If you are old enough to remember the comedian Flip Wilson from the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll recall his comedic signature: “The devil made me do it.” He got a lot of mileage out of that line. Why? Because, as is true with all good comedy, there is an element of truth in it. We don’t often know why we do stupid things. It must be the devil.
Today’s reading from Exodus finds Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets inscribed with ten commandments, commandments that signify the people’s covenant relationship with God. What does he find? A golden calf, an idol, this image upon which the people have placed their hope.
His own brother Aaron says to Moses, “You know well enough how prone the people are to evil,” as if that were an excuse. He could have said just as easily, “The devil made me do it.”
Without a doubt, the Israelites were tired of wandering the desert after leaving Egypt. They were frustrated, maybe even angry, so they create the proverbial “golden calf” to assuage that frustration. It is so tempting to off-load that pent-up anger to someone or something else, creating an idol upon which to place hopes for a better life, rather than to take personal responsibility for their lives.
All around us today we see evidence of the frustration people feel. It was there before the pandemic, but Covid-19 exacerbated people’s sense of being lost and alienated, which has fueled our anger. We are short-tempered. We lash out at others. We demonize others who are not like us. We, too, look for an idol in whom to place our hope – maybe a person, maybe a political party, or maybe a drug of choice.
It is telling that when called out for poor behavior, a person often says, “I’m really not a bad person. I’m not a bigot. That was not really who I am.” In other words, “The devil made me do it.” A far better thing to do might be to stand at the foot of the Cross, gaze upward, and say, “Lord, help me. I’m scared and alone and frustrated. Show me your love and mercy.”
Robert Hotz is a consultant with American City Bureau, Inc. and was the Director of The Passion of Christ: The Love That Compels Campaign for Holy Cross Province.