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Bible Study: Pentecost 20 (A) – October 15, 2023
October 15, 2023
The Golden Calf account is one of those stories that anyone familiar with the Bible knows – or at least, claims to know! This near-ubiquitous familiarity may be due in part to the many pop culture references made to this story – or it may be due to the drama and striking imagery in the story itself. Whatever the cause, the Golden Calf is fixed in the minds of many modern readers as the emblematic example of idolatry. Moreover, the same evidently holds true for the Biblical authors, as this cautionary tale gets retold several times in the Bible.
While such familiarity is not a bad thing, if we approach this story believing that we know it already, we risk overlooking key insights. For example, do the Israelites really commit idolatry by worshipping the Golden Calf instead of God? After fashioning the calf, the people identify it as their “gods” who saved them from slavery, and Aaron proclaims that the next day will be a festival, not to the calf, but “to the Lord!” The Hebrew text clarifies these statements further. In the first place, the Israelites identify the calf using a form of the word Elohim – which literally means “gods,” but stands regularly as a type of title or pseudonym for God. Aaron’s proclamation is even clearer: rather than using the pseudonym Elohim, Aaron refers to God explicitly as YHWH, leaving no doubt as to whose festival Israel will soon observe.
It doesn’t seem that the Israelites worship the Golden Calf instead of God, as a replacement or usurper. Rather, the Israelites worship the Golden Calf as though it were God, thus conflating their creation with their Creator. In doing so, the Israelites remind us that idolatry is not always as easy to identify as a gleaming Golden Calf. Rather, idolatry often occurs as a case of mistaken identity, in which things that are not God are valued and revered as though they were God. It’s all too easy to pursue our goals and desires as if they were the goals and desires of God. Perhaps this story can invite us to reevaluate our assumptions and reexamine the familiar contours of our faith. Such work is challenging but vital if we are to discern where we are truly serving God and where we are only serving our idols.
- Is there anything in your life that acts or has acted as a type of idol?
- How do you think the Israelites could have confused the Golden Calf for God?
- Why do you think God finally decided not to “bring disaster” on the Israelites?
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Like Psalm 105 before it, Psalm 106 is a retelling of key Biblical events, with the primary difference that, while Psalm 105 marvels at God’s work on behalf of Israel, Psalm 106 laments Israel’s inability to worship God accordingly. As such, the psalm has a somber, sober tone, with the psalmist alternating between lines of praise and petition aimed at the Lord. The core theme of the Psalm appears in v. 6: “We have sinned as our forebears did; we have done wrong and dealt wickedly.” This follows from the previous verses, wherein the psalmist lauds God’s mercy and forbearance while seeking God’s saving help.
Yet the question remains: How have we sinned as our forebears did? As an explanation, the psalmist retells the Golden Calf story. The root of Israel’s idolatry in that story, according to the Psalmist, was that “they forgot God their Savior” and God’s “wonderful deeds.” This tendency to forget and stray from God is likely the same sin that the psalmist sees at work in their own time; hence, their motivation for retelling Israel’s past transgressions, so that their people might remember and turn back to God. We also are susceptible to sin and prone to forget, and so the psalmist’s message applies to our time, too. Prayer and ministry are easily forgotten amid our bustling lives, as are love of God and neighbor. In response, the psalmist urges us to remember God as best we can and to rejoice in the mercy and long-suffering love of the God who remembers us even if we do not remember God.
- Can you think of a time when it was hard to remember God? Why was that?
- Can you think of a time when it was easy to remember God? Why was that?
- Can you think of any daily practices that might help you better remember God?
This reading begins the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul has tried his best to attend to the concerns and quiet the anxieties of the Christian community in Philippi. The only thing left to do is recapitulate his points, give thanks for his beloved friends, and bid them farewell. Yet, before Paul can get to that conclusion, he has one final conflict to address.
The conflict centers around Euodia and Syntyche, two highly respected leaders in Philippi who have fallen into conflict. The nature of their disagreement remains unknown, but the impact of their quarrel on their community was so great that it prompted Paul to respond. Thus, Paul urges the two “to be of the same mind in the Lord” – the same exhortation delivered to the community at large earlier in the letter (cf. Philippians 2:2). In effect, Paul wants the women to remember their commitment to the work of the gospel and pursue their shared purpose in love and unity. The community has a role, too, and must help its leaders reconcile their differences for the sake of the Gospel.
It comes as no surprise that personal quarrels and disagreements can get in the way of a larger, shared goal – even in the church! Longstanding ministries can be undone by conflict over direction and leadership; programs can be shelved indefinitely for lack of agreement over funding and management; and sometimes, small conflicts between persons can spiral out, becoming so large that they threaten the health of the whole community. In all such cases, we have two options. We can serve only our own interests, making idols of our egos, or we can remember our baptismal commitments to God and to each another and strive together toward mutual reconciliation for the sake of the good work.
- Have you ever seen or experienced a significant conflict at church?
- Did you do anything to help resolve the conflict? If so, what did you do?
- How might you advise others facing similar conflicts in their congregations?
It’s possible that today’s Gospel will make many people feel very uncomfortable. Part of that discomfort likely stems from more general discomfort with the violent images present in the text, while part might come from discomfort with its driving theme: Judgment. Judgment can be a sensitive topic, especially in religious spaces, in which so many people feel or have felt judged and condemned in one way or another. For some, mention of judgment opens old wounds and dredges up painful memories, while for others it activates anxieties about personal purity and worthiness. In short, talking about judgment can be challenging; and yet, despite the challenge, reflecting on today’s parable means reflecting on judgment.
We can start by analyzing the parable. Who is doing the judging? Clearly, the king judges everyone around him, but who does the king represent? The apparent answer is God; after all, God is often described as sitting in judgment over the world. What about those being judged? The initial guests represent opponents of the Early Church as the gospel writer saw them, while the later guests represent anyone who responds positively to the gospel message. These later guests represent all Christians, and their bright wedding robes are the “[robes] of righteousness” gained from lives of love lived in harmony with Jesus’ teachings (cf. Isaiah 61:10). Within this context, the man with no robe is like a Christian without love, and the judgment passed on him is a warning to live according to Jesus’ teachings by loving God and loving neighbor.
All that said, knowing what the parable is about does little to mollify its more extreme elements. The king’s judgments still bring death, destruction, and damnation, all of which pose the question: Is the kingdom of heaven really built on judgments such as these? Here it helps to reflect on the motivation behind the parable. The parable’s original audience was the gospel writer’s own community of early Christians. The original motivation behind the parable was probably not to terrorize or discourage that community, but to exhort and galvanize them. To that end, the parable has much in common with the other readings for today. It, too, is a cautionary tale meant to remind its readers and listeners of a vital truth. The vital truth in this parable is that following Jesus and living into his teachings requires significant determination and careful discernment: Determination, to continue loving even when loving is hard; and discernment, to determine whether we are living our lives in harmony with the gospel message, or whether we have gotten lost along the way and need to get back on track.
- How does reading or hearing this parable make you feel?
- Does this parable encourage you to practice Jesus’ teachings? Why or why not?
- Do you think that others would be encouraged by this parable? Why or why not?
This Bible study was written by Justin Smith of Virginia Theological Seminary.
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