Proper 24A

October 16, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Exodus 33:12-23
Reading 2: 
Psalm 99
Reading 3: 
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Reading 4: 
Matthew 22:15-22
Alt Reading 1: 
Isaiah 45:1-14
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Texts:

The disaster at the foot of the mountain of the Lord continues. After the Golden Calf was constructed and Moses calmed the anger of God, Moses descended the mountain and found the people reveling in their creation of a replacement god. Moses’ anger burned hot and he threw the tablets from his hand and broke them at the foot of the mountain. Moses burned the golden calf, ground it, put it in water and made the people drink it. Then Aaron had to calm Moses’ anger. Aaron explained (excused his own behavior) the people’s behavior by saying they were bent on evil and “they made me make the golden calf.”

Then events turned deadly as Moses instructed a systematic killing of about 3000 people in the camp. The killing of so many is explained as an ordination service to the Lord, the cost being the death of a family member. The next day Moses met with the Lord to atone for the people’s sin. It seems that God and Moses agree that the sinners will be punished by a plague. It seems odd that Moses tried to moderate God’s anger at the people, yet justifies giving his own anger full and destructive expression.

Then the Lord instructed Moses to lead the people away from this place. By leaving, they move toward the promise of their own land.

In 33:7-11, the close connection between Moses and the Lord is shown. There is the tent of meeting; a column of smoke appears at its door when the Lord was speaking with Moses. “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Moses interceded before the Lord on behalf of the people. After witnessing the way Moses would speak strongly with God, one wonders who is the more powerful, Moses or the Lord. Moses is certainly a strong and confident negotiator with the divine.

We come now to the text for this Sunday, 33:12-23. As close and as familiar as Moses has become with the Lord, it’s curious that Moses says to the Lord “You have said to me ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’” It is clear that Moses is asking the Lord something that we thought was clear earlier, that is, that the Lord will lead these people into their promised future. Then Moses said, since the Lord has looked on Moses with favor, “Show me your glory.” The Lord demurs and tells Moses the Lord will show Moses what can be shown. The Lord, in a moment of tenderness, said, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on a rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” This comes after we have been told that Moses and the Lord met regularly “face to face.”

It is clear that the formation of a people who will trust their God is being forged by negotiations between Moses and the Lord. Our text is at the most vulnerable point in this new relationship. Moses wants the Lord to lead the people, in spite of their behavior, and they will be the Lord’s people. Neither the Lord nor Moses seems to be clear about what is going to happen in the future. The promise of their own land is reaffirmed, but it is unclear if it can be fulfilled. How will it be fulfilled, especially with these “stiff-necked” people?

The Matthew text is about taxes and if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. This is a setup scene where the religious authorities try to trap Jesus with the question. If Jesus says no, then there will be trouble with the Roman authorities. If he says yes, there will be trouble with some of the Jews. It’s set up as a no-win question. Yet, we see again how Jesus turns the question on its head and hands it back to those who wish to trap him. Jesus asks for a coin. One is produced. He asks whose head is on the coin. They say the emperor’s.

Then the famous retort, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the thinks that are God’s.” Jesus gives it back to them with the clear message that such a question is not as simple as they want it to be. The religious authorities most likely used Roman coins. By even using Roman coins in buying and selling for everyday necessities shows how embedded everyone is in the empire. Both the Lord and the empire promise a future of well-being and safety, but which one can be trusted?


Process Theology and the Texts:

The relationship between the Lord and Moses is deep and complicated. It is not a relationship where one over-powers the other. It seems even that they are working together on the project of a new land for the people; the Lord and Moses work as co-creators. Their relationship seems almost one of equals. For those who are looking for a simple arrangement of a God with all the power (omnipotence), these can be difficult texts to explain. There is a true, complicated, web of relationship between the Lord and the people shown in the texts. God changes God’s mind, can be negotiated with, can be persuaded to do something other than what was planned.

Jesus makes the tangled relationships between the people, the religious authorities, and the Roman authorities, even more complicated. A simple yes or no was expected by the question of the legality of paying taxes to the emperor. I would imagine that the religious authorities were embarrassed to have their complicity in the Roman occupation exposed so clearly and publicly.


Preaching the Texts:

The current issue of taxes in the American empire is hot, polarizing and urgent, and can be examined from the point of view of the text from Matthew. The dynamics of the story are remote and simpler and can therefore be seen more clearly than we can see our current situation. The dynamics of the story can shed light on our own, much larger and vastly more complicated, situation. We are too close to what is happening now and need the perspective such a text can offer.

For a sermon starter, it would be interesting to ask the congregation to produce a coin. (Or this could be done playfully during pastor’s time with the children.) Who has the coin that is produced? Where did it come from? What does it represent? Who does the coin belong to? The person who “earned” it or to the empire? A coin can be produced from the offering plate to make the point that we all use the coinage of the empire. Should a Christian pay taxes to the empire? The point of a sermon could be to show how enmeshed we all are in the affairs of the empire. It is impossible to live without being affected by the empire. If God is against empire in principle, then what is a Christian to do, support the empire by paying taxes, or refuse to pay taxes yet still benefiting by the empire?

What about Paul’s admonition to be in the world but not of the world? The truth is that it is complicated, as are all relationships. If we live in a relational world, then we must confront the complexity and depth of our involvement in the empire. How do we live, trusting our future to God’s hands, and yet participate so deeply in an empire that is a blatant act of distrust in God? There are no clean hands here. And if one claims to have clean hands (such as the religious authorities might do in the story), they are fooling themselves.

Where are the correlations between the text and our situation today?

In the Exodus text, we are taken way beyond the issue of living in the empire to the issue of whom to trust to provide a future and well-being and peace. Do we trust our own constructed mechanism (Golden Calf) of producing well-being? Or do we trust our future to God? The question that can motivate a sermon might be “Who can we trust?” The empire makes all kinds of promises to us, asking us to trust it. We are enticed by it, wooed, lured, lied to, scammed, entangled beyond our ability to evaluate life in the empire clearly.

A sermon could focus on the image of the Golden Calf as a metaphor. But a metaphor of what? The people were probably acting out of fear when they produced the Golden Calf. What motivates us to produce a Golden Calf? It would be interesting to play with the part of the story where Moses grinds up the Golden Calf, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it. Is there any resonance between drinking from this cup and drinking from the cup of Christ? Does drinking this concoction thereby make the Golden Calf become part of us? What does it mean to eat a metaphor or drink an image? Does it imply that we are consumers of what we produce, that is, well-being and safety on our own terms? By consuming it, how does it affect us? Do we become ill? Disoriented?

A sermon could address what some people believe is the functional religion of our time: economism, trust in the invisible hand of the free market. But can the invisible hand (god?) of the free market be trusted to make good on what it promises? Clearly it can not. Currently, people are protesting in the streets of Wall Street and in other cities against what Wall Street Inc. has done to our country, to the common good. The greed, the stupidity, the violation of trust, and the arrogance of a few who have hijacked the wealth of so many.

Some say we have a one party system, the party of Wall Street, and it matters less whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in power. The influence of money has corrupted democracy in this country beyond the control of any one person, or group of people. What, then, is the Golden Calf of our time?