The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 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"? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, "I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Our fathers made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock. (R./)
They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Marvellous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea. (R./)
Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
stood before him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath. (R./)
Jesus said to his disciples, "If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John's. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?"
Today’s readings describe different responses to angry criticism, which is such a common human response to current events. Our Jewish forebears had a positive genius for complaining, on their long camino through the Sinai desert. So much so that God tells Moses how stiff-necked they are, how unwilling to be led. In today’s text, the Lord is ready to abandon the Hebrews and produce a new people, founded not on Abraham but on Moses and his sons. "I will make of you a great nation." We may wonder, is this a projecting into the mind of God of Moses’ own frustration? He had hesitated himself, at times, especially when told to strike the rock to find water (Num 20:6b-13). If Moses is confusing his own inclination with the will of God, then how well he is mirroring ourselves. Like Moses we too can imagine that our own inclinations are an expression of God’s holy will!
Like Moses, Jesus often had to face the arguments of his critics. On witnessing how he healed a man who had been lame for many years, they carped that such activity was forbidden on the Sabbath. Both Jesus (and the early church) patiently and carefully explained the reasons for his actions. Jesus appealed to their experience of John the Baptist, again to his own miracles as works of his heavenly Father, to the interior presence of God the Father within the mind of each person, and to the Scriptures.
From a pastoral perspective, we should value winning hearts above winning arguments. During a lively discussion often we must decide to concede a minor point in order to reach a positive outcome. Inner conviction and patient serenity will eventually win the day. This attitude enables us to persevere and lessens the temptation to quit. Perhaps our faith community will eventually, after apparent failure and long delay as in Moses’ case, cross the river Jordan and enter the promised land. Our deeper aim is not to win arguments but to win hearts for God.