“Yet with most of them God was not well pleased.”
As Christians, we are at home with the idea that God entered human history at various times over the centuries. We can put approximate dates on the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush, on the exodus of God’s people from Egypt, and on their later captivity in Babylon and Assyria. We can put an approximate date on the birth of God as man in the person of Jesus Christ, and on His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Even though precise dates, in the modern sense, are elusive, we can point to these things as real events that took place when Ramasees was pharaoh in Egypt, or when Cæsar Augustus ruled Rome.
Apart from Judeo-Christianity and its Moslem offshoot, the other religions of the world do not have this sort of historical foundation. Lacking such a foundation, the other religions of the world tended to develop from local myths created by people to explain the world that they saw around them. Primitive societies tended to be most concerned with weather and agriculture, or, perhaps, the hunt. They personified these things as their gods—the sun god, the fertility god, the buffalo god, and so forth. More advanced societies, in which basic existence was not so precarious, projected human relations into their gods—the goddess of love, the god of war, and maybe even the emperor or king himself as a god. In almost all cases, though, there was no claim that these gods had ever taken a real part in human history—any intervention on their part was known through mythic legend, and took place at some vague time in the primordial past.
Again, generally speaking, the gods of the ancient world were local figures. A man from Egypt, for example, would not have much trouble with the idea that the people in Babylonia worshipped different gods, or that those in Greece worshipped yet another set of gods—things were obviously different as one moved from one place to another, so it made sense to the ancient mind that different gods must be controlling things in those different places. We even find that when the Assyrians conquered and colonized Samaria, they were concerned that the new inhabitants ought to worship the gods of Samaria, lest those gods be felt slighted and cause trouble for the new inhabitants. (It turns out, of course, that the “gods” of Samaria was the one God of the Jews—but that is another story for another time.) For the pagan world, there was no question of one religion being more or less correct than any other, but only that the gods in any given locality be appropriately honored. It was a sort of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
In the more advanced civilizations of the ancient world, we find that even while the people worshipped their traditional mythical gods, there were philosophers who tried to make sense of there surroundings through human reason, instead of through recourse to the legends of the gods. Even before the time of Christ, in diverse places like Rome, Greece, India, and China, we find that men were able to develop philosophies which gave them fairly reasonable guidance about the way in which they should behave toward one another, how societies ought to be structured, and even some good conjectures about the origin of man in the world and his purpose in eternity. Understand, though, that such philosophies were not religions. These men may have continued to worship the local gods, even though they had developed a separate ethical system through human reason. The Greeks: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are good examples; as was Seneca among the Romans, Confucius among the Chinese, and Buddha among the Hindus of India—their philosophical systems were quite separate from their religion, for their gods were mythical, while their philosophies were an attempt to deal with the realities of life.
In Saint Paul’s words this morning, he obliquely refers to the departure of the Jewish people from the pagan land of Egypt. Paul was describing something more than an escape from slavery, for up until this point in time the Jews were only vaguely conscious of their role as God’s people. They were the circumcised sons of Abraham to be sure, but God had not as yet revealed to them the way in which He wanted to be worshipped; had not as yet explained to them their origin and their destiny; and had not as yet given them His commandments. From their perspective while still in Egypt, the God of Israel was not much different from the gods of the other nations—a sort of local or tribal phenomenon.
But all of that changed with the Exodus, for at that time God took a direct and personal interest in their affairs. It was God who parted the waters, figuratively “baptizing” them in the sea as Paul says—and it was God who allowed the waters to close again on the pursuing army of the Egyptians. It was God who fed them with the “same spiritual food and drink” Paul mentions; the quail, and the bread from heaven called manna, and the water Moses brought forth from the rock in the desert. Paul equates the rock with Christ, perhaps as an allegory of the water flowing from His side, an allegory of the graces of His sacraments. It was during the Exodus, as well, that God gave them His Commandments, and divinely inspired Moses to set down the words of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), so that God’s people became unique in the world, having the true religion prescribed by the One God, and having a philosophy arising not through human understanding, but arising, rather, from God’s revelation.
“Yet with most of them God was not well pleased,” Paul tells us. Why? What did they do? The answer is that many rejected God, in spite of His delivering them from the Egyptians, in spite of His feeding them in the wilderness, and in spite of revealing of His Law to them. Some openly complained against God, and wanted to return to the slavery of pagan Egypt, where at least the food was a little bit better! Others were not comfortable with the concept of a single God who spoke privately with Moses, and made a golden calf to worship while Moses was on the mountain. Others would mingle with the tribes of the desert, marrying their women, and worshipping their false gods, even offering their children up in sacrifice, and following the false philosophies of the pagans.
Note, please, that Saint Paul was relating this information to Christians. He had traveled to Corinth, preached to and baptized a goodly number of people there, and wrote at least two letters to them to urge them to persevere in the Faith. He wrote to them, but he wrote also for our benefit—indeed, for the benefit of all the baptized who have to live in the world, and who might be tempted by the pleasures of the world to the exclusion of the one true God and the Faith of their Baptism.
In fact, in the very next few verses of the epistle Paul continues on:
Paul knew that there would always be the possibility that God’s chosen people, the baptized Christians, might be like their forebears in the Old Testament. There would always be the possibility that people would abandon the true Faith and adopt the false gods and the false philosophies of those around them in the world—that they might abandon the one true God and His one true religion, in exchange for whatever the locals were doing wherever they found themselves. Particularly if the food were better, or the morals looser, the Christian weak in his faith might decide that it is easier if “we all get along.” There is that danger of “doing in Rome what the Romans do,” rather than doing what God wants and has commanded of us.
Saint Paul is calling upon us in the modern world to “run the race so as to win it”—he is calling upon us to be strong in our Faith. God has revealed Himself through Moses and the Prophets, and ultimately through Jesus Christ—our Faith is not founded on myth but upon divinely revealed reality—we must not exchange the authentic Faith of Jesus Christ for “whatever the locals are doing,” not just because “we should all just get along,” or for any other reason whatsoever.
Today we start the season that culminates in Lent and Easter. Make sure that you resolve to use this time as an opportunity for re-commitment to the Faith of your Baptism. It should be a time of prayer, of spiritual and scriptural reading, of good works, and of frequently attending the Mass and the Sacraments—it must be a time of return to the one true God and to the Faith He has personally given to His people.
of these things happened to them as a type,