The price of gold has been going up recently, with concern over rising oil prices, and unease about terrorist threats, including the recent bombings in Bali and fallout from a series of natural disasters. (Although some suggest a more prosaic cause for increasing gold prices as its the wedding season in India, demand for gold jewellery for all the brides pushes the price up!) But with wider uncertainties in the world, gold is seen as a secure investment, a hedge against calamity.
In our Old Testament reading for the day, gold plays a central role as well. The story is one of the most famous chapters from the peoples wilderness wandering after the Exodus, that of the golden calf. In that story, gold was a focus of the peoples desire for security in a time of uncertainty.
Moses had been their faithful leader through the turmoil of the Exodus, but now he was gone, up the mountain communing with God, while the people waited and wondered. As the days went by, Moses absence left them doubting whether God was with them as well. They were desperate for some visible reassurance of Gods presence.
They turned to Aaron, Moses second in command, who was a more pliable kind of leader, and was swayed by the peoples unease. He gave in, and gave them what they wanted, something tangible to assure them that God was still with them. So it was that he made the golden calf that they worshipped in place of God.
Several things are striking as we look at the story of the golden calf. First, there is Aarons weakness as a leader; he is too ready to accommodate the peoples expectations and entreaties. Then there is the peoples response to the calf. Even though they knew its origin, having just handed in their jewellery and watching while Aaron made it, they were surprisingly ready to bow down and worship it. Also striking is their disregard for the still recent experience of being led out in the Exodus. Their powerful encounter with the living God is soon forgotten in favour of a god they could touch; the golden calf.
As we read this text, we wonder where are the temptations to fashion a golden calf in our time? As community values fray at the edges, and families retreat into the safety of their homes, the golden calf seems somehow familiar. It is there in the consumer culture, enticing us to see things of material worth as worth the best of our energies. It is there in the marketing for super funds, promising financial security as something that can deliver us from uncertainty and keep us safe.
When we think of the golden calf in its original context, when the people feared the absence of the divine, and looked for reassurance in the figure of the calf, we might ask, where do we fear the absence of God, and cling to emblems that reassure?
Within the churches across our nation, and much of the west, there are many places where the patterns of the past are kept in place to recall a time when Christendom was strong and God seemed near, when the Sunday Schools were full or the youth groups lively.
While in some places, like here in Toorak, there is openness to new creativity in exploring the faith through the arts and to reconsider worship for the present day in the recent remodelling of the sanctuary, there are other churches where the wagons are circled and the pews bolted in place, where people sing only the old songs.
Sometimes, likewise we find the family Bible revered in a home as an heirloom, rather than for the Scripture it embodies, or the God to which it points. Like the people in Moses time, sometimes we are tempted to cling to what tangible evidence we can find that God has not deserted us, to focus more on the beauty of stained glass than the world that we may glimpse through it. This is not a new issue; our Reformation forebears were well aware of the human tendency to confuse the image with that which it represents.
The people in the wilderness were not content to wait on God; they "rose up to revel". It proved too difficult to stay in the uncertainty, to watch and pray for the return of Moses. Better to dull the pain with an ancient rave of sorts . Again, it is not uncommon in our culture to dull a sense of emptiness with a bit of revelling of one kind or another. Yet there were consequences for the episode of the golden calf and pitfalls for the party that followed.
The story of the golden calf became a cautionary tale for Gods people, reminding them (as commentator Walter Harrelson writes) to seek the invisible God not through images, but in the treatment of the widow and stranger, the showing of hospitality, and the doing of justice.
After the episode of the golden calf, at first God was angry that his covenant had been broken, and proposed to destroy the people. But Moses showed himself to be a faithful leader, and even though the people had often whinged against him, he intercedes for them, appealing to Gods good name and nature. In a striking reversal, God changes his mind and spares them. It seems the only thing that will not change about God is his unfailing grace and favour, even to those who have been faithless. There is a comfort here for us, for those times when we feel we have fallen far from God, that Gods faithfulness is not conditional on our keeping faith.
God offers connection, and grieves when his gracious invitation is declined. So it is in our Gospel reading for today, in which God, represented by the king in the parable, sends out an invitation to a wedding feast for his son. First he invites the A list, the guests he planned to have at the party. But they reject the invitation because they are preoccupied with business as usual. Caught up in providing for their families, they neglect the call to community, the call to celebrate in the house of the king. Even when the king tempts them with a preview of the posh menu for the evening, they make light of it all, not realising they have declined a significant invitation to become involved in the heart of life. Like some in our day, they are keeping their options open for something more diverting.
Their reactions are troubling, as we wonder if we, too, are sometimes so caught up in daily detail that we fail to hear the call to something deeper.
The parable is also an allegory, with those who declined the invitation to the feast of the Kings son representing the Israelites and their rejection of Jesus. If we read it as allegory, it helps to explain the violence in the story, echoing the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had happened not long before Matthew wrote his gospel. Matthews community with their Jewish heritage would have been trying to make sense of where the chosen people fell in the scheme of Gods salvation, and how the Gentiles were now to be included.
The kings invitation widened out to include those brought in from the streets, breaking down the social divisions of their day. In this, it is a reminder of the open nature of the church as a community where all are to be welcomed and included, where we may be surprised to see people whom we wouldnt encounter in our usual rounds. In the story of the wedding, both good and bad were invited; it wasnt their status, moral or social, that gained them entry to the kings feast.
As we hear the parable for ourselves, we are drawn into the circle of those invited to the ultimate partyheaven like a wedding feast. So far, it is good news, but there is a surprising turn in the story. Even among those who accept the invitation, there is a problematic guest who turns up without the proper clothing; he disregarded the "black tie or morning suit" on the invitation.
The other evening I was out to dinner with friends, and the restaurant where we booked was hosting a large wedding in the main room. We had to walk through the wedding party to a back room where the regular customers were being served. The wedding guests were in their finery, the bridesmaids dressed to the hilt in a particularly odd shade of green (they say you can wear those dresses again, but you never do!) Everyone was in silk, with tapestry waistcoats and the like. And through this scene we trouped, the hoi polloi, in our jeans and fleecy pullovers, lucky that we werent to be cast into the outer darkness for not having a wedding garment!
The man in the parable without the proper attire was someone who had accepted the invitation, who became part of the Christian community, but who persisted in his former way of life; who balked at the cost of discipleship, oblivious of walking though the wedding party where all the others had taken care to array themselves in the righteousness of Christ.
One commentator (James Alison) notes that the man without proper attire remains silent, even when God invites him to respond. "The problem with the silent guest is that he does not imagine himself to be at a wedding banquet at all, but rather in a place of judgement, and for this reason does not dare speak when he is addressed. [So he] receives treatment according to what he expects, [and is judged]." If only he had thrown himself on the mercy of the king, he would have found him merciful.
The kings response is worrying; the implied picture of God is less than comfortable. The man is not only to be thrown out of the party for breaking the dress code, he is to be sent into the outer darkness. Again, were in the realm of allegory, where those who reject Gods offer of community find themselves out beyond the welcoming lights of the kingdom.
So it is that the king invites you as well, to the wedding feast of his Son. He awaits your response. Will you send your regrets, or will you accept with pleasure the gracious invitation? And if you take it up, will you find time to clothe your life in a fashion fit for a new community of love and feasting?
Will you work to make this church community more and more like that of the wedding party, where all are welcome at the joyful feast of the people of God? While the parable reminds us the stakes are high, it is at its heart good news, for we are all invited to the marriage feast of the Son.
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