Exodus 32:1-14+Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23+Philippians 4:1-9+Matthew 22:1-14
The familiarity of many of the stories from the bible can lead us to believe that we know what they mean, or at least we think we know what they mean. This story of the Golden Calf is one of those. The people of Israel have been waiting for Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai for forty days. In chapter numbers, twelve chapters have passed since the giving of the Ten Commandments last week, and the people, being afraid of the rumbling of God in the mountain, watched as Moses returned to where God was in the darkness. And there he stayed while God made the covenant with the people of Israel through Moses. And the last twelve chapters have been about that – about the law and the altar and the building of the ark and all of that.
But these wandering people feel like they have been abandoned. They want God to continue to lead them to the promised land, but Moses is no longer around to run interference for them, to speak to God for them and vice versa. So they have Aaron, Moses’s brother, make the Golden Calf. And here’s where we think we know what it says, but maybe we don’t, because whatever they think they have made out of gold, they still think it’s the God who brought them up out of Egypt. They still think it’s Yahweh, and from where we sit it looks like they’ve already broken the second commandment about not making idols, but that’s not what it says either. They haven’t made an idol. They’ve made an image of God which God told them they didn’t need to do in the first part of instruction after the commandments. The text says
The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.
A little later in the instructions about building the altar and the ark, God makes it clear that God will be present there, even if the people can’t see anything. They were supposed to trust that this God of theirs was not like other gods who needed to be cast in gold or stone or something else. “Trust that I am with you and that my promise to your ancestors is true – you are mine. I have spoken with you from heaven, and now I will speak to you from the altar.”
Thank goodness Moses comes back when he does and is able to bargain with God for the people. But first, Aaron has some ‘splainin’ to do. “They wanted gods they could see so I told them to give me all their gold and I threw it into the fire and, voilà, a calf came out.” And Aaron doesn’t even get punished. (And I gotta tell you, that grates, because a little later, in the book of Numbers, Miriam, their sister, gets leprosy after questioning why Moses has a foreign wife. How’s that for gender equity?) But back to our story. There is a great massacre that follows Moses’s deal with God, and the Levites, who are to be the priests, kill 3,000 people. It’s really an ugly story.
But not quite as ugly as our gospel for today.
There is a challenge for those of us who read and study scripture and who believe it to be God’s word. Sometimes we have to wrestle Good News out of it, and such is the case with both of our readings today.
Jesus starts the parable with the story of a banquet, and not just any banquet, but the wedding banquet given by a king for his son. And all the best people are invited, but they all have some kind of excuse – I have to wash my hair, or I just did my nails, or the World Series is on TV. And so the king is enraged, because these invited guests mistreat the slaves who invited them and kill some of them, and so there is, just as in Exodus, a slaughter.
So he had all the outcasts and rejects and misfits invited to come to the party, and that went swimmingly until somebody showed up without a mask. Actually, the text says a robe. And the king flies into a rage again and has him thrown into the outer darkness. And the moral of the story is, “Many are called, but few are chosen” and you just have to wonder where is the God of grace here?
Well, let’s back up and remember that Matthew is writing this to a marginalized and persecuted community sometime after the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by Rome. And the ones persecuting his community are the leaders of the temple who want to purify the Jewish community from those who do not properly observe the laws of Moses, in their opinion, at least.
So in classic dialectic style, setting up an argument in 1st century logic, Matthew’s task is to set the good guys (his people) against the bad guys (those people). Those people are the Jews, and so in the series of parables in these chapters immediately following the entry into Jerusalem, it’s all about us against them.
Jesus curses a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit (that’s them) and it withers (that’s the destroyed temple).
The two sons in the vineyard? The son who said he would go and didn’t is them; the one who said he wouldn’t and did is us.
The wicked tenants who wanted to keep the landowner’s wealth for themselves and killed the son in order to do it? That was them. The ones who produce the fruits of the kingdom? That’s us.
And the ones who ignored the slaves (representing the prophets) and refused to come to the party for the son (Jesus), that’s them. And the city that got burned down? That’s the temple. All the street people and tax collectors and sinners, that’s us.
I’ve told you many times these stories are at the root of anti-Semitism through the centuries, and you can see how that happens and why we have to be so careful to situate them within the context in which Matthew or the other evangelists are writing them.
But what about the guy who showed up with the wrong clothes on? The listeners of the time would have immediately understood the “robe” to be the baptismal garment. If you are invited to this banquet, you had better be all in, because this young community is not going to survive with those who take it lightly or casually or don’t care enough to show up ready and equipped to follow the path that Jesus followed, even if it means all the way to the cross. Many may be called, but how many are ready to go all in, to suffer persecution and ridicule and maybe even death. That would be the few Jesus refers to.
For all the violence in our stories today, God has not given up on us. God didn’t give up on the people of Israel. The expansiveness of God’s love for humankind is beyond our imagining. Unlike in Matthew’s community, we don’t need to worry about them, whoever them is for you. We just have to be the best us that God created us to be.
An 18th century Hasidic rabbi named Zusya is quoted as saying before his death, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”
We could also say that we were not some saint or some great spiritual leader, but God is only asking us to show up fully as ourselves, clothed in the garment we have been given in baptism, equipped with the gifts of the Spirit, and trust that God will show us the way to be the best follower of Jesus we can be. And thanks be to God, that is enough.