The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, 11 October 2020
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Background: The Golden Calf a god or a throne?
Perhaps it is best not to begin right there but, in the period, afterward. In Deuteronomy 10, YHWH instructs Moses to make an Ark out of acacia wood, and ark that would contain the tablets upon which the Words were written. However, this was not just a container, it was also either a “footstool” or a “resting place” (see Psalm 132:6-7. Such an arrangement was common in the ancient near east, where gods or goddesses were enthroned either on an animal, or, as in this case, “between the cherubim”. So, what was the situation with the golden calf? Was it a replacement god, a stand-in for the absent Moses, or a throne for YHWH? Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 – 1164) who wrote both in Spain and in England, saw it as a “pedestal for God.” It is interesting that in the reporting of this scene in Deuteronomy, the people incur God’s wrath, but they are not punished to the extent that is reported in Exodus. Perhaps in Deuteronomy God did not see a rival god, demanding the worship of the people, but rather a pedestal for God’s presence, a resting place that God did not desire or request. This explanation adds even more power to the First Commandment which warns the people about making images.
First Reading: Exodus 32:1-14
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So, all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
There are several themes that tie together the unit formed by Chapters 32-34 in Exodus. There are several instances of Moses speaking and communicating with God and accompanying that Moses' intercession with God for the people. There is the giving of the law, and explication of the law. Finally, there is the theme of God’s presence, and God’s judgment of the people, and forgiveness of them. All of these wider themes which occupy these three chapters are evident here in this pericope.
There is a dynamic of opposites in this reading: Moses and YHWH up on the mounting (and absent from the people), and Aaron and the people dealing with the situation down in the camp. It is full of movement between all of these parties as we learn more and more about the covenant that is being cut between YHWH and the people. Brevard Childs, in his commentary, sees the ferment in the difficulty with the people in the theme of absence. Think about it: God cannot be seen (at least not like the gods of Egypt or Canaan), and their leader Moses is gone, absent, leaving them to deal with the difficulties of the wilderness. He, (Childs), seems to agree with some of the rabbinical thought used in the Background article above. “The people’s request is for a substitute to take Moses’ place in leading them. Clearly Aaron’s response is to this demand. He has no idea of rejecting YHWH,”
see verse 5, “Tomorrow is a feast of YHWH.”
This might be a wonderful theme that would take us away from the fantasies of Cecil B. DeMille in The Ten Commandments. In our time, in these days, many see God as absent from the difficulties of the pandemic and national leadership. If this pericope is full of dispute and partisan communication, then it might be a good lesson for us who are having difficulties in speaking with our sisters and brothers during this time.
Finally, there is the wonderful theme of a repentant God. “And the Lord changed (God’s) mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” If God can do it, forgetting the faithlessness of God’s people, then perhaps there is hope for us as we deal with our neighbors and friends.
Breaking open Exodus:
1. With whom have you had disputes over religious matters?
2. In what ways is God absent for you?
3. In what ways have you forgotten God?
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 Confitemini Domino, Et fecerunt vitulum
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
for his mercy endures for ever.
2 Who can declare the mighty acts of the Lord *
or show forth all his praise?
3 Happy are those who act with justice *
and always do what is right!
4 Remember me, O Lord, with the favor you have for your people, *
and visit me with your saving help;
5 That I may see the prosperity of your elect
and be glad with the gladness of your people, *
that I may glory with your inheritance.
6 We have sinned as our forebears did; *
we have done wrong and dealt wickedly.
19 Israel made a bull-calf at Horeb *
and worshiped a molten image;
20 And so they exchanged their Glory *
for the image of an ox that feeds on grass.
21 They forgot God their Savior, *
who had done great things in Egypt,
22 Wonderful deeds in the land of Ham, *
and fearful things at the Red Sea.
23 So he would have destroyed them,
had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, *
to turn away his wrath from consuming them.
Psalm 106 comprises eight sections with an introduction. Unlike the psalm (105) that precedes it, which celebrates the covenant YHWH makes with Abraham, this psalm is a history of Israel, and its lack of faithfulness to that same covenant. The nine sections are: a) (verses 1-6), Introduction, b) I (verses 7-12), The Delivery from Egypt, c) II (verses 13-15) Israel forgets, d) III (verses 16-18), Challenging Moses, e) IV (verses 19-23) The Golden Calf, f) V (verses 24-27), Complaining, g) VI (verses 28-31), Idol worship, h) VII (verses 32-33). The waters of Meribah, and h) VIII (verses 34-48) God remembers the Covenant. Our reading this day is from the Introduction and Section IV – the making of the golden calf. The introduction is framed as a confession, and the last section in our reading as the sin confessed. Moses becomes the one “who stood before (God) in the breach.”
Breaking open Psalm 106:
1. What is your golden calf?
2. Who is your intercessor with God?
3. Where do you see and experience God’s forgiveness?
First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
The first verses (1-5) form a Psalm of thanksgiving, for a victory over an unknown city at an unknown time. The verses in this chapter celebrate God’s victory over evil and sorrow. One commentator thinks that these verses originated at the time of a victory over a major city, perhaps over the Assyrian capital. It is the remnant (a theme of Isaiah’s) who sing this sung, thanking God for what has happened here.
The scene changes in verses 6-9. Now we are on a mountain (the home of the God of Israel, and the place from which the Law came). But know it is a time of feasting with all of the best of things. Of importance here is the fact that the feast is not an exclusive even but rather one for all peoples. For the shroud and sheet (sorrow) that have covered them is withdrawn. The final verse explains the result, “let us be glad and rejoice in (God’s) salvation.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What shroud of sorrow hangs in your life?
2. What makes it possible to have the feast?
3. Who are “all the peoples” that God has in mind?
Psalm 23 Dominus regit me
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
This psalm is so popular and loved that it is a bit of a challenge to wrest something new from its verses. It’s actually in two parts, the first celebrating the image of God as shepherd, and the second at the scene of a banquet (the perfect accompaniment to the second half of the Isaiah reading). With regard to the first part, there are two things to be remembered. The first is that this psalm and others refer to the return from Exile, as a sort of new Exodus. The green pastures, still waters, and the right pathways all remind us of the provisions that God makes for the pilgrim, the returnee. The other thing that needs to be remembered is that the shepherd was a common image for both god and king in the ancient near east. One only has to think of the flail and hook that were the signs of royalty in Egypt, as one example of this metaphor.
The banquet scene might be the one at the end of the journey of return with abundant food, relaxation and the true signs of a future. The oil of anointing, and the luxury of an over-flowing cup makes this a scene of extravagance – the sumptuousness of God’s grace.
Breaking open Psalm 23
1. How does your faith take care of you?
2. Into what new land or future has God brought you?
3. How do you share the richness of your table with others?
Second reading: Philippians 4:1-9
My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Paul’s closing comments to the Philippians encompass two themes, living in concord and knowing joy and peace. Paul wants them (and himself) to look beyond present difficulties and challenges, and to see a future that is full of promise. His recommendation is that they “stand firm in the Lord.” He quite unashamedly intends that his life should serve as an example to them. He graces them not only with his life, but with the lives of those who have labored with him – Eudoia, Syntyche, and Clement. The verbs in this passage are in the first plural, not the second. Thus, it is we and not you. His encouragements are meant for both himself and those who follow his lead. All of these relationships are bound up Christ Jesus. The message is succinct, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Breaking open Philippians:
1. Who has taught you how to live in peace?
2. Whom have you taught?
3. What peace do you hope to discover?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again, he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
We have two parables here, and perhaps two differing purposes for them. In both of them the scene is of a wedding feast – a sign in Matthew of the kingdom of God. Luke’s version of this parable has some differences. The excuses given in Luke are not frivolous; they were sufficient to exempt a man from military service, and the 13th verse of the Lucan pericope, gives us the usual Lucan agenda of attending to the poor, sick and blind. Matthew, however, sees the excuses as unforgiveable, almost vapid. There is no valid reason for not attending to the invitation. Since the wedding invitation is in reality an invitation into God’ kingdom, as Matthew sees it, the anger of the king becomes understandable.
The second parable reminds me of the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25. There and here it is a parable about being prepared, and especially in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, about how to wait. In this parable it is not oil that needs to be procured, but rather clean clothing. Albright and Mann make this observation, “The man in question had attempted to enter the Kingdom without prior repentance.” So there is more than the simple invitation, and entering the door. There are responsibilities on the part of those invited. The Lutheran part of me wonders what the acceptable work must be. The Anglican part of me, doesn’t wonder, but just trusts.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What are your reasons for staying away?
2. How have you neglected to prepare?
3. What does repentance mean to you?
General idea: Living in the feast
Example 1: The trouble with the absence is the waiting (Track One: First Reading)
Example 2: The feast may come at the end of the journey (Track Two: First Reading, and Psalm 23)
Example 3: What are the acceptable behaviors in the Kingdom (at the Feast)?
Example 4: Being aware of the opportunity (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller