A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Which God will you follow? The story of the Golden Calf
October 9, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 28 Exod 32:1-14 Matt 22:1-14
There was a small community, way out in the country, who finally managed to raise the money to build their own church. When it was finished two of the team made a two-hour trip to buy the paint for the exterior. When they were half way through the job they became concerned that they were going to run out of paint before they finished. As neither felt up to travelling such a long way to buy more paint, they decided the obvious thing to do was to thin it down with water. This worked, and they had just enough to finish the job. They were very happy, but as they stood back to admire their handiwork, a big black cloud appeared over the church. The rain poured down upon the church and left a streaky mess. As the men gazed at the church in horror a voice came from the heavens: “Re-paint and thin no more!”
The moral within this joke: the obvious thing is not always right.
The obvious thing to believe from this morning's Exodus reading is that the Israelite people messed up big time. They made an idol - a golden calf. They made it because Moses was taking his time. And they used the calf to worship “the Lord.” Then they had a feast. In other words they had grown tired of waiting for not only Moses but also Moses' God. You may recall that this God had appeared on Mt. Sinai with an electrifying light show. There was thunder, lightning, cloud, explosions and smoke [19:16-24]. Moses was summoned to the top of the mountain to meet with the volcanic One. Then Moses disappeared for some forty days and forty nights.
What do you do when God is truant? When God doesn't show? What do you do when you are sick and tired of waiting and want to get on with life? The people wanted to worship. They wanted to celebrate. They wanted to move on. So, being practical, they made a visual aid, the calf, to help them worship God's presence when God was absent. Sort of like a cardboard cutout of a police officer to remind us of our innate honesty.
In the book of Exodus however God isn't as benign as a New Zealand police officer. Rather God is a conglomerate of violent warrior, lawgiver who gets bound up with his own laws, and friend of Moses. In our reading, and indeed throughout most of Exodus, the violent warrior is to the fore. This is the God who drowned the Egyptian army. This is the God who “ethnically cleanses” the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites [23:27-33]. Unlike the Egyptians who supposedly enslaved the Hebrews, these peoples committed no crime, save being in the spot that the genocidal God wanted the Israelites to settle.  This is a God who also seems to like blood - buckets of it. And, surprise, surprise, this God hasn't much time for women [e.g. 19:15].
Well Warrior God and his mate, Moses, return from up the mountain and are not impressed with the bull. The One-with-the-temper wants to barbeque the Israelites on the spot. Moses tells him to cool it. Moses, however, is pretty steamed up himself. He gathers the sons of Levi, gears them into thug mode, and has them go back and forth through the camp killing brothers, friends, and neighbours. Three thousand are murdered. Moses applauds the Levites, not for helping identify the ringleaders of the calf controversy, but for their willingness to indiscriminately kill. However, while this is going on, Warrior God is feeling left out. So he comes sailing in with a bit of germ warfare to further afflict the corpse-strewn camp. The text doesn't tell us how many people died in the resulting plague.
For some the obvious thing about the gold calf is that the Israelites disobeyed God and were punished. For others of us the obvious thing is to ask some searching questions about the morality of this exterminator God. The golden calf was a response to the people's needs. I'm not saying it was right or wise. But it was understandable. Less understandable to my mind is a God who sees such a response as disobedient, disobedience as threat, and threat as meriting violent retribution.
My observation, without being too simplistic, is that those who worship a God concerned about disobedience and threat, and prone to retributive violence, are or become in time threatening, retributive, and violent themselves. Likewise those who have a God who is compassionate, loving, and tolerant of the variety of human response are, or become in time, compassionate, loving, and tolerant people. The Bible contains both Gods. We have the choice of which God we want to give allegiance to.
It is tempting to believe that the violent judgemental God lives in the Old Testament and the compassionate loving God in the New. But unfortunately it is not so simple. The truth is that both Hebrew and Christian scriptures contain both sorts of Gods.
In our Gospel reading, for example, Matthew serves us up a banquet God who has not totally lost the killer instinct. As Matthew tells it, the parable of the banquet involves a king [read God] who sends his servants [Jesus and followers] to invite guests [some of the chief priests and Pharisees] to a banquet. The guests all have excuses. Some even kill the servants. The king's response is to send in troops, kill the bad mannered ones, and burn their city [read the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.]. Then the king extends his invitation to anyone who wants to come [read tax-collectors, sinners, gentiles...]. However, when all are assembled, one hapless fellow isn't dressed in the right apparel and gets short shift with the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” bit [read admission is no guarantee you'll stay]. The God in this story has no qualms about judging, killing - even using the heathen Romans to do the job - and expelling aspirants to the “outer darkness”.
The parable of the banquet is also found in the Gospel of Luke [14:16-24]. There, however, the emphasis is quite different. We have a king [read God] sending his slave [read Jesus] to invite guests [read chief priests and Pharisees] who all have excuses. So far so good. Fairly similar. But then Luke's text goes on to have the king tell the slave to invite in the “poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Once they are all in the slave is sent to invite whoever is still left out [read gentiles]. In other words all the killing and expelling bits are deleted, or rather never REPLACEed.
The God of Luke 14 is very different from the God of Matthew 22. This is a God of radical hospitality that does not worry about who doesn't take up the invitation – they are just left to their own devices. This is a God of radical hospitality that does not worry what the guests are wearing. This is a God who isn't interested in exercising power so people will know who's in charge, but rather is a God who is interested in giving away power so people will know they are loved.
One of our tasks today is to re-paint God. The violent, judgemental lawgiver has been exposed by the weather of time. It is true that this warrior God is in the Bible. It is also true in the Bible that this God has sinned against humanity. It is a dangerous God, hazardous and destructive. In a number of guises this God still wields power today – in the religious undergirding of militaristic US foreign policy, in the so-called 'family' morality of Destiny Church, in the violation of human rights by theocratic leaders…
If this were the only God the Bible contained we would have given up long ago. But it isn't. Right from the earliest days there has been people who believed differently. They were people who believed that God was far greater than our warlike projections. When a baby smiled they saw the smile of God. When a person reached out their hand to a stranger or enemy the pleasure of God erupted. When power was shared, when reconciliation was more valued than being right, when giving was preferable to getting, God was being incarnated in their midst.
This is the God our world needs to know. This is the God we need to paint boldly and proclaim in bright colours. This is the God we celebrate, and to whom we give our allegiance.
 How different this is from the Book of Genesis where a mixing of peoples is taken for granted. Even when the land of the Canaanite tribes, for example, is promised to Abraham and his family, the assumption is that they will receive it as they know it - i.e. with its inhabitants.