During the season of Lent, the Office of Readings gives us long narratives from the book of Exodus. We think Ten Commandments, plus the hundreds that follow. But much of the first half of the book continues the Genesis narrative. The reader/listener is drawn most deeply into the suffering of Israel in Egypt and God’s agency in their deliverance through Moses and into a land of promise.
But first, a wilderness must be traversed. And while on that journey, God offers a note of reminder and affirmation:
In the third month
after the Israelites’ departure from the land of Egypt,
on the first day,
they came to the wilderness of Sinai.
After they made the journey from Rephidim
and entered the wilderness of Sinai,
they then pitched camp in the wilderness.
While Israel was encamped there
in front of the mountain,
Moses went up to the mountain of God.
Then the LORD called to him
from the mountain, saying:
This is what you will say
to the house of Jacob;
tell the Israelites:
You have seen how I treated the Egyptians
and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings
and brought you to myself.
Now, if you obey me completely
and keep my covenant,
you will be my treasured possession
among all peoples,
though all the earth is mine.
You will be to me a kingdom of priests,
a holy nation.
This would be an interesting reading to provide for a communal celebration of Penance. It’s not given as part of the official Lectionary for the sacrament, but it is included in the readings for the 11th ordinary Sunday in cycle A. We might go several years without hearing this reading if the big post-Pentecost feasts take priority. One can also hear Exodus 19 proclaimed annually at the extended Vigil of Pentecost, the second Old Testament reading. Again, not a common experience in today’s Catholicism.
What is significant about this exchange just prior to the giving of the Decalogue? God is setting the tone for the future relationship with the Israelites, and by extension, all humankind. I notice three aspects.
First is memory. Once slaves in Egypt, the people assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai are urged to remember their deliverance. Literally, the sea opened for passage, and the pursuing army was destroyed. Here, some poetic license is taken: eagles lifting a needy people. Not a Middle Earth rescue, but a metaphor for God drawing people to himself.
Second, obedience is not adhering to a whimsical god with arbitrary commands, but a complete commitment. The God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and their descendants is a serious God to be reckoned with. Who wouldn’t want to sign on to that completeness?
The most important aspect: covenant. God and human beings have entered into a mutual contract. Each side has duties and responsibilities. God offers much in return. A poor and needy rabble wandering in the wilds of the desert will be a kingdom. In that nation, citizens will be able to communicate directly to God–each individual person. God also offers holiness. No longer will there be castes based on one’s status as clergy. This might well be one of the oldest rejections of gnosticism in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In its Sunday appearance, this reading is paired with Jesus sending disciples. The context of forming a nation of priests seems clear enough there. We inherit the mission of the apostles. It’s not just a Pentecost thing. The call of baptism is the call to follow Jesus and to gather disciples for a kingdom under our saving Lord.
This reading reminds us of rescue. Likely we haven’t been delivered through a dry sea or borne up on the wings of eagles. But God does offer forgiveness for sin. Is that a comparable miracle? Only if we embrace it. God calls us a treasure. Do we believe that? Do we see our Church as a holy community, even outside of our saints, bishops, priests, theologians, mystics, and those vowed to sanctity? Maybe we could do so.