The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, 12 October 2014

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23

Philippians 4:1-9
St. Matthew 22:1-14

Background: The Golden Calf and Enthronement

The LORD is king, the peoples tremble;
he is enthroned on the cherubim, * the earth quakes.
Psalm 99:1

In the psalm we have a distinct image of God seated upon the cherubim, a realization of the Ark of the Covenant.  Such enthronements were common in the ancient near east, certainly in Israel.  Here YHWH is seated upon the cherubim, or might be seated upon the floods.  There are various enthronements used, from the physicality of the cherubim, the virtual throne of praises. Should you wander the ancient near eastern collections of the Louvre in Paris or of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology you will find examples of enthronement, but there it will be enthronement of the Ba’alim upon the back of a bull.  This would have been an appropriate enthronement for a god of fertility, although any of the enthronements mentioned above would have served the various ba’alim in their various guises and powers.  This, however, brings us to the golden calf.  Was it the god that Aaron urged the people to worship, or was it the god’s throne? Was it YHWH’s throne? And there we have it - discerning the cultural realities of a time long past, and the intents and purposes of the memory of the people redacted by some unknown editor in the Sixth or Seventh century BCE.  What did the golden calf symbolize, or was it something in and of itself. Or was the sin the loss of focus on YHWH? Later, in Deuteronomy, we see similar calves (enthronements) set up at Dan and Bethel in the Northern Kingdom. The raison d’etre for the first reading (Track 1) below may be a polemic against that practice.

Track 1

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.

The section that precedes this pericope is a long account of the cultic law that was so important to the priestly editors that fashioned this book in the seventh (?) century.  With this reading we are back into the mainstream of the folk narrative, an aftermath and consequence of the giving of the Law on Sinai.  The God that walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden in Genesis and that seemed to be on a conversation with Abraham and Sarah is now hidden behind the clouds and majesty of Sinai.  It is God’s Word that is perceivable, and this story tests the presumption of that idea.  In a real sense, leadership is invisible here.  Moses is somewhere in the cloud, and God is absent as well.  It makes for a time of trouble.

The people who have recently grumbled about the lack of water, about the lack of food, and the policies of Moses, now grumble about the divine absence, “make us gods that will go before us.” Not only do they miss “the fleshpots of Egypt,” they also miss the plethora of gods in that culture.  So the absence is keenly felt.  They did not leave Egypt empty-handed, but with a great deal of precious metal, and a number of ideas.  Despite the pronouncement by God at the beginning of the Decalogue, “I am the Lord your God that brought you out of Egypt,” and counter proclamation is declaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” The calf of gold was not the god, but rather an enthronement for a god (see Background above).  The question is, however, which god?  Was it for YHWH, or some other god? There is an implicit ambiguity in the situation, which is, I think, Aaron’s intent.

Finally, God speaks from the cloud, and expresses a deep disappointment with the people. Moses becomes the negotiator after the fashion of Abraham, arguing against God’s intent to “putting and end” to the people.  What is brought to mind is the covenant that has been made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Does it not yet stand?  Moses now holds God to the terms of the contract, and God relents. Perhaps this is the real message.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. How or where do you enthrone God?
  2. Do you have icons or other religious art in your home?
  3. How do you use it?

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.

Who can declare the mighty acts of the LORD *
or show forth all his praise?

Happy are those who act with justice *
and always do what is right!

Remember me, O LORD, with the favor you have for your people, *
and visit me with your saving help;

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.

We have sinned as our forebears did; *
we have done wrong and dealt wickedly.

Israel made a bull-calf at Horeb *
and worshiped a molten image;

And so they exchanged their Glory *
for the image of an ox that feeds on grass.

They forgot God their Savior, *
who had done great things in Egypt,

Wonderful deeds in the land of Ham, *
and fearful things at the Red Sea.

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.

This is a historical psalm that recounts for the hearer the events at the Red Sea and at Sinai.  From the sixth verse on, however, we see an Israel that is unruly in its actions toward God and Moses.  The later verses recount the situation recorded in the first reading.  The psalmist mocks the bull, by referring to it as, grass-eating.”  Of special interest is the portrait of Moses who “stands in the breach.” It is not the debauchery or idolatry that fascinates us here, but rather Moses’ courage and argument.

Breaking open Psalm 106:
  1. Have you ever argued with God?
  2. What was the argument that you made?
  3. Do you think about this as prayer?


Track 2:

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.

This is a theme with which we are familiar. The two parts of the pericope provide images for an old theme of Isaiah’s (and the other prophets as well). The first images are of war and desolation.  The author reviews the depths of the degradation of Judah at the hand of Moab, an ancient rival and enemy. Isaiah twists us with his vision, however.  He begins his poem with words of praise to the God who seems to have punished the country.  Listen to the contrasts. “For you have done wonderful things. is in sharp contrast to, “For you have made the city a heap.” However there is a line that moderates our take on this conflicted situation, “For you have been a refuge to the poor.” Notice the tense and notice the condition. God was not becoming a refuge for the poor, but had always been one, and now Judah counted herself in that number as well.  And here is where our gaze is drawn into an entirely different scene.

We observe a fabulous feast – a feast to which all the peoples of the earth are invited. Not only are the poor of the world (not just Judah alone) feted with, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”, but also the powers who are defeated by God’s care for the needy and the poor. Notice the superlatives, the repetitive nature of the description that dwells on the richness of God’s response. Even in the community of the victorious there are tears to be dried, sorrows to be comforted.  Thus Isaiah advances his universalistic view of Judah’s situation over against the rest of the world, but also in its relationship with YHWH. There are cautions, however, as the prophet lauds the God who has redeemed them, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him.” In the realities of Isaiah there reside the realities of time. There is no “pie in the sky” immediacy here, but a patient waiting upon the Lord and the Lord’s salvation.

Breaking open the Isaiah:
  1. Are you among the “needy” of the earth?  How?
  2. If you are not, why?
  3. Where in life do you see God’s banquet?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

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.

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.

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 familiar psalm repeats the neediness and the generosity of the God who sees it.  Like Isaiah, the psalmist sees a table being set for us right in the middle of our adversities. This is a meal, however, with consequences. The phrase, “I shall fear no evil” becomes lost in the pastoral reverie that has occupied us in the early part of the psalm. That we should be led out of fear seems a much greater gift than the green pastures and the set table. It matches well the themes in Isaiah, a needy and fretful people met with peace and goodness.

Breaking open the Psalm 23:
  1. What do you fear in life?
  2. How does your faith help with that?
  3. How do you find peace in your faith?

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.

If Isaiah has urged us to patiently wait for the salvation that God offers us, it is Paul, who here outlines the patience that Christians must effect in their anticipation of God’s presence with them.  Let me save my comments on the first three verses until the end of this section.  The elements of holy waiting are so beautifully outlined by Paul: joy, gentleness, peace, prayer, and thanksgiving become the hallmarks of such patience.  That these begin with joy puts a different face upon Paul, who at this writing is most likely “patiently waiting” in a Roman prison. Thus his admonitions are not vacuous, without any reference to the difficulties of the world.  It is in the midst of those adversities that these virtues exist, and it is in that same context that “the God of peace will be with you.”

One wonders what the problems were that so bothered Euodia and Syntyche, although we can well imagine.  As a preface to a more irenic view of the church, this introduction gives us pause, and to make a connection with real problems that becomes part and parcel of Christian ministry.  It seems we are being called along with the unknown “loyal companion” to serve God’s peoples in their difficulties.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. Do you have disagreements with people in your parish?
  2. How do you deal with the situation or with them?
  3. How do you have joy in your congregation?

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."

Again, we are greeted with a parable of the kingdom of heaven.  One wonders whether the framers of the lectionary took into account the difficulty preachers would have in wringing a new meaning from each of these parables as they greet us in an on-going fashion Sunday after Sunday.  Following last Sunday parable about the tenants and the vineyard, we begin to anticipate this parable, perhaps too quickly, for Jesus has a surprise at the end that we may not have anticipated.  We see here those who do not value the invitation, who see it as passé and avoidable.  Upon their rejection Jesus becomes like Isaiah (See the Track 2 first reading above) and invites anyone and everyone to the banquet. Even in that situation of grace, however, there will be some who will not have taken heed.  Have we forgotten John the Baptist’s words requesting our repentance? In the parable one has, and yet Jesus says the requirement is not to be overlooked. Whether it is our RSVP to the invitation or our turning back to God, something is required of us, some decision, some change within life. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who are those, for you, who have not accepted the invitation?
  2. What will you do about that?
  3. What do you think of the final images?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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