the golden calf
This image of the golden calf that we heard in today’s reading (Ex 32:7-14) is intriguing. While Moses is not only having the Law dictated to him but also having his most intimate mystical encounters with the Lord––remember, just before this in Exodus 19 and 24, Moses encounters God in the cloud and in the thick darkness––the Israelites have pretty quickly forgotten the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, brought them out of slavery into freedom, fed them manna in the wilderness, and made water flow out from the rock[i], and they’ve set up this false god instead, who is more accessible, if gaudy, looking for some short term gain.
Idolatry is a pretty serious sin in our tradition. Remember what’s next: Moses talks God out of wreaking any serious punishment on the people, but he himself burns the calf, grinds it into powder, scatters the powder on the water and makes them drink it, and then––if the writer is to be taken literally––tells the sons of Levi to go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp and kill your brother, your friend and your neighbor.[ii] Paul and Peter both bring it up again too in the New Testament, on par with sorcery, carousing, and drunkenness as well as associated with things like jealousy, strife, dissension and anger (Gal 5:20; 1 Pt 4:3). In the Letter to the Colossians he says greed is actually the same as idolatry.
How many golden calfs do we have in our lives? Our idolatry may not be as gaudy or obvious as the Israelites’. It could be as simple as Augustine’s idea of disordered love: cherishing popularity more than integrity; clinging to our own comfort over the common good; falling back on the status quo rather than facing the challenge of the new life and new spirit that the Spirit offers. I heard someone else bring this example up once: perhaps we have experienced a moment of real love or even pure holy eros––but then we settle for lust. Maybe we have had moments of real bliss in our prayer and meditation, but then we get bored and restless (that nasty noonday devil, acedia) and drift off into killing time, filling the day with distractions. Maybe we could think back to our own initial fervor, that moment of conversion; but, as in some marriages, after some years it can all get a little humdrum and drab, and we start fantasizing about something (or someone!) more exciting––a golden calf of some sort.
I was reminded of this from the letters of Abhishiktananda:
Only one thing is real, the present moment, in which I am face to face with God, begotten by the Father in Jesus the divine Word, in the communion of the Holy Spirit. All the rest [little pieties], how small they are, compared to this reality which is even now before me. We are like rich people with bags of gold, who waste their time over copper farthings. I only preach one thing: Realize what you are, at this moment: see yourself in the bosom of the Trinity, where your Baptism, your communion has placed you, and be faithful to yourselves, to what you are.
All the little golden calfs. All the cheap gaudy little trinkets we settle for when the real treasure is buried right here, in the field of our daily lives, in the still small voice, and in the depth of our own being.
[i] Exodus 16 and 17.
[ii] Ex 32:15-29.