October 25, 2017

Two Stories, Two Feasts, Two Bad Decisions


Text: Psalm 106:20: They exchanged their Glory for the image of an ox that feeds on grass. (Psalm 106:20)

Last Sunday, we heard the first story from Exodus in which Moses receives the Law. This morning, from the second Ten Commandments account in Exodus, we find out what the people Israel were doing while Moses was away on the mountain. When they thought that Moses had abandoned them, they asked Aaron to make new gods for them. And quite the god Aaron made: the Golden Calf.

The writer or editor of this portion of Exodus knew that his readers would be familiar with the worship of the bull in Egypt and other parts of the Near East. The first account of the giving of the Law, from Exodus 20, does not include anything about a golden calf. The writer or editor of Exodus 32, today’s version, wants to stress the first two of the commandments—“You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol”-- by giving us the narrative of the golden calf. It is likely from a later source, probably edited at a time when Israel was threatened by foreign influences.

On the surface, this story is simple. The people get impatient, thinking Moses may have abandoned them, and so they decide to exchange the God of Moses for a new model. They are even willing to give up their jewelry to create the new god. Aaron is the one who melts the gold, and, voila, a calf is formed! The people waste no time in declaring that this is the God who delivered then from the Egyptians. They worship the golden calf and have a great feast and revelry. Moses’s God knows what’s going on, and informs Moses of what the people are doing. God becomes angry and threatens to wipe out the people. But, Moses asks God to reconsider the decision, which God does. How does Moses convince God to have this change of mind? Moses uses the argument, “You don’t want those Egyptians to think you brought us out of slavery just to destroy us, now do you?” So, Moses tries to shame God a little, and it works! Perhaps this story is not as simple as it seems.

Let’s move to the story from Matthew’s Gospel we heard today. On the surface, again, it seems straightforward. A king invites people to a wedding feast for his son, but they don’t show up. He sends slaves out to tell them that the banquet is ready, but the invited ones brush them off. Some of them taunt and kill the slaves. The king sends his troops to destroy them. He asks other slaves to go out into the streets and invite strangers to come to the banquet. They succeed. The king enters the banquet and sees that one of those present is not properly attired, so he has that one thrown out. And then we hear that famous line, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

What can we make of these stories? Both of these stories are concerned with people who make misguided choices. As we listen to them, we tend to take the side of the powerful ones, Moses and God in the Exodus story and the king in the Matthew parable. Yet, how often are we in those positions of power ourselves? More often, I imagine, we see ourselves as just ordinary folks, with little or no power to effect change. We often just go along with the crowd to maintain status quo. And that can lead to trouble, as it did for the Israelites, as it did for those who ignored the invitation of the king. Like the Israelites, we can decide that we want to exchange our ordinariness for something shinier. Like the folks in the parable, we decide to take advantage of those with even less power or status than we possess. We laugh at them, ignore them, or perhaps even run roughshod over them in business or social transactions. It’s no wonder we tend to relate to the king in the Matthew story.

The writers of these two stories effectively use the voices of power. The Exodus writer gave Moses so much power as to suggest he was able to change God’s mind. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel gave the king so much power that he could order someone to be cast out from a party to which he was invited on the spot, for not wearing the right clothes. Do we really want a God whose mind can be changed by a manipulative argument of “What would those people think if you did that?” Do we want to worship a God who can destroy someone for not following a social convention?

Of course not! Perhaps the writers never intended us to fall prey to idealizing or idolizing the powerful. So, if we look at the Exodus story as a piece designed to remind us that we often try to “trade up” before considering what we are leaving behind, we can understand the author’s rather ridiculous explanation for God’s sparing the people who had worshiped the calf. And, if we see the person without the wedding garment as a victim of a despot’s capriciousness, we might begin to understand the cryptic last line of the parable. Perhaps the “chosen” are the ones who were somewhat randomly invited to the feast, including this one who was singled out. Maybe being “chosen” is not always desirable, if the one doing the choosing is an unjust tyrant.

Back to our own situations. If we are serious about our Christian faith, we need to search diligently for the Golden Calves we may have, to search for those times when we ignore God’s invitation to be advocates for justice and mercy. How often have we exchanged our Glory for some image or other? What kinds of feasts do we choose to attend? When we make our choices, we can go for the glitz, for the gold, or we can take as our model the advice we hear in the Epistle today: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. 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.”

We can accept the invitation to the feast today, to the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving. It is offered by a God who is one of unfettered invitation, not a capricious despot. It is offered by a God who spares people time and time again, a God whose mind of mercy is never changed by manipulative power plays. Come to the feast. There is no reason to exchange our Glory for glitz. Rejoice always, and again I say, Rejoice!