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15th October 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
13 October 2017

Readings

Exodus 32: 1-14

Maurice Andrew puts the impatience of the Hebrew people into our context by saying:

This is like New Zealanders as they often act in both politics and in ethnic and social relationships, wanting to get on with things, making quick decisions.  We think that not mucking about is realistic, when all along we have not admitted what the true foundations and goals are.  Quick decisions favouring immediate goals cause time-consuming problems. [1]

The story of the golden calf is grounded in our previous readings where difficulty causes the people to see security in past slavery and fear the freedom they are journeying towards.  The golden calf is not their god but a tangible image they can enslave themselves to. 

As well as mental images of God to suit our personal situations within Christianity our secular world also encourages us to enslave ourselves to ideologies such as ‘the free market’ or ‘competition’ or even Andrew’s ‘not mucking about’ and all such ideologies bring some form of judgement.

Matthew 22: 1-14

In following their agenda of searching for the authentic words of Jesus the Jesus Seminar say Matthew has deviated from the original parable found in Luke and Thomas and created an allegory of salvation history from a Christian perspective. 

The king (God) prepares a feast for his son (Jesus) and invites his subjects (Israel) to the banquet.  They treat the invitations lightly or kill the king’s servants (the prophets).  The king destroys them and their city (Jerusalem) and invites others (foreigners) to the feast.[2]

In this understanding the Romans are the unwitting agents of God who destroy Jerusalem, an event Matthew has witnessed, and he then goes on to add the guest who is not properly dressed which is in line with his theme that the Christian community contains a mixture of good and bad.

Sermon

This morning our readings through Exodus move onto the story of the golden calf which could well be adopted as a symbol of our dairy industry.  However with the heady days of the historical gold rushes long past we are more inclined to craft the calf out of butter than gold.  We have certainly made an idol of the industry’s CEO although to be fair the idol is more the mental rather than the metal image of the daft idea that people work better if they are paid more. 

People will certainly do more work for more money but anyone who takes a pride in their work will do the best they can as long as they are receiving a fair wage.  Furthermore most people are capable of learning new tasks and are inspired by new opportunities.  The idea that people only accept challenges for extraordinary financial reward is silly and is part of the wider idolatry called neoliberal economics which includes the idea that money earned by the most wealthy people trickles down to create better income everyone.  In New Zealand we have been worshiping that idol from at least 1984 and we now have reputable economists saying that as an economic equation it has one major fault.  Like a golden calf it doesn’t work!  Recent history’s most stunning example of the classic failure of trickledown economics was the French Revolution.  

To fit those thoughts into our Exodus reading we need to remember the times when the people had turned to Moses in times of threat, hunger and thirst and after he prayed to God and the crisis had been averted.  In today’s reading Moses had gone up the mountain in amongst all the thunder and lightning and as far as they knew he had perished. 

So they took their new economic theory to Aaron and despite having been Moses’ right hand man Aaron accepted the plan.  They wanted to get on with things and Maurice Andrew suggests New Zealanders often act this way.  We like to make quick decisions and see mucking about as counterproductive. 

We could certainly see the people in the wilderness wanting to move on.  Their livestock could have been running out of feed and if there really was a promised land we can certainly imagine them wanting to get there.  These were the children of Israel and most of us have endured the long car trip with children incessantly whinging ‘Are we there yet’.

But this wilderness journey is not just about distance but about becoming a people.  Like refugees in our world these freed slaves knew what they were leaving behind but were uncertain of where they were going so guidance and patience is important.  That could well be the story of our lives, individually, as a church and as a nation.  Just like the Israelites we can idolise our past and be impatient to reach our future.  But making decisions without all the information can lead to disastrous decisions.  The news media’s impatience with coalition talks is a case in point and hindsight has shown the importance of waiting for the final count. The detective, who was sure that he had found the killer and manufactured evidence by planting a cartridge case to get a quick conclusion lost any chance of ever finding the killer of Janet and Harvey Crew. 

While the Israelites were busy manufacturing their own evidence of a divine presence Moses was experiencing God on the mountain and creating the Decalogue as a declaration of the benefits of worshiping the one true God. 

Those ten words became the basis of a legal code that pulled the wandering people into a nation.  Regardless of how Moses’ theophany took place his mountain expedition took time. 

By contrast rushing off looking for an alternative god seemed a quick fix that filled the people with euphoria.  But that jubilation wasn’t the sort of behaviour that would take them across the Jordon and into armed conflict with the Canaanites.  That would take a sense of unity and discipline and a code of conduct was part of that. 

The gospel reading focuses on order and divine call but also and the perils of ignoring call.  The Jesus Seminar wrote that Matthew has deviated from the parable in Luke and Thomas and created an allegory of salvation history from a Christian perspective.  We speculated about a similar possibility last week and this time the Jesus Seminar has a comparison of text to back up their arguments.

In the Luke version all the people make various excuses and but are not punished in any way, they just miss out.  The servant is then sent out to collect, ‘The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:21)   The only hint of condemnation comes at the end.  ‘For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’(Luke 14:24) 

There is no outer darkness and no gnashing of teeth; people who make excuses just miss out. 

Most of the story in the Gospel of Thomas has been given a pink designation by the Jesus Seminar to indicate they believe it is close to the words of Jesus and, though more concise than Luke or Matthew, the excuses are all business excuses. The master’s command on hearing that none of the invited guests are coming is simply, ‘Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.’  (Thomas 64:11) The final sentence which is black to indicate the Jesus Seminar think it was added later is, ‘Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my father.’ (Thomas 64:12)  Obviously the Jesus Seminar did not see Jesus as anti business but, like the other gospels, the author has added their bias and so Matthew also has a clear agenda to mark his community as distinctive. 

However all three versions follow the theme of a choice in accepting the invitation to enter the kingdom, or come to the banquet.  Thomas and Luke see the failure to respond as punishment but Matthew stresses a final judgment.  Those who are not correctly attired will be bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, for many are called, but few are chosen’. (Matthew 22:13,14)  For Matthew it is not just enough to join the community, that many reject, but he expects people to behave themselves once they have joined.  As one of the commentators noted, the Christian community contains a mixture of good and bad. 

That thought has both good and bad implications.  On the one hand it invites congregations to judge their members and on the other hand it could also suggest that God is the only one who can make such a judgment call. 

But outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth is clearly an end times judgement in which case it is not a congregations task to judge people.  A church’s task is to encourage its members to grow, both in faith and in ethical behaviour, to put on the metaphorical suitable robes for the banquet. 

The possibility of reform is demonstrated in Moses’ plea to God for mercy for the Israelites when they build the golden calf.  Moses plays both a priestly role in interceding for the people and a prophetic role in leading them on the journey towards the Promised Land.  Both those roles are represented in the church and it is the church’s task to lead the community to humanity’s land of promise that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’

If we look at Matthew’s banquet as metaphor for the church we learn that the members of the church, the servants of Christ, are called to invite people to join.   The parable also tells us that many people will reject the invitation to be involved because of the busyness of their lives.  Thomas is somewhat prejudice against commerce and says that buyers and merchants will be excluded and certainly people’s work commitments might prevent them becoming involved in the church.  In terms of the concept of ‘the kingdom of God’ the gospels show that it is the sick, the lame and the poor who are most likely to respond to Jesus’ ministry and we could well imagine those who are busy successfully wheeling and dealing exclude themselves from any movement for change.  That is the same in our society where young people immersed and successful in their own comfortable world do not even register to vote.

Those realities of our world should not however discourage us from making the invitation to join the banquet.  We are the servants of the church and issuing the invitation is our calling.  We must expect to be rejected, but not discouraged.  Furthermore we must present the invitation in the best possible way.  Cold calling on people who have no idea what the church is about only encourages fear and suspicion. 

When Moses returned from the mountain the people recognised him as the leader who had liberated them from slavery and therefore were prepared to leave their golden calf and follow him once more.  The church must walk its talk so people see the benefit of belonging, of coming to the banquet. 

We must be Christ in the Community with no strings attached so that our life as a church is truly seen as a banquet of people working towards a more caring and inclusive way of living.  For people, even busy people, to accept the invitation to join a church the church must be a collection of servants of Christ who invite others to the banquet by living the divine realm into reality.  

All churches are called to step out into a less than perfect world and by words and example invite people to the great banquet of a new inclusive human world of justice and lovingkindness.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.123

[2] Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar The Five Gospels (New York: Scribner, 1996), p.235.

 

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