In the Lectionary

September 11, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

A remarkable feature of the Hebrew Bible is the freedom of the faithful to talk back to God. The psalmist can ask impatiently, “How long, O Lord?” Job can wish for his day in court, if only the divine judge and prosecutor would show up to hear him plead his case. Jeremiah can ask in no uncertain terms why he was seduced, abandoned, and made a laughing stock (20:7–12). Moses, with whom the Lord would speak face to face “as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11), can explode when the Lord’s chosen people refuse to eat their manna. And speaking of the people, Moses is quick to recall that they were entirely God’s brilliant idea, not his. He sputters and foams at the Almighty: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?” (Num. 11:12).

In each of these cases, the Lord’s beloved has a legitimate complaint. At other times the tables are turned and God is the one who is exasperated and aggrieved. Because of the great outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, let the cities of the plain be swept away! And yet here comes Abraham—by his own admission only “dust and ashes”—who worries that in this cataclysm, the righteous might be disposed of along with the wicked. Whereupon the bargaining begins, until the “Judge of all the earth” is persuaded by Abraham to be merciful (Gen. 19).

James calls Abraham a “friend of God” (2:23). In this week’s reading from Exodus, Moses presumes upon a similar divine friendship to offer God advice after the debacle of the golden calf. Tables are turned here: Moses is told that the errant Israelites are his responsibility, not God’s. All the Lord wants to do is wipe the slate clean—to let his wrath “burn hot against” the idolators, to destroy them and then start all over again with just Moses. With fire up his sleeve, let the “stiff-necked” truly be dust and ashes.