God is ripped. Moses is gone for forty days up Mount Sinai and the nervous Israelites gathered in the valley below get the bright idea to fashion a few gods out of old jewelry. Awesome idea fellas! God attempts to withdraw from humanity and stew in anger. God says to Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” God then offers Moses a deal–if God smites the folks in the valley below then God will start over and make a great nation out of Moses. Once again God offers a representative of humanity a ‘mulligan.’ I say ‘once again’ because a representative of humanity already received a mulligan in Genesis chapters 6-9 (the flood narrative). Moses, however, offers a different response than Noah. Instead of falling in line, opening up a shipyard, and gathering a male and female of every species, Moses rejects God’s offer and ‘impores’ God to reconsider.
The fact that Moses ‘reasons’ with God, and points out the bad P.R. that will result from God’s smiting the wandering Israelite nomads, is strange to us. The story has the feel of a parent offering sage advice to a child on the verge of a fitful tantrum. Most of us feel uncomfortable incorporating these ‘rough pericopes’ into our theological constructs. “God doesn’t throw tantrums!”, we protest. But who is to say what God does, and why? What would have happened if Noah reasoned with God as well? We will never know. In the genre of God-stories known as “God finds a human confidant and let’s him in on God’s plan to destroy large numbers of people” Moses’s role is novel. Moses breaks away from the script. No God, you can’t do this. And as a result, “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
In this story we see the power of divine/human dialog. Moses is no sycophant, and God is no dictatorial monarch. The human and the divine are in this mess together, and together they reason the next step that must be taken.
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Psalm 106 offers a clear response to our Hebrew Bible lection mentioning outright the golden calf narrative and Moses’s role as mediator between an angry God and a sinful people (vs. 19-23). The Psalm begins with praise, giving thanks to a God who’s good, and whose ‘steadfast love endures forever.” The psalmist admits that “both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” In the unassigned reading from Psalm 106 we travel throughout the history of the Israelite nation and hear of all the times the people of Israel sinned against God, and how God’s anger was kindled, and how in the end God heard the cry of the people. Psalm 106 testifies to a God who does not stay angry forever, and offers thanksgiving.
Paul is wrapping up his letter to the Philippians and as he does he enters into a series of exhortations. This is Paul’s good rhetorical style on display: hit them hard with theology, and then give them the exhortations (the application). As the exhortations begin in Philippians Paul must first address an apparent personal conflict in the church between two women, Euodia and Syntyche. Paul does not choose sides in the conflict, but encourages the community to “help these women” because both of them worked alongside Paul in the spreading of the gospel and have subsequently had their names written in the ‘book of life.’ The rest of the exhortations suggest Paul’s belief in the ‘power of positive thinking’ (at least in terms of what God is doing in the world). The Philippians are encouraged ‘not to worry about anything’ and to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praise worthy. In essence Paul is asking the Philippians to keep their eyes on the kingdom of God, which, according to Paul, is near.
There are two parables at work here (some describe it as ‘the parable within a parable’). The first offers commentary on those who refuse to accept the invitation to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew’s circumlocution for the ‘Kingdom of God’). The kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws a great banquet, says the parable, and sends out two rounds of invitations only to receive no response from the intended guests. To add injury to insult the intended guests also seize the kings letter carriers and mistreat them and kill them. In anger the king sends out the military and destroys the guests and burns down their towns. Then the king tells his servants go to the main streets and invite anyone they see, both good and bad. This first parable speaks to God’s radical inclusiveness, and to the inability for humans, especially the so-called privileged, to accept the graces that are offered them.
The second parable (the parable within a parable) begins when the king discovers that one of the new invites has come to the banquet without the proper attire. The king questions the man but the man is unable to give a reason for his lack of a wedding robe. The king then throws the man into the “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The parable concludes with Jesus’ statement, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” The parable within the parable is unique to Matthew (it is not found in the parallel story in Luke, or in the later non-canonical Gospel of Thomas that also contains a version of this parable). We surmise then that Matthew is adapting the story to fit the needs of his community, and thus this part of the parable contains a message of particular importance to those to whom Matthew is writing. It appears that Matthew’s community needed a reminder (as ours does as well) that accepting an invitation to God’s future does not mean you can be a non-participant in all that that future is intending to bring about. The church as a sign of the kingdom of God must remember this. We are a sign of God’s kingdom that should be, at the same time, participating in God’s kingdom (i.e. we should be wearing the right clothes for the occasion–adorned in the works of justice, peace, and mercy, for instance).
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the need to dialog with God in prayers of confession that implore God to meet our sin with God’s steadfast love. Consider our need to confess the sins of our ancestors and to confess our own sins, and offer thanksgiving for the grace our ancestors received and the grace we receive. Consider the blessedness of receiving God’s invitation, and let us come to worship wearing the clothes of service and love of neighbor.