better than him, he resolved to return home asking to be treated as his father’s servant. Instead his father celebrated his son’s return by holding a party because he “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”
So what’s a God to do? What if you created a people and gave them everything they wanted, and then (having all that they needed) they walked away? That’s really what’s at the heart of these readings. In Exodus the descendants of Abraham escaped slavery only because God chose Moses to free them from Egypt. God parted the sea to allow them to escape and led them to the promised land.
But with Egypt still on the horizon, with Moses climbing Mt. Sinai to bring down the Ten Commandments, these newly freed slaves turned away from God and worshiped a pagan god that they formed out of melted gold. From the time of Abraham God asked only two things: recognize Me as your creator and worship no other god.
It didn’t take long, did it?
But in a fascinating twist, it was Moses who counseled patience. God essentially offered Moses a do over: “Leave me, now, my wrath shall blaze out against them and devour them; of you, however, I will make a great nation.” I have to tell you, I would have taken this choice in a hot minute. Moses’ merry band gave him nothing but headaches, and God gave him an opportunity to get a better “chosen people.” But instead Moses appealed to all God had done for them. He reminded God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph. And while (by any measure) God should have cut his losses and started over God was persuaded and showed mercy.
I believe this theme continued into today’s Gospel. I have to confess a little frustration when Jesus speaks of shepherds and sheep. Because nearly everyone Jesus spoke to knew about the relationship between humans and sheep, and we do not. When most of us think about sheep we think about trips to Costco and how lamb appears to be created in shrink wrapped plastic.
And so let me bring some context: any shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find one who is lost will starve to death. God bless them, sheep brains are not prime real estate. Left to their own devices they will all wander off in search of food and find wolves a curiosity rather than a mortal threat. When the shepherd comes back with his lost sheep he will find himself alone.
Jesus continues this with his example of the woman who lost one of ten drachmas and lit a lamp until she could find the lost one. In the time of Jesus a drachma was a silver coin: not as valuable as gold, but more valuable than copper. But here’s the thing: in that time lighting a candle was expensive. Most of the time they burned tallow (animal fat) which was expensive and hard to come by. Instead of lighting the lamp to look for the lost drachma she could have easily waited until morning and let the sun provide the light.
It’s easy to miss this point, but Jesus is telling us that God doesn’t use our common sense in how God deals with us.
These readings tell us that God’s wisdom makes no sense to us, and it shouldn’t. We live in a world of limited resources, when we sometimes need to make hard decisions to cut our losses and to live with less than what we hoped for. Sometimes we need to write off investments that will never pay off, or walk away from relationships that know will always be unhealthy. Our limited ability to love fully sometimes means we need to walk away from each other.
But today’s readings tell us that God’s ability is not limited and we should never forget that.
When we read from Exodus, let us not identify with Moses, but instead recognize that sometimes we are those who melted the gold into the fatted calf. We all fail to fully love. To our parents, to our siblings, to our spouses, to our children.
And in our better moments we recognize our sinfulness. But I look at these readings with deep gratitude to Moses. Moses challenged God and argued against a “do over.” And when we look over God’s relationship with us, God has never again suggested a do over. God has been with us in our best moments and our worst moments. Since the days wandering in the desert God has never stopped rooting for us.
And God knows how many times God’s patience has been tested. We can look at wars, holocausts, discrimination, and unreturned phone calls understand how God offered Moses a do over.
But God believes in us enough to trust us enough to be worthy of Moses’ plea. Let’s not let God down today.