19th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14
Oftentimes, Exodus and Matthew can be difficult for us to accept, lay claim to, or even understand. But there is a really wonderful lesson for us in all three of our major readings for this week. I would like to put one thing to rest today: God is not just. Now, hold onto that for a minute before you tar and feather me. Our God is actually not a God of justice; rather our God is a One of righteousness. And it really has amazing repercussions for us, one as opposed to the other. Part of the journey of embracing God’s righteousness is realizing that there is actually a big difference between us hearing the invitation of God to come to him in Jesus Christ and then actually putting on Christ and living in the world as people of God in Christ; accepting God’s invitation and, then, embracing God.
I know maybe this sounds like Fr. George’s Theology 101 class, maybe a bit too serious or even grim, but it really isn’t; actually, quite the opposite. So, today, we have this fairly familiar story from Torah in the book of Exodus. I don’t know about you but this is one of those OT scenes that we can almost see because it was, of course, immortalized in Cecil B DeMille’s The 10 Commandments which came on tv every Easter, with Charlton Heston chewing more scenery than a colony of termites.
Now the backstory we probably already know. God’s people were held captive and enslaved in Egypt for generations. And God has sent Moses as the instrument through which God would fulfill his promises; the covenant promised to Abraham, Noah, and Jacob. Through the blessing of God, Israel is freed from its bonds, is liberated from its captivity, and ushered into a desert place. Now the desert is merely a prelude to Israel being ushered into the land that God will show them, as he did their father Abraham before them. But freedom is new to this generation of Israelite. They are accustomed to at having at least enough to eat and water to drink; in Egypt. In the desert they find themselves facing hardship, which is often the first stage of any newfound freedom, isn’t it? And they complain about this and they complain about that but, on a human level, they go through a lot.
And now they are receiving the covenant commandments of God at Sinai. When we drop in on Israel today, Moses has been gone – atop Sinai - for more than a month. And they begin to feel lost again, alone without God again. So, they cry out to Aaron, their new leader, to fashion for them I knew god for what will be a new chapter without Moses. And Aaron caves and he helps them fashion a “god“ out of gold. And this golden calf represents fertility for the new life that they’re going to now have. And they revel and dance around this new “god.” Meanwhile, back at the hall of justice, up the mountain, Moses is basking in the new commandment-covenant that God has given to His people as a promise. But God sees what the people are doing down around the golden calf and tells Moses: “You better get down there because these people are going wild and have already abandoned me!” And God resolves to destroy Israel and start over with only Moses and his family. Moses convinces to change His mind…and so God relents.
I confess that this story makes a lot more sense to me when placed in combination with the parable that Jesus tells today in the Gospel of Matthew, also told by Luke. And I had something of a vision as to how this parable makes sense to me and helps us to make sense of that idea that God is not a just God but God is a righteous God. So here is my fast and furious interpretation of this parable that may be at odds with most or many of the folks who write commentaries.
We should remember the parables are not a one- to-one story of real life; everything in the story doesn’t have an equivalent in the real world. Parables were and still are stories that help to draw out particular truths and they’re often highly symbolic. I think it works in the world of this particular parable for the king to be seen as God; it doesn’t always work that way. So, God extends an invitation to his people - let’s say Israel - and he invites His people to come to His kingdom presence, one in which they not only accept the invitation but will do so in obedience and in love.
But the people reject the invitation and they decide to follow after other “gods” (don’t lose sight of the image of the exodus story and the rebellion of Israel) which, in this case of the mundane things of everyday life, the busyness of life, a new chapter in one’s life, etc. The people do reject the invitation from God the king. God reacts, as the king, to exact punishment on those who rejected his invitation, his promise, and the promise is withdrawn. New guests are invited and those new guests come from all over, all walks of life; there is no station too low, no one too poor, sick or homeless and are now called in to the feast. And the people respond to this invitation. But there’s one who fails to put on the appropriate garments of a wedding which, in Jesus’ day, would be provided for the guest if he or she did not have their own. And he has no answer when the king asks why aren’t you properly attired.
And we could view him as a very mean spirited of the. But in the parable world Jesus is trying to say that it is not enough to answer the invitation that God has extended to us to be a part of His kingdom. In His new covenant he has commanded that we put on Christ and wear Christ as the clothing, the spiritual manifestation of who we now are.
As we go out into the world our inability to fulfill what Christ clearly tells us is to bring on the just punishment of God. But here, now, is the kicker; now comes the part where God is not just but God is righteous. You see, my brothers and sisters, in Christ, God has placed himself between himself and his own judgment of us. If God was just, truly just, there would be no way that we could escape, as Jesus sometimes says, “the wrath to come.” Christ has positioned himself as God’s blessing and saving mercy and grace in the world. God has suspended judgment because Christ has placed himself in the way. Jesus takes on our punishment, our refusal to follow God as we should, and our inability to keep God’s promises because of our humanity.
Well this might sound like the stuff of judgment. This may, for us, cast God in the worst possible light like “other Christians do.” But actually this is the only way that the kingdom life makes sense to me. God has laid before us his grace and mercy throughout human history in Old Testament and the New Testament lessons. God didn’t become some other kind of God with a new covenant when Christ came along. God fulfilled the covenant in the person Of Jesus Christ. We are liberated by the mercy and goodness of God in Christ. And that doesn’t mean that we’re going to get our acts together, all of a sudden. Christ continues to call us to faithfulness and if we are following, imperfectly always, the path of forgiveness, blessing, and love in the Risen One, then we are saved. How blessed are we that our God is not a just God because if we were no one could be saved? God is righteous and God keeps the promises of extending his invitation to us forever and always. We are saved by God’s righteousness not by God’s justice. God has given us the instruments of being merciful and just with one another. In famous words that Dr. King quoted frequently, from the prophet Micah, “What does our Lord demand of you but to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly before your God.” The God of love, light, and ultimate forgiveness places the blessing and the burden of being people of justice in our own hands. God has saved us.
Paul reminds us what putting on the clothing of God’s righteousness, as we answer his invitation to the feast of his blessing and kingdom life, looks like. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Answering the invitation of Jesus to come, and follow Him, to shape ourselves into his likeness, to wear Him as holy armor, is the most useful thing we could ever do for ourselves or the world.