Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp." But he said, "It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear." As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" And Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off' so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf !"
On the next day Moses said to the people, "You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." So Moses returned to the Lord and said, "Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin, but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written." But the Lord said to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin."
Jesus spoke another parable to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world."
As our life moves on, some sins of our past seem to meet with their nemesis. Sooner or later the poison of sin works its way through the body so that it suffers the consequences. Even though God did not immediately punish the people for worshipping the golden calf with such lustful revelry, Moses hears that in due time they will be punished. Yet, their story does not end here, for there is another aspect of the mystery of salvation, for "though your sins may be like scarlet, I will wash them white as wool."
Jesus spoke about matters "hidden since the foundation of the world," quoting from the opening lines of Psalm 78, "Listen, my people, to my teaching. I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter mysteries from of old." This long psalm of seventy-two verses recounts the history of Israel, from the exodus from Egypt to the choice of David as king and Mount Zion as the sacred site of the temple. Through Ps 78, the story of the people's idolatry of the golden calf becomes a part of God's eternal mystery of mercy and salvation, hidden since the creation of the world.
The Book of Exodus declares more than once that God is faithful to his people even to the thousandth generation. Yet God also says, "I will punish them for their sins." Where is the right balance to be found, between the promise of mercy and the threat of punishment? Perhaps if we combine Jesus' parable about the mustard seed with this threat that sin will be punished, we may get a genuine sense of the process of purification. Because "Israel," each of us as God's chosen people, contains the high potential of the mustard seed, the mystery of good life is developing within us, if we try to recognise and resist the temptation to live selfishly and sinfully.. Goodness and grace will triumph, and the healthy body will eject the poison (the mystery of sin and evil ). Then at the end of all, we shall be found cleansed, healed and sharing in the life of God.
These two parables are an image of Jesus' own ministry. His work in Galilee is like the mustard-seed and the leaven, small in scale and something not very promising. Jesus was not sweeping all before him; he was going about his work quietly without fanfare. Yet, the parables suggests that these small beginnings hold the promise of something wonderful to come, just as the mustard seed becomes a tree where the birds of the air build their nests and the tiny leaven has a huge impact on three measures of flower.
Humble beginnings can have an extraordinary outcome when the project in question is God's work. There is an encouragement to us all to keep doing the little bit of good we are able to do. It may not seem much in our own eyes or in the eyes of others, yet God can work powerfully through whatever little good we do, in ways that will surprise us. We can all plant the equivalent of the mustard seed; we can all be the equivalent of the leaven. The little initiative, the small gesture, the offer of help, can all bear fruit in ways that we could never have imagined at the time. The Lord can work powerfully through our smallest efforts if they are done out of love for him. Our calling is often to plant some good seed and to trust that the Lord will do the rest.