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Did Moses Change God’s Mind?

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2022

Two scenes present themselves today. First, there’s Moses on Mount Sinai, pleading with God on behalf of the people’s idolatry. We don’t hear the whole story of the golden calf, just God’s reaction to it: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

But Moses reminds God of his promises and, in an echo of Psalm 74, asks God to “maintain [his] own cause.” And remarkably, God does look graciously upon his covenant and, in the words of Exodus, he “repents” of the evil that he thought to do.

Second, there’s the parable of the prodigal son. Or rather the parable of the two sons, as many people call it, for it is in fact as much about the older brother than the younger—maybe more so, even, when we consider the context.

This whole conversation starts with the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners. In response he tells two short parables—the finding of the lost sheep and the lost coin—riffing on the theme of heaven’s joy at the repentance of a sinner. To drive the point home, the longer parable of the father and two sons gives us an even worse sinner: one who reaches the true depths of depravity and misery but later comes home to a father whose mercy and forgiveness rise to the challenge. In this version, though, the older brother gives a very clear representation of those who, like the Pharisees, resent the sinner’s late repentance.

These two scenes give us an opportunity to think about scripture and revelation in their totality. This is very important for Catholics, and really for anyone who takes divine revelation seriously. We all know how easy (and problematic) it is to pick out a single verse out of context and use it to form an erroneous opinion or, taken further, a whole new theology or Christian sect. But simple context doesn’t always give us the tools to deal with difficult texts, such as the notion in Exodus 32:14 that God “repents.”

If we have a primitive understanding of deity and think of God like the ancient Greeks thought of Zeus or the Canaanites thought about their Baals, there’s no problem, because gods are gods due to their immortality or their power, not due to their intrinsic metaphysical distinction from creation. Yet the Jewish scriptures give us a rather different picture of divinity. And so, the statement in Exodus 32 has to be paired with a statement like that of Numbers 23:19, where “God is not a man that he should repent.” On the surface, both verses cannot be true. Either we must interpret the one in the light of the other, or we must declare one to be incorrect—something that as loyal disciples we cannot do.

The second statement, on God’s non-repentance, reflects a growing understanding of God’s nature that we see unfolding not just in ancient Israel but among pagan philosophers like Socrates and Plato. For divinity to mean anything, the divine nature must be something transcendent. Otherwise, he is simply the biggest piece of creation. But Genesis shows God not just as the first thing but as the source of everything that exists, which means that his own existence is categorically different from the existence of all created things. More and more, as time goes on, the prophetic and wisdom literature of the Old Testament reflect this understanding.

God’s self-revelation, in other words, happens in stages. As Moses learns in Exodus, a full view of his glory would destroy us. We can only see him from the back, from a distance, in passing. But, as Paul speaks about it in the New Testament, the law was a kind of tutor, training humanity towards a greater capacity not just for virtue but for vision. It is only in Christ, and in the New Testament revelation of the Trinity, that we see revelation in its fullness.

What does all this mean for God’s “repentance” in Exodus 32? Presumably Moses and the people of Israel do not yet have this full metaphysical understanding of the divine nature. So, the tradition suggests, God allows himself to be known in an adapted anthropomorphic way. God doesn’t change. But God’s will does take into account human will and response.

This gets at the heart of the mystery of prayer. God doesn’t change. But part of God’s unchanging will is that his creatures participate and cooperate in his work. He does not change, but we do. And surely part of how we change is just in this learning more and more about the God who reveals himself to us.

What changes between Exodus 32 and Luke 15, between the God who wants to destroy his people in wrath and the God who welcomes the stray son back with mercy and grace?

What do we understand now, in light of Christ’s own revelation of the heart of God? We understand that it is God’s “property always to have mercy,” as our prayer of humble access says. We understand that God’s grace is freely available, overflowing from his wounded side like a torrent of power and love, waiting to wash us and heal us and nourish us in the sacraments. Like the father in the parable, God is ever running towards us to meet us and bring us home. He holds no grudges. It costs him nothing to be merciful—or rather we should say, it costs him nothing that he has not already given, for he has already given everything in his Son.

God is not just sitting around looking for a reason to punish us. He is not like a spider dangling us over the fires of hell, in the famous image of Jonathan Edwards. We do that to ourselves quite well, thanks to our corrupted sinful nature and the encouragement of the powers of darkness at work in the world. God doesn’t have to “repent” to show mercy. We do. We have to repent. And when we do, God is ready to save us.

Not everyone likes this. There will always be the older brothers of the world, whether the long-time Catholics who resent converts, or the frequent penitents who look askance at those waltzing up to holy Communion week after week, or those looking for an excuse to judge the other guests at the wedding banquet.

But today we also find those who go to the opposite extreme, who suggest that because “Jesus ate with sinners” then sin doesn’t matter and everyone is just fine the way they are. But God the Son did not take human nature and die on the cross to tell us that everything is okay. He did it both to bring us to repentance and to show that no power in this world can stop him from accepting that repentance.

Whether we are the older son, or the younger son, or one of the hired hands, we have a loving Father who cannot and will not stop loving us, who shares with us his own life. All we have to do is ask.

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