Today’s gospel has Jesus taking the Scribes and Pharisees to task for forgetting what is really holy and treating things as sacred while ignoring God who is holiness itself. Apparently, they thought that swearing an oath by the gold of the temple was more binding than an oath simply sworn on the temple itself: but, Jesus asks, isn’t the temple what makes the gold holy? And they confused swearing an oath by the altar and by the gift on the altar. They had forgotten that the altar is what makes the gift holy. But even more than that, they had been so caught up in details, that they forgot that God is holy, and makes anything that can be called holy, holy.
Now, Jesus isn’t saying that people should disobey the first and third commandments, using God’s name as an assurance of an oath. Swearing by the name of God isn’t to be taken lightly. But what he is saying is that the Scribes and Pharisees needed to straighten out their flawed notion of holiness. God is holy; and he alone makes holiness.
So today might be a call for us to take a moral inventory of our own notion of holiness. What have we been putting before God? What do we hold sacred? Do we have idolatry in our life? Do we sometimes forget that, as we say in the Gloria: “you alone are the holy one, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high…”?
So Jeroboam set up idols, and led the people into sin. That’s just about the most rotten thing one person can do to another. My seminary professor used to say that leading another person into sin was worse than murdering them in cold blood, because murdering them could only end their life on earth, but leading them into sin could end their life in heaven. This is why the catechism teaches us that leading someone into sin is a violation of the fifth commandment.
I think that sometimes, reading the books of Kings, you almost feel like you need to take a shower. Beginning with the adulterous murder committed by David, every king was worse than the one before him. And Jeroboam picks it up in today’s extremely ugly episode, which, when we think about it, echoes the sin of Aaron in the desert, when he gave in to the people’s desire for a calf of gold.
Jeroboam’s sin didn’t stop at just a couple of idols though. He created priests who would carry out the religion he invented. He created a whole system of worship that absolved him of responsibility to the God who created him, the God who led the people to safety in the promised land, the God who exalted him to the position of king. But, as we well know, there is no way to run from God. Unfortunately, that wasn’t such good news for Jeroboam and his house.
So I think the lessons here are strong enough. First, worship God and worship God alone. Put nothing and no one ahead of him. And second, love others enough not to lead them into sin or cause them scandal. When it comes down to it, it comes down to the basic of all moral rules: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. As Jesus would say in the Gospel: that is the law and the prophets.
In our first reading, Moses stood before God to turn away his wrath from his people. Jesus, of course, perfects that by paying the price for our sins. Where Moses stops God’s anger for a time, Jesus’ sacrifice reconciles God and humanity forever. Jesus is telling the Jews, particularly the religious leaders of the time, that they had missed the real message of Moses; if they hadn’t, they would have accepted him. Jesus rebukes them for not accepting praise from God alone, which is really rebuking them for idolatry. It’s a caution we can accept also today, a caution to focus on God’s action in our lives and accept his grace for what we need.