What Will the Neighbors Say?

Monday, May 12, 2014 – 4 Easter, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 41, 52 (morning) // 44 (evening)

Exodus 32:1-20

Colossians 3:18-4:6(7-18)

Matthew 5:1-10

I tend to think that worrying about what our neighbors think and say isn’t a particularly healthy approach to life. I don’t mean “neighbors” in the sense of the parable of the Good Samaritan. By “neighbors,” I mean “the Joneses”: all of the people whom we are tempted to please or to impress instead of remaining true to our values and vocations. But, to my surprise, even God worries about his image from time to time.

In today’s first reading, the Lord’s temper flares. The people’s impatient desire for theological certainty has led them into idolatry. While Moses was conferring with God on the mountain, the people “saw that Moses delayed to come down,” so they asked Aaron to make them some other gods. As for Moses, “we do not know what has become of him.” To these people, there is no room for awaiting or for agnosticism. They need their faith right then and there!

When God sees that the people have pooled and smelted their precious metals to form a golden calf, he orders Moses to go down to them right away. God says to Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” If the people want a molten god, then they’ll sure get one.

Then Moses uses a surprising tactic to persuade the Lord to cool off. Moses’ speech to God is basically a version of, “What will the neighbors say?” Moses asks God, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” If the Lord expresses his burning and destructive anger, then the Egyptians will have every reason to reject this foreign god as irrational and cruel.

The Egyptians would have a point: What kind of god would liberate people only to destroy them? What kind of god indeed.

Moses musters all of his knowledge of God’s purposes and promises in order to remind God that his nature is to be liberating and merciful. In the end, Moses succeeds: “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” In response to Moses’ appeal, the Lord remains the one who frees in order to save, and the one who offers mercy because he is in a relationship with us for the long haul.

Of course, anger itself doesn’t subside entirely. When Moses comes down the mountain, he burns the calf, grinds it into powder, scatters the powder on water, and makes the Israelites drink it. But Moses has not only destroyed the people’s material idol, but also dismantled a wrathful and destructive impression of God.

With Moses’ intervention, God fulfills his purpose of liberation and his promise of mercy. And with Moses’ powers of persuasion, God becomes the kind of God we can be overjoyed to share with our neighbors. Perhaps we can, to some degree, help shape the image of God after all, from a god of burning and molten anger to a god who is truly worthy of our worship and faithfulness.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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