Saturday, October 14, 2023

October 15, 2023 -- 20th Sunday after Pentecost

                                     Biblical Words                           [849]

 Exodus 32:1-14Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9Matthew 22:1-14. 

The chosen people may commit great sin, but God’s purpose still prevails in spite of called ones who lose their chance. 

Exodus 32:1-14.  

The Torah reading presents the greatest sin the people of Israel could commit — idolatry. 

The people of Israel had just heard the Lord’s Ten Commandments from the mountain, and Moses had left them for forty days to get more instructions for their future life.  Becoming impatient, they yearned to have a religion of their own — immediately. 

The initiators in this drama are “the people.”  They call upon Aaron to give them religion. 

As presented here, Aaron is not the leader.  He is the technical expert.  If the people want religion, he has the know-how.  He can create a full-fledged religious establishment – as all the world has always known such things!  Through his artisanship the people can see their gods, make their offerings and sacrifices, and enjoy their ecstasies and devotions in festivals and dances. 

Following the people’s demands, Aaron collects their gold, crafts a golden calf as the great idol, gives it a sacred story by claiming that these are the gods that brought the people from Egypt, and builds an altar for their sacrifices to these gods.  The establishment is completed by appointing a time for a festival, and the feasting and revels fill the religious craving of the people. 

[Historically, the “golden calf” episode in Exodus is a deliberate perversion, by Judean writers, of the cultic establishment of the northern kingdom of Israel.  That northern cultus was established when that kingdom broke away from the Davidic (Zadokite) establishment of Jerusalem.  Jeroboam the First established (or re-established?), in about 931 BCE, such golden calves at Bethel (Aaron’s sanctuary) and Dan (Moses’ sanctuary), the southern and northern borders respectively of that kingdom.  In the earlier times, of course, these calves were not idolatrous; they were pedestals for the appearance of the High God; they were counterparts to the Ark, with its cherubim, in the Jerusalem temple.  (Jeroboam the First’s religious establishment is described in I Kings 12:25-33; the Mosaic priesthood of Dan is referred to in Judges 18:30.  See also Psalm 99:6, "Moses and Aaron were among his priests...)  The Jerusalem custodians of the traditions eventually made their arch rivals at the sanctuary of Bethel ironic practitioners of idolatry!]

Up on the mountain, the Lord interrupts the work with Moses to inform him that the people have already proven hopelessly disloyal to their real Lord.  God becomes angry and decides to wipe out this rabble from Egypt and start a new chosen people with Moses as the new father of the people.  “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” (verse 10, NRSV).  Moses is offered the same promise that earlier started things off with Abraham — making of him a great nation. 

For the first time — but not the last — Moses places himself between the people and the wrath of the Lord. 

He argues against destroying the people.  First, God’s reputation is at stake.  Think what the Egyptians would say, that God took the people into the wilderness to kill them.  Secondly, remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob), the promises to take THIS people out of bondage and to a promised land (see Genesis 15:13-14). 

After Moses made these arguments for the defense, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on the people” (verse 14).  Moses has been the means of saving the disobedient people — and, incidentally, saving the original enterprise of the exodus. 

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23.  

The Psalm reading is selections from a long psalm that is a combination of praise of God and confession of sins, using as examples Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness from their time in Egypt, through their history in the land, right down to their captivity in foreign lands. 

The psalm is spoken by one who identifies himself with Israel’s sinfulness. 

Both we and our ancestors have sinned;

      we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly (verse 6, NRSV). 

The speaker also expects, however, that God will forgive, will restore the sinful people. 

Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people;

      help me when you deliver them (verse 4). 

In the second passage from the psalm we have a short poetic version of the golden calf sin at the holy mountain.  The people “exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox…”  And the role of Moses is also prominent: 

he said he would destroy them — had not Moses, his chosen one,

      stood in the breach before him,
      to turn away his wrath from destroying them (verse 23). 

Israel’s greatest sin did not prove entirely fatal — because there was a mediator who put his life on the line for the people. 

Philippians 4:1-9.  

The Epistle reading is a passage near the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, one of his dearest and most loyal churches in his mission field.  In this passage Paul urges certain leaders in the church to get along better, to iron out their differences. 

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.  (Verses 2-3, NRSV.) 

We have passing references to people we do not know about otherwise.  We also do not know whom Paul is talking to directly -- " loyal companion"!  What an interesting group these Philippians must have been! 

Paul then dictates a kind of theme sentence:  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (verse 5). 

Gentleness (Greek epieikes and epieikeia).  For our meditation on this reading, let’s explore this quality of gentleness as it appears in other passages. 

Titus is told to remind fellow Christians “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:1-2, NRSV). 

Timothy is told what the qualities of a church leader should be.  “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money” (I Timothy 3:2-3). 

The letter of James describes the gifts of wisdom.  “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). 

Finally, Paul ascribes this quality supremely to Christ himself.  “I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” — he appeals that he not have to be other than gentle with the Corinthians when he next visits them (II Corinthians 10:1). 

The Philippians are urged to let such gentleness as this be known to all around, to show in their lives the gentleness of Christ. 

Matthew 22:1-14.  

In Jesus’ encounters with his opponents in Jerusalem in his last days, Matthew has him tell several parables.  Today’s reading is the third parable in a row about accepting and rejecting God’s coming kingdom. 

The coming kingdom has been represented as God’s vineyard, taken from the wicked tenants and given to new people who will produce righteousness (last week’s reading).  Now there is a parable about a wedding feast given by a king for his son.  As we have it before us, this parable is also a severe condemnation of the former privileged people of God’s favor and their displacement by other people. 

Early version.  However, this parable has been through some major reinterpretations on its way to its present form.  If Jesus actually told any such parable, it was like the story in Luke 14:16-24.  (This is one of the few episodes, found only in Matthew and Luke, that Matthew sets in Jerusalem.  It is presumably taken by both Gospels from the Sayings Source Q.) 

In the Luke version a great man invited noble guests to his banquet but they made trivial excuses and did not come.  The master then had his servants invite people off the streets and from the country roads to his banquet hall until it could be filled.  “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” (Luke 14:24NRSV). 

The meaning plainly is that those of the Judean establishment expecting to receive God’s great good time have missed it, and it will be enjoyed by “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” as well as people recruited from the highways (Luke 14:21).  

Such was the early parable about the Banquet at the time of God’s reign. 

In Matthew’s version, a Save-the-Date notice had already gone out to a prearranged list of honored guests.  The action that now takes place is when the time of the banquet has actually arrived (verse 3).  However, the privileged invitees have declined to come.  The king sends everyone a second more urgent summons saying the time is at hand, the food is fully prepared, and all things arranged.  The notables who had been invited, however, make trivial excuses and refuse to come (verses 4-5).  Eventually, the king tells his slaves, “those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (verses 8-9).  Thus far the Matthew and Luke versions of the parable are similar. 

However, Matthew’s story also has a jarring intrusion in the sending out of the slaves.  Some of the invited nobles “seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them” (verse 6).  This was certainly overkill (pun intended) on the part of the invited ones, going far beyond simply declining the invitation!  What could this excessive violence be about?  Matters are only made worse by the king’s reaction.  “The king was enraged.  He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (verse 7, NRSV). 

It is clear that something has derailed the original story, and a different agenda has been inserted here. 

The key is in the allegorical meanings of the parable.  In the allegorical code, the slaves sent to call the invitees were the Israelite prophets, perhaps including John the Baptist and Jesus.  Sent to the privileged Judean people, they were abused and killed, and the Judean leaders were punished by an army that came, slaughtered many, and burned their city, Jerusalem. 

This insertion into the parable knows of the outcome of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE, and interprets that great destruction and death as God’s punishment for rejecting the summons to them of John and Jesus to repent.  This insertion is not from Jesus, of course.  It is from the reciters of the Gospel in Galilee or Syria sometime after 70 CE.  The insertion was provided by someone who knew, perhaps through inspiration from the risen Lord, what fate was in store for Jerusalem and its leaders. 

And at the Banquet...  There is another major change in the original parable, also made in the light of later Christian experience.  In this parable, the final gathering of the people for the royal banquet includes all kinds of folks.  “These slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad” (verse 10). 

This leads to another very surprising turn.  The king visits the people who have been admitted to the banquet and finds one who has dishonored the event by not wearing a wedding robe (verse 11).  This person is severely condemned and banished to outer darkness (verse 13).  What a gross case of injustice is this to one who was simply brought in off the street! 

Once again, the original story is distorted for the sake of its allegorical meaning.  The guests who have been brought into the banquet are non-Judean (or at least non-Pharisaic) people, people who receive God’s invitation after the mainline Judean leaders have refused it.  Non-Judean people in the church have inherited, second-hand, the gift of the kingdom. 

The point of the wedding robe is that even the non-Judeans, the people of the nations, who have been brought in, must change their attire.  That is, even the former outcasts must change their lives to match the blessings of their new society. 

The Jesus followers of Galilee or Syria knew that acceptance into the church had its requirements.  The Messianic Banquet was an assembly of transformed people, dressed according to the conditions of the Society described in the Sermon on the Mount.  The wedding robe had to be put on, probably through baptism.  So Paul said to the Galatians:  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27NRSV).   

This whole parable episode, elaborated over some decades, contains messages from Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom, through the later actions of God in recent history (destruction of Jerusalem), to the final recognition that the new life in Jesus the Messiah also has its new law (its proper wedding garment). 


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