In a couple of weeks, I lector at an 8am Sunday Mass. There are a few things that the lector does differently at that Mass, and I’ve goofed up once or twice. I don’t like goofing up while in the direct service of God, so this morning I was going over a mental checklist of what I have to remember for the ‘special’ 8am Mass a few weeks from now.
For one thing, the priest, deacon, and lector don’t do a full procession down the center aisle, we simply come in from the side and bow to the altar. At a normal weekend Mass, the lector has two short readings, as well as a few other responsibilities — but at the 8am Mass, the lector also leads the responsorial psalm in between the first and second readings – and then says (or sings) the Alleluia after the second reading, just before the Gospel is read. That makes four separate things to do – in a row – before sitting back down. To me, it always seems like ‘a long time’ up there, and I feel like I should be ‘getting out of the way’ to let the Mass continue – so towards the end I mentally rush. In fact, I have been known to forget the Alleluia all together – which leaves the priest (or deacon) walking across the altar to read the Gospel in an awkward silence.
So – that explains why the Alleluia was on my mind this morning before Mass. Now, I happen to like singing the Alleluia (along with the aptly-titled ‘Alleluia verse’) – but that means I need to know what that verse is ahead of time, because it changes each week and I have to make up a little tune for it. As I was still getting ready for Mass, I couldn’t look up what the verse was going to be, but because of my own ‘hardness’ lately, I was really hoping the verse was ‘If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart’. I even started making up a little tune for it.
So when I get to Mass this morning, guess what the ‘response’ to the responsorial psalm was? You guessed it! (Or, if you didn’t guess it — well, c’mon…catch up!)
Everything I’ve typed so far is simply lead-in. For me, the phrase ‘harden not your heart’ reminds me of when God tells Moses to offer Pharaoh a choice: free the Israelites, or else suffer terrible consequences. Now, we all know the story of the confrontation and the plagues, but what strikes me is that God tells Moses that he will ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’. In fact, I just scanned Exodus chapters 4-14 (RSV), and counted ten times where God had either ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’, or said that he would. Doesn’t that seem supremely unfair? Especially given that the consequences were plagues and death for so many?
Ok, let’s look again. In at least three places (Ex 8:14, 8:32, and 9:34), it is very clearly stated that Pharaoh hardened his heart – of his own free will. (In a few other places it’s ambiguous – as in ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ – but by whom?)
So, was God ‘fibbing’ when he said that he was responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart? No – he was stating the absolute truth – succinctly, and without filling in all of the details. Let me explain how I see it…
First of all, I happen to like this apparent ‘unfairness’ of God that shows up in Exodus. On one hand, I like puzzles – and this is a puzzle, because I don’t believe God can be unfair. On the other hand, on a personal level, I can be very stubborn and proud – and this story hits pride on the head with a mallet.
I can speak from experience on pride. A proud man has no worries – as long as he is not forced to confront his own pride. If he is forced to confront that pride, however, it can be very difficult. For me, it can be an inner struggle of enormous magnitude. It can cause my lips to quiver as I finally bring myself to say ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘I need help’, or ‘I was wrong’. And sometimes, like Pharaoh, I simply stand my ground and suffer.
A proud man is perfectly fine – until he is up against ‘The Choice’. In this context, ‘The Choice’ means the direct and immediate choice between being humble and experiencing great pain or loss. At the point of making such a choice, a man can choose to soften his heart – or harden it. It’s his own free will. It’s the requirement to make ‘The Choice’ that makes things so difficult for the proud man. Choosing between being humble, or being in pain. Choosing between being more like Christ, or suffering dire consequences. It seems to be an easy choice – and therefore it seems to me that the only thing that could possibly make that choice difficult is direct interference from the Evil One (through his greatest tool, pride) – because no rational, intelligent person would choose the pain, the hardship, the anguish.
So, as an immensely proud man, Pharaoh freely chose to harden his own heart — but he never would have had to make the choice unless God (through Moses) had first placed ‘The Choice’ in front of him. But make no mistake, the choice God gave to Pharaoh was a fair one. But because God knows everything, he already knew Pharaoh’s unfortunate response. God simply used a ‘verbal shortcut’, and instead of saying he would ‘give Pharaoh a choice’, he simply said he would ‘harden his heart’ – knowing full well that Pharaoh had free will at all times. So God told the truth, and was quite fair. God’s reputation is intact.
So, if today you hear His voice (or the voice of your spouse, or child, or parent, or neighbor)…harden not your heart.