SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Ex 32:15-2430-34Ps 105:19-23Mt 13:31-35 ]

We can imagine how angry Moses was with the infidelity of the people to the Lord.  He had just returned from meeting the Lord at Mount Horeb.  He came down from the mountain “with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on the front and on the back.  These tablets were the work of God, and the writing on them was God’s writing engraved on the tablets.”  And as he arrived, he heard the chanting of the people, the dancing and worship of the golden calf.  We read that “Moses’ anger blazed.  He threw down the tablets he was holding and broke them at the foot of the mountain.  He seized the calf they had made and burned it, grinding it into powder which he scattered on the water; and he made the sons of Israel drink it.”

Was his anger justified?  Perhaps such anger would not be justified today.  We read that he even ordered the sons of Levi “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’”  The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day.” (Ex 32:27bf)  Yet, in the ancient days, such anger was justified because it was such a grave sin and could destroy the whole community if it were not checked.   The purity of faith was something that the prophets sought for the People of Israel, as they could be easily influenced by their pagan neighbours.  This is true in our situation today.

With globalization, migration and mass media, we are being secularized.   As a result, today the purity of faith in many of our religions are compromised or are undergoing great changes, forced by situation to adopt values that seem to contradict the Word of God.   Indeed, once the evils of society penetrate our faith, especially the hierarchy and leadership of the Church, the values are compromised.   This is the stark reality of the Church today.  Many of our leaders are making false compromises to please the crowd.  This was precisely the mistake of Aaron.  When Moses confronted him for misleading the people, his excuse was, “You know yourself how prone this people is to evil.  They said to me, ‘Make us a god to go at our head; this Moses, the man who bought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Who has gold?’ and they took it off and brought it to me.  I threw in into the fire and out came this calf.”

Like Aaron, many leaders today are no longer shepherding their flock, teaching them right from wrong.  Rather, they seek popularity and are acting more like coordinators, allowing the people to lead them, and to choose what they will.  This is the downside of democracy, where decisions are decided based on the whims and fancies of the community, depending on how they are indoctrinated, influenced or bought over.   This explains why it is so difficult for the Holy Father to revamp the Church, or the bishop his diocese, as the infiltration of alien values and doctrines contrary to the Church have been imbibed by weak leaders.  They want to feel loved and accepted by the people and so give in to their desires and wishes.

Moses however would take no nonsense from his people.   He was very clear about the costs of allowing idolatry to take root in the people.  He took action immediately and his actions appeared to be rather harsh in our assessment today.  But it was necessary to deter the people from being so easily swayed by the foreign gods of the lands around them.  He punished the people and he ordered them to be killed.  Why were such measures necessary?   Why was the sin of idolatry such a grievous offence against God in the Old Testament?  Because it the sin of all sins.  By turning away from God, the living reality to an illusion, we worship nothingness.

St Paul in his letter to the Romans called the sin of idolatry the ultimate sin, the sin that leads to all other sins.“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”  (Rom 1:18-21 cf Rom 1:22-31)  When we reject God and make our own gods, we make ourselves our own gods, worshipping creatures, our passions and living a debased life.   Relativism is the consequence of agnosticism.  Amorality is the consequence of relativism.

Indeed, the first commandment of the Decalogue clearly states, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents.”  (Ex 20:2-5a)  Images are prohibited simply because God cannot be captured in such images.   God is beyond images.  He is pure Spirit.

To reduce God to an image of this world is to reduce the dynamism of God.  He is not a static God but a trek God, always on the move and always with His people, “I am who I am.”  He cannot be placed in a little temple even.  That was what the Lord told King David when he wanted to build Him a temple.  The Lord said, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”  (cf 2 Sm 7:5b-7)

The prohibition against images of God does not preclude the images to express our devotion to God, which we call sacramentals.  Signs and symbols are necessary to help us to encounter the presence of God, as in the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple of Jerusalem, the Sacred Scriptures, the Crucifix and the cross, other images and icons of Christ and saints, because these are means by which we remember the goodness and mercy of God.  So it is not wrong to make use of images and icons of those people who lived in our midst, just as we keep photos of our loved ones with reverence.   Christ, for us, is the greatest image of God as St Paul tells us.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible – all things have been created through him and for him.”  (Col 1:15f)

Yet, in the final analysis, we must safeguard what we wish to inculcate for our community, the values and the beliefs.  In the gospel, Jesus, makes it clear that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed and the leaven in the dough. Everything begins small, good or bad.  If we plant good values, then “when it is grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.”   But if we plant wrong values, then, like the yeast which is also a symbol of evil and impurity, it can cause the Church to grow in the wrong way.  The Lord is warning us, especially leaders, educators, parents and those in authority, how we want to influence the world, for good or for evil.  What we sow today will be what we reap tomorrow.  “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Gal 6:7) Are we sowing the seeds for the Kingdom or the weeds of the Evil one? “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (Gal 6:8)

Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore