St. Paul’s – Proper 23 – 10/15/2023
There is a common misunderstanding of the Christian Bible that goes thus: the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and unforgiving, while the God of the New Testament is forgiving and loving. Apart from being illogical since the God of the whole Bible is one and the same God, this misunderstanding has caused plenty of mischief throughout the history of the Church and is just one seemingly benign idea that forms the creation and foundation of Anti-Semitism. Which, regrettably, is on the rise around the world as the war in Israel wages on in brutal and inhumane ways. This makes it our problem the longer we insist on perpetuating this gross misunderstanding as fact rather than the fiction, and rather lazy fiction at that, that it is.
Enter two stories that seemingly reverse this common misunderstanding: The Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-14, and Matthew’s version of The Wedding Banquet parable in chapter 22: 1-14. Succinctly put, YHWH, the God of the Exodus, is portrayed as repentant and forgiving, while the king in the banquet seems particularly violent, wrathful and unfairly judgmental.
Jesus continues his teaching with the chief priests and Pharisees with the now familiar, The kingdom of heaven is like this… A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends his slaves to call the invited guests to the feast. Weddings are times of celebration and delight, while feasts in the Bible are seen as a foretaste of the culmination of all things.
Suddenly the story takes an odd turn since the invitees cannot be bothered to come. He sends a new group of slaves who say the oxen and the fatted calves have been slaughtered, the tables are set, the wine has been ordered. You don’t want to miss this. Again, some choose to go about business as usual while the rest rape and kill the messengers! Their behavior is so outrageous, writes Richard Swanson in Provoking The Gospel of Matthew, that the whole story is interrupted, and slaughtered animals left hanging, while the king mounts a military campaign to destroy the invited guests and burn the city to the ground. It is fair to ask that after all this violence just how much joy can there be as the wedding resumes? Surely it will be a day his son and daughter-in-law will never forget as the sound and fury of the day’s destruction will be forever ringing in their ears. Likely not the happiest days in their lives unless they are a very odd couple.
One can be assured those first hearing Jesus tell this story remember the burning of Jerusalem to the ground by Rome which always stands as the background to all gospel stories. Matthew chooses to include this story as the ongoing crisis with Rome continues to challenge the life of the communities of God’s people. And currently, this passage comes in our lectionary with the ongoing wars in Ukraine, Israel and Yemen. The king declares the invited guests as unworthy of the banquet and sends his surviving slaves to go out into the streets to invite everyone you find…the good and the bad, to the banquet. So now there are sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, good fish and bad fish, worthy and unworthy filling the banquet hall.
Jesus is always meeting with mixed crowds throughout the arc of Matthew’s story. When he does he continually points out that amidst the crisis with Rome there is a fork in the road, and there is coming a great sorting out. Those sorted to the right will end up in the dominion of God, those to the left end up in the outer darkness where people wail and gnash their teeth (Mt 25:31-46). Enter the oddest turn in the narrative of all: the king spots a man who is not wearing a wedding robe. This in itself does not seem odd since the man was hauled in unexpectedly off the streets, but the king’s reaction renders the man and the
The king has his servants bind him hand and foot and carted out to be thrown into the outer darkness to wail and gnash his teeth. How on earth do the servants know their way to the outer darkness? What coordinates does one enter into the GPS to find your way there? All because he is in jeans and sneakers? And what does a wedding garment look like anyway? Not exactly a lesson of acceptance and forgiveness. It all sounds rather like wrathful and unforgiving.
Perhaps the garment represents authentic discipleship, or producing the fruits of the kingdom – or more simply living in God’s way as outlined in the commandments all the way back in Exodus. Perhaps those without a garment are like those people at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting for days for Moses to return from his tutorial with the God of the Exodus. Expressing their impatience, inexplicably Aaron, Mose’s older brother, gathers all their gold jewelry, melts it down and casts it in the image of a calf, declaring, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Aaron, the priest immediately violates the commandments against other gods and idols! Yet another odd story. Note carefully, this idol consists of money cast as religion. May those who have ears hear and beware! We may think this stuff is primitive, but this kind of idolatry is still with us to this day. There are always new golden calves enchanting and distracting people every day.
YHWH, the God of the Exodus, understandably is angry and threatens a holocaust against the people, inviting Moses to head off with him to find new people to make a great nation. Moses, who back at the burning bush allows that he often does not know what to say, suddenly becomes the most eloquent and skillful of public speakers, chastising The Lord: Seriously, God, how is it going to look on your resume where it says you led thousands of people into the mountainous wilderness only to wipe them off the face of the earth? Do you honestly believe that this will inspire others to join with you in making a “great nation”? Repent and remember the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, that they will have plenteous descendants and live forever in the land you have promised them! So, sings the psalmist in Psalm 106, he would have destroyed them had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath from consuming them. Standing in the breach.
God must like to be challenged as much as he likes to challenge us, because we are told that this God of the Old Testament repents, forgives the people their idolatry, and pledges to remain in relationship with them no matter what. Both the worthy and unworthy alike are welcomed back to the banquet table. Thus begins our knowledge of the compassionate and merciful God who is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of doing evil (Jonah 4:2).
The questions for us all: Are we living our lives worshipping golden calves? Religion cast as money? Do we wake up each morning and put on our wedding garments of authentic discipleship so that we might address ourselves to producing the fruits of the kingdom? Are we ready to face the Last Sorting (Mt 25: 31-46)? Many are called, says Jesus, but few are chosen. Who among us are the sheep, and who are the goats? Who among us is willing to stand beside Moses in the breach on behalf of those in need? The world and everything and everyone therein awaits to see just who we are and whose we are. We are those people who are called to bear witness to the God of the Old and New Testaments who is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repents of doing evil. He calls us to do the same.
Let us pray:
Beyond our understanding
you alone are God;
you speak to a world of brutal rule
and shallow indifference,
of arms fairs and reality shows:
may the one who came to sit at table
with the victimized and excluded
disturb our barren peace
and call us to another feast
where only love may rule;
through Jesus Christ, the bridegroom.