The golden calf (Exodus 32,7-11, 13-14) is not only a story about an ancient past, it is a story about us all. Imagine, if you will, this lovingly-created idol, glistening in the torch light of the Israelites. It was made at a time of fear, when they felt lost and directionless on their long journey through the desert. Outwardly, our age seems so confident. We celebrate two centuries of great achievements in health, education, agriculture, science, technology. Yet these advances simply highlight the remaining poverty of the human spirit. How strange that in a world where there is more than enough food for all, children go to bed hungry night after night. How amazing that after all the wars of the past, there is still warfare and fear of strangers. How disconcerting that at this time of individual fulfilment, marriage and family life are given so little respect.
Perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, many people in the West have felt afraid, insecure, and have turned to idols to comfort them. Idols, I would suggest, that carry names like luxury, nationalism, or celebrity. Luxury: It is good to provide for yourself and to relax in recreation. But it can spin out of control into selfish indulgence that ignores the needs of others. Nationalism: It is good to love your country and to feel that you have roots. But sometimes national pride can be inflated and especially when this is allied to power, it can become dangerous. ‘Might is right’ becomes the hidden creed. Celebrity: Many have commented that in our times celebrities can become famous without actually achieving anything. Others aspire to emulate them. In what sense are these idols? Idols were adored and gained power over people. Ancient Israel knew that only God should be worshipped. An idol, moreover, drained life, while giving nothing in return. God, by contrast, is a generously life-giving God.
In all three of our readings today we hear of one way that God gives life. In Exodus, idolatry is forgiven. In 1 Timothy 1.12-17, St Paul writes that he was forgiven blasphemy, and that love came into his heart when he accepted Christ Jesus. In the gospel (Luke 15.1-32) we hear wonderful and moving parables from Jesus about God loving those who stray and yearning to bring them back. Each of these readings celebrates a generous, merciful God, who never gives up on those he loves.
One last thought. The Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey draws attention to how in his teaching Jesus draws on the life experience of both men and women. Examples are the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (Lk 15.3-10) and the parallel parables of the farmer who plants mustard seed and the woman who kneads yeast into bread dough (Lk 13.18-21).
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Brook Green, west London. His latest book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, on ICN's front page. To read Sr Gemma Simmonds' review on ICN see: www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16114