Hebrew Bible Lesson: Exodus 32:1-15
Today’s lesson is the beginning of the story commonly known as “the golden calf.” Moses has been on the mountain for 40 days and nights (note that number, “40”) and the people have become restless. Most Jewish commentators over the centuries have said that the calf was not itself intended as a object of worship, but something on which God would “stand” (figuratively), but God (verse 8) and today’s psalmist (below) saw it otherwise, so that the people violated the 2nd Commandment (from, as we learned last week, the “Reformed Protestant and Orthodox and Jewish perspectives, the 1st Commandment from the Lutheran and Roman Catholic perspectives).
[But note also the nature of the conversation between Moses and God, in particular how in verse 7 God says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt” (my emphasis), while Moses answers God in verse 11, “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand” (again, my emphasis). It is reminiscent of a conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18.22-33. (For those who are interested, these exchanges support the source theory, in which different parts of the first five books of the Bible are thought to have been written by different hands, with this exchange showing the intimacy between God and his chosen leaders characteristic of the Yahwistic writer, known in part by, in English, the name(s) LORD or LORD God for God.] Which is why we are today reading from the New Jerusalem Bible translation which indeed uses “Yahweh” where the letters for the name appear in the Hebrew.
NJB Exodus 32:1 When the people saw that Moses was a long time before coming down the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said to him, 'Get to work, make us a god to go at our head; for that Moses, the man who brought us here from Egypt -- we do not know what has become of him.' 2 Aaron replied, 'Strip off the gold rings in the ears of your wives and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me.' 3 The people all stripped off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He received what they gave him, melted it down in a mould and with it made the statue of a calf. 'Israel,' the people shouted, 'here is your God who brought you here from Egypt!' 5 Observing this, Aaron built an altar before the statue and made this proclamation, 'Tomorrow will be a feast in Yahweh's honour.' 6 Early next morning they sacrificed burnt offerings and brought communion sacrifices. The people then sat down to eat and drink, and afterwards got up to amuse themselves. 7 Yahweh then said to Moses, 'Go down at once, for your people whom you brought here from Egypt have become corrupt. 8 They have quickly left the way which I ordered them to follow. They have cast themselves a metal calf, worshipped it and offered sacrifice to it, shouting, "Israel, here is your God who brought you here from Egypt!" ' 9 Yahweh then said to Moses, 'I know these people; I know how obstinate they are! 10 So leave me now, so that my anger can blaze at them and I can put an end to them! I shall make a great nation out of you instead.' 11 Moses tried to pacify Yahweh his God. 'Yahweh,' he said, 'why should your anger blaze at your people, whom you have brought out of Egypt by your great power and mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, "He brought them out with evil intention, to slaughter them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth?" Give up your burning wrath; relent over this disaster intended for your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom you swore by your very self and made this promise: "I shall make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and this whole country of which I have spoken, I shall give to your descendants, and it will be their heritage for ever." ' 14 Yahweh then relented over the disaster which he had intended to inflict on his people.
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 22:1-14
We mentioned last week that it is important to understand the context both of a particular scripture reading and, in the case of the four versions of the Gospel, the writing of that gospel. Matthew is written largely to support Jews who had become Christians in their conversion, and to encourage other Jews to become Christians. A good part of this passage seems to have Jesus addressing that since Jews [appeared to have] rejected him, others [Gentiles] would be invited to follow him – but there is a puzzling exception noted.
NRS Matthew 22:1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 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.' 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' 10 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. 11 "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. 13 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.' 14 For many are called, but few are chosen."
It was after my sons grew up, or at least, they never owned them, that those giant squirt guns known as “Super-Soakers” appeared. I hope everyone knows what a “squirt gun” is, or at least was; back when I was a kid, they were also called “water pistols,” little hollow plastic toy pistols, which we could fill with water that we would then shoot at one another in what was a pretty harmless fashion. But those “Super Soakers” were less like water pistols and more like water Howitzers, and probably deserved the name, “Super-Soakers.”
“Super-Soaker” as a term has been superseded by a different “super” term: super-spreader, what is spread being the virus of which we have all grown tired from its impact on our lives, the corona virus known in short as, SARS-2, or by the name of the disease it is causing, COVID-19. And the term, super-spreader, is being applied both to individuals and to events, and, indeed, I would guess properly so. One individual who unwisely attended the Sturgis, South Dakota, motor cycle event this summer — itself to an un-agreed upon extent a super-spreader — returned to Minnesota, where he went to a wedding where I forget how many people subsequently came down with COVID-19. He was a super-spreader and so was the wedding.
And other weddings and receptions have been reported to have been super-spreader events.
Sadly, weddings and wedding receptions are among the most impacted and probably most difficult for which to accept that impact of all the occurrences that have had to be canceled or postponed or otherwise changed these past seven or so months. My initial personal reaction to reports of the bride or bride’s mother complaints about impact of cancelled or reduced wedding plans was harsh, probably overly so. I was harsh, because the first thing I say to a couple when they come to me wanting me to do a wedding, which I love to do but insist upon a number of sessions of pre-marital counseling, is, “I am more concerned with your marriage than with your wedding.” The third thing I say — the second is not relevant to us today — is to tell the would-be-groom that he has nothing to offer in planning the wedding, that grooms could easily be replaced with cardboard cut-outs, except that sometimes in wedding pictures (which sometimes seem to be the main purpose for the service itself) sometimes in wedding pictures, the edge of the cut-out might show.
I say this because a wedding is a bride’s big day — it was for Patricia, who was forty-seven when she got married and had no interest in our just eloping; — it is a bride’s big day, and it also matters a great deal for families and the like, so I suppose I will go further: I like weddings!
But like high school graduation, it is too easy to look at a wedding as an end in itself rather than as a start down a new road.
But I digress. COVID-19 is having a harsh impact on those who had planned weddings, and there is still no way of saying when not merely those “over-the-top” but even modest weddings with a party or dinner, a small feast, a modest wedding reception, there is still no way of saying when these can safely be resumed. Hmm; it is probably difficult for a bride or groom to put cake into the other’s mouth when both are wearing face masks.
Wedding receptions; wedding feasts, feasts of the sort Jesus used in the parable from the Gospel according to Matthew which I just read. As I pointed out in my introductory comments, an overarching theme for the writer we refer to as “Matthew” is very much that Jews who had not yet accepted Jesus — Matthew was written probably 35-45 years after Jesus’ death — that Jews who had not yet accepted Jesus should do so, that Jesus was in fact the long awaited Messiah, the anointed one. And in this parable, while some of the imagery is a bit “rough,” the “King” is clearly God and the “slaves” are the prophets of the Hebrew religion, of what we call the “Old Testament,” and the invited guests are indeed the Jewish people, and that they did not come to the wedding meant that in the parable, others were invited to take their place, an explanation of why some Gentiles, non-Jews, had begun to follow Jesus and had, so to speak, “taken the place of the Jews” in what was seen by the Jews as “God’s plan.”
Indeed, the parable itself represented the offer of a second chance; those hearing it could still choose to join Jesus’ followers. (If we had more time, we could discuss how this relates to the book of Romans, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.)
A “second chance” is what in fact follows for the Israelites in our story from Exodus Dennis read earlier. Part of my fondness for this story has an operatic origin: in one of the most popular of operas, “Faust,” by the nineteenth century French composer of both sacred, that is, religious, and “popular”or secular music, Charles Gounod, in “Faust,” one of the three main characters is named Mephistopheles, whom most recognize as “the devil,” and he sings a song about “the golden calf.” By the way, in the opera, Mephistopheles succeeds in leading Faust astray, but the very-Catholic Gounod has a happy ending to the extent that Faust’s soul is saved through the love of Marguerite, the young girl whom he had corrupted; the sinful Faust has a second chance.
At any rate, the Exodus story is a story about God’s giving a second chance, what I referred to for the golfers among us the last time we read this passage, three years ago, as a “Mulligan,” a Mulligan to the Israelites, and, indeed, following what we read today, God will create a second set of Stone Tablets with the Ten Commandments.
And the purpose of emphasizing this second chance aspect of both of these readings from Scripture, the parable and the “Golden Calf,” is that we can indeed profit from looking at making it through the COVID-19 crisis — and we are not quite there yet, in no way should we let up our guard — we can indeed profit from looking at the eventual end of the crisis not as an end but as a “second chance” for a new beginning on any of a number of levels.
Let me take one that has the least to do with “religion,” with our faith, on the surface, but that “it has nothing to do with out faith” is misleading. I am talking about our taking a renewed interest in and commitment to our personal physical health. For both Judaism and Christianity, the human body matters; it is the way in which we of course live on this planet in this life, a life that God God’s self assumed as Jesus, and I frequently look to the book of Song of Songs for support that our physicality is something meaningful to God — and I disagree with those who interpret Song of Songs as some sort of ecclesiastical allegory.
But what about our physical health? One of our congregants was talking about herself when she said that the fact that diabetics have a heightened risk of dying or getting very sick from this virus has led her to pay more attention to what she eats, for the very common, the almost epidemic itself Type II diabetes is reversible! One can control Type II diabetes, and one can control the condition that often and almost inevitably leads to it, obesity; one can control it by by the simple-to-state but requiring-some-discipline-to-follow practice of what, by what and only to a lesser extent, by how much, we eat. If any of us are twenty or more pounds over-weight, and even if not, let us take our not having incurred COVID-19 as a second chance to protect ourselves, as an invitation to enjoy the feast which is earthly life more despite eating differently, which might seem a weird way to use “feast,” but I think you all know what I mean: Take steps now to minimize what we have to fear for our health going forward.
And what is true for the body is true for so many things, most importantly for our relations with God and with each other. While despite the “lock down,” which has an effect that disconcerts me because I cannot do pastoral calls, I do not otherwise live a highly restricted personal life; my main restrictions during this pandemic are in the form of faithfully — and I mean, faithfully, — wearing a mask (and I recommend that you get some of these KN95’s; unlike simple cloth masks, they will protect you as well as others, and if you do not know where to get them, ask me) my main restrictions are wearing a mask and not attending Illinois football games because right now there are no games to attend, and once the games start, attendance will not be permitted, and also that the opera season has been canceled. But not going to these events also makes me realize that they are not that important in the greater scheme of things, they are just wonderful diversions, desserts, and not the main course. Well, maybe Illinois football is important, but . . .
But even with having less need to stay home than many others, this COVID-19 has been an emotionally trying time for me, and, well, as I think I have said before, largely because of getting our newer dog, Oliver, more than a year ago, and the attention the dogs require first thing in the morning, I had gotten away from my morning prayer, and was becoming pretty miserable to be around. “Thanks be to God” is not just an expression, but my honest feeling, “Thanks be to God” for calling me back to where putting the dogs out in the morning is not an excuse to skip prayer, but an opportunity to indulge in extended morning prayer. I at first liked that term, “indulge,” because of how I feel prayer really does benefit me — thanks be to God that I find sitting down when I put the dogs out an opportunity to indulge in, which is, really, to engage in conversation with God; conversation with God, for as I often say, it is in the quiet interstices of our prayers, the time between our thought-words to God, that we are most likely to sense God’s speaking to us, to sense what God would have us do and be.
COVID-19 has in fact offered me this opportunity before the pandemic has ended, has offered me a second or third or “nth” chance, for I am way beyond needing merely a “second” chance, and, thankfully, God is not counting. The unpleasantness of COVID-19 has offered me the chance, the opportunity, to find out yet again how blessed we are in having a God who might not talk with us in quite the way that the Yahwist writer so delightfully has God talk with Moses in the Exodus story we read, but a God who speaks to us nonetheless even as God hears what the lips of our hearts have to say.
So let us grasp this chance, even before the threat of COVID-19 has ended.
The parable we read has an alarming, almost threatening, ending, which occurs one or two other times in Matthew. In the parable, the king deals harshly with a guest that did not have a wedding robe. What could this possibly mean? I am persuaded by the Catholic scholar whose work I consult when I am hung up on Matthew, that what Jesus through the parable is telling us is, “Be prepared to commit fully in responding to the invitation.”
“Be prepared to commit fully in responding to the invitation.” I welcome those who come to church only on Christmas Eve and Easter, yet they are fooling themselves to believe this is the extent of commitment God asks us to make in response to the grace God has shown in Jesus Christ; that, I think, is the point of what the King, the father of the groom says.
But Christmas and Easter themselves are examples for all humankind of what are set before us in the Parable and in Moses’ conversation with God following the “golden calf” story: God gives us second chances; let us seize them, let us:
“Be prepared to commit fully in responding to the invitation.” For that invitation has been set in front of us yet again.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.