[Excerpted from the March/April 2018 issue of Emmanuel. Brother John R. Barker, OFM, is a Franciscan friar of the Province of Saint John the Baptist (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.]
All committed relationships are risky because they carry within them the possibility of betrayal, infidelity, and pain. This is especially true when the relationship is between the holy and faithful God of Israel and fragile, sinful human beings. God’s fidelity to Israel is tested almost from the moment of the covenant’s inception at Mount Sinai. The scene of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) exemplifies both the human propensity to turn away from God ― frequently out of fear, confusion, or ignorance ― and the divine capacity to stay the course in the face of human infidelty and ingratitude.
This paradigmatic dynamic, which is replayed over and over in the Bible, is captured again in this week’s first reading. The historical reference is to the final destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the burning of Jerusalem, God’s holy “dwelling place.” The summary report reminds the reader of the years of struggle that preceded the fateful moment, a history of repeated human infidelity met with insistent, even desperate, divine pleas to turn back to the relationship. But in the end, it was to no avail and God had to resort to the unthinkable ― the destruction of his beloved city and the exile of his beloved people ― with the hope that this drastic measure would lead to a reformation. With the advent of Cyrus, the time of restoration was thought to be beginning. God had turned his face once more toward his people and was showing them mercy.
In a real sense, Israel experienced the exile as a form of death. But on a more significant level, the exile represented, however temporarily, a rupture in the relationship between Israel and her God.