Thursday April 3, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week of Lent
Reading (Exodus 32:7-14) Gospel (St. John 5:31-47)
In the readings today, we hear about the people of Israel trading in their worship of God for false worship, in something that was so exceedingly blatant as making a molten calf and bowing down and worshiping it out in the desert. The calf, of course, for the Egyptian people was one of their gods of travel; he was the god of the desert. Also, he was a fertility god, and so he would provide rain for food and things like that. So one could understand, coming out of the background that they were in, why they would worship a golden calf. Whereas, for us, to think of bowing down before an image of a cow sounds pretty stupid, but for them it would make some sense from where they came out of. But the fact is that they had given up on God and went to worship a piece of metal.
In a much more subtle form in the Gospel, we see Our Lord chastising the people because they do not believe in Him. And more than not believing in Him, they do not believe in the Father nor do they believe in Moses. The point is that the people in the Old Testament did not really believe in Moses and so they made a golden calf; of course, they did not believe in God either in doing that. Now He is saying, “You are doing the exact same thing. It’s just that you’re not making an image of metal and bowing down before it, but what you’re doing is denying God and you’re making yourselves into god.” He says to them, “How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another but do not accept the praise that comes from the only God?” And so He is pointing out to them that what they have done is to make themselves into little gods. He points out several times in this reading that John gave testimony on His behalf, the Father gives testimony on His behalf, Moses gives testimony on His behalf, but they do not listen to any of it. They listen to human testimony, but not to anything else.
Once again, what they have done is to take the very Scriptures that they claim they would find salvation in and they have denied what they [the Scriptures] say. It is not that they denied it outright. They would say right along, “Moses promised a prophet. God made these promises to us.” But when the promises are fulfilled, they did not accept them. And so that is what Our Lord is pointing out: “Just as when Moses went up the mountain and he was there for forty days and forty nights and the people thought that he had died and started to panic and made this golden calf, so now after all these years, God has fulfilled His promises and you do not want to believe. You have traded in the glory of God for something which is entirely false.” Not in worshiping an image of gold, not worshiping an image of a bull that eats grass, but this time trading it in for an image which is the self – which is an even worse idolatry than bowing down before an image of gold that they themselves had made.
That is the condemnation Our Lord is putting upon these people. And all we can do is look at our own selves and ask, “What would He say to us today? Would He suggest that we are doing a whole lot different?” We claim to believe in Jesus and yet what do we do with His Word? Do we believe what it is that He said? Do we put it into practice? Do we have our focus on Him? Are we seeking Him in our prayer? Are we seeking Him in our lives and in the way that we live? Or are we more focused on the self? Most Americans, we have to admit, are the biggest idolaters with regard to self that there probably has been in any other generation. We are very much caught up into ourselves in this society – and very little caught up into Jesus Christ. And that is where our trouble comes. So the Lord, in speaking this way to the people of Israel, convicts us as well if we fall into this same sort of problem. It is a very subtle form of idolatry rather than the blatant form that the people did out in the desert – but in that subtlety, it is a far worse form.
So, again, we need to get the focus off the self and we need to put the focus on Jesus Christ. He alone is the One to Whom we can look to be saved. We are not going to be able to save ourselves; we have no hope in ourselves. Our only hope is in Him and that is how we have to live. He came into this world, sent by the Father. He has the Father’s testimony; He has the testimony of Moses; He has the testimony of John the Baptist; He has the testimony of every saint that has lived. So we are without excuse. If the people of His own time were without excuse, we have even less excuse. We need to put our focus where it belongs. We need to get it off ourselves and we need to put it on Jesus.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.