This weekend, the scriptures place us with Moses atop the mountain, and with Jesus as he recounts the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. What do these words say to us today?
Caught in the act
Today’s first reading begins like a television show that is already in progress. Moses has brought his people to the Promised Land. They are settling into their new home, and the Lord has been instructing them – like a parent who is teaching children. In this case, there are instructions about how to build the temple: the place where all the people will gather for prayer. The temple is also the place around which their communal life will revolve. There are instructions about morality: the Ten Commandments, everything that they need to know about how to live together in peace. Then, God puts his people to the test: he calls Moses to climb the mountain, leaving the others below. While he is instructing Moses about all that needs to be done to strengthen and maintain the relationship between God and his people, God is also keeping an eye on what his people are up to. In today’s language, we might say that the teacher has stepped out of the classroom but is still watching through the door to see how the students are doing.
This is when the trouble starts. The teacher – is absent from the classroom and the students, who haven’t yet gotten into the routine of working independently, try to set their own rules. God – the teacher – sees the trouble brewing and says to Moses: Go at once! Your people … your people … have turned aside from the way that I commanded them (Ex 32:7-8). The kids have been caught, but there’s another interesting thing that happens. God’s first reaction is to punish his children: … leave me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them; I will consume them, and make of you a great nation (Ex 32:9-10), but Moses is wise. He remembers that not all the people had turned away, and having remembered the good ones, God changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring upon his people (Ex 32:14).
This story is part of our story too. We are God’s people, and the relationship that God has with his people has been formed and crafted for centuries. The few years that we ourselves spend on earth are but a drop in the bucket compared to the length of time that God has spent molding this relationship. It is based on love and fed by the Eucharist and even corrected from time to time when God offers his forgiveness. From time to time, God’s children have gone astray. The temptation to play is too strong if ever we are left in the classroom on our own. Even though the teacher is watching, it doesn’t take long before mischief begins.
That’s exactly what happened in the gospel we heard today: The tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus (Lk 15:1). They had heard him speak, and what he was saying intrigued them - like children who hear a part of a story and want to know more – but the Pharisees and Scribes were the gang leaders. They didn’t want to let the new students into their circle of trust. In fact, their closed hearts led them to point the finger not at themselves, but at Jesus. Almost in whispers, they grumbled: This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them (Lk 15:2).
Luckily, our teacher loves us deeply and never gives up on us. He knows that not all of us have turned away. He gives us the example of the Saints to help us to remember this. Jesus' lessons are meant for all of us: for tax collectors, for sinners, for Pharisees and for scribes.
Now, none of us here would willingly turn aside from the way that God has instructed us, would we? And none of us would ever try to instigate any mischief if ever we were to find ourselves in a classroom without our teacher, would we? Thankfully, even if we have committed the worst of sins (cf 1 Tim 1:12-17) our teacher will always come looking for us, even when we are lost (Lk 15:4), and he will never give up until he has found every one of us, his treasured possessions (Lk 15:8) and when he finds us, he will not greet us with accusing words. Rather, he will celebrate, he will call his friends and neighbours and he will host a great celebration because he has brought us back to himself. Jesus is willing to go to any length to show us the great gift of his mercy: his willingness to forgive ... and this is the good news the Lord wants to share with us.