Texts: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-5, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Here the Israelites made the golden calf, saying that the bull was the image of YHWH. Are they here creating a new god, or simply seeking an easily accessible form of the G-d who hid Himself on the mountain? They wanted the easy road, the road of clarity, the road of the visible and tangible, the road of their neighbors. The sin was not to worship a false god in the sense of a different deity, but in the sense of offering to a misconception of G-d, to a domestication of G-d, to treat Him as if ‘He were a tame lion.’ They wanted to eschew the ‘fear and trembling’ of worshipping a G-d Who sometimes hides Himself, who comes in small whispers and unwanted callings, the G-d Who demands. They wanted the god of comfort, the god of luxury and of merriment, a god who blesses life as it is rather than One Who Demands Higher. They wanted a god who takes only their gold, not the G-d Who claims the whole of life.
The Israelites’ salvation came through powerlessness—not from the strong arm that delivered them with plagues and miracles out of Egypt—but through Moses. G-d tested Moses by offering him the way of power—of being the replacement of Abraham and Jacob—but he renounced power, and pleaded G-d to remember mercy, and the people were saved. In so doing, he prefigured what G-d Himself would do—come into a life of powerlessness and die powerlessly, so as to conquer the world. Indeed, Satan himself recognized this, and tempted Christ to an easier way, the way of power. Christianity proclaims the paradox that it is through a ‘Will to Powerlessness’ that the world can be conquered. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ The way of Christ is the way of weakness, meekness, the way of the power that conquers by being conquered. Thus Paul exhorts the church to gentleness, compassion, to turning the other cheek. It is why the church is to bring its problems before each other, so as to continually practice surrendering one’s rights to another—to live in love and forgiveness.
And forgiveness is the highest of the ethical—indeed it is what Kierkegaard called the ‘religious’ because it is higher than the ethical—it is what Christ was in life and death. Forgiveness says, I will not trivialize sin by slapping it on the wrist or by ignoring it, nor will I increase it with hatred or vengeance, but, by absorbing the offence into myself, I will overcome it. Forgiveness says, I know that the deed was wrong, but I abnegate my rights so as to rebuild the broken relationship between us, so that I might gain a relationship rather than justice, and in negating justice I prove myself to be the Highest Justice. Thus by taking the nails, Christ overcame sin. Mercy triumphs over judgment because it is the way of powerlessness. It is this way of powerlessness that Aaron forgot when he melted the gold into a calf. To live in communion as a community, with forgiveness, in fear and trembling before a G-d on the mountain—it is to that to which ‘many are called, but few are chosen.’
It was the man without his wedding garments, unprepared for festive communion with his fellow wedding-feast-guests, who was cast out into the darkness, along with the rich, the religious, and the ethical, and all those for whom the festivities of forgiveness and humility and powerlessness were beneath them. The golden calf of the immediately present is infinitely easier to see and to handle, but the indigestion from its revels leaves one indisposed for the wedding of the Son of Man.
Jason M Silverman
October 10, 2005