Bible Study

Bible Study: Proper 23 (A) – 2011

October 09, 2011

Exodus 32:1-14

We often might find it hard to accept the ambiguity and uncertainty that mature faith requires. Like the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness, we would rather have clarity, certainty, and the confidence that comes in what can be seen. We do not easily surrender to the wisdom of “let go, let God.” Our ancestors in faith gave into their impatience and desire for certainty by fashioning an idol. Our own age has succumbed to the need for certainty, it could be argued, through fundamentalism, the prevalence in many churches of condemnatory rhetoric directed against fellow members, and juridicism (the Latin Rite Catholic Bishop Stephen Blair of Stockton aptly described the juridicist as one who “searches out laws new or old to justify personal positions or ideologies in the Church. Especially they like to focus on liturgical practices. They incline to creating unnecessary hoops for people to jump through).

Aaron served as a weak and dim-witted accomplice in the rebellion of his people – a classic example of a leader who usurps his responsibility by failing to summon the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear. How often do we encounter this problem in both ecclesiastical and secular life? Interestingly, this passage concludes with Moses averting disaster by an appeal to Yahweh’s noblesse oblige. Fortunately for all (including us!) Yahweh can be persuaded to change Yahweh’s mind!

  • How easily do you “let go, let God”?
  • Has your faith arrived at a point where you can live with ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • What does Aaron’s example (or bad example) in this episode have to teach us?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Although our psalm’s lectionary text today is abbreviated to include a hymn of praise and a recounting of a sad event in Israel’s history, the broader context of Psalm 106 is one of lament. Written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, this psalm returns to Israel’s past sins, particularly those recounted in Exodus 32. The psalmist compares the sins of the contemporary people with those of a former generation. Clearly, the writer has in mind the mercy that God showed the ancestors.

In our heterogeneous society it is easier to “move forward” and “get over” what has happened in the past. But for homogenous cultures, the travesties of the long past can still carry great pain and meaning. This is the case for the writer of Psalm 106. The request of verse 4, “Remember me, O LORD, with the favor you have for your people, 
and visit me with your saving help” conjures a sadness and hopefulness that can only come through being in touch with deep historical memories, as well as feelings of lament that transcend the individual.

These emotions encompass an entire people. Much can be discovered in reflecting upon the deepest hurts and shame of one’s self and one’s people. Through such a revisiting, failure can be begin to be transformed into an opportunity for wisdom and “saving help.”

  • Where can we find wisdom in the trials and failings of the ancestors of our faith tradition, both Israelite and Christian?
  • Do we allow ourselves to occasionally revisit the pain and sadness experienced by previous generations of believers, caused by either their own mistakes or of those who persecuted them? What might we gain from this practice?

Philippians 4:1-9

Paul closes his letter to the Philippians by urging two women of that city’s Jesus group, Evodia and Syntyche, to put aside their quarrels and seek a resolution to their conflict. Although we cannot be sure what the issue was between the two, Paul, in verse 5, urges all involved to exercise “forbearance,” perhaps a better translation of the Greek word epieikesis than the commonly employed “gentleness.” Paul means to say that sometimes one must put aside the demands of strict justice and be merciful and accommodating to others. Scripture scholars John Pilch and Bruce Malina put it this way: “What the exhortation means is: don’t insist on tit for tat in your interaction with others; be ready to yield.”

While prudence requires that difficult circumstances be addressed accordingly and Christian standards be applied, perhaps there is something to be learned from Paul’s dealing with Evodia’s and Syntyche’s dispute. It can be tempting for those of us deeply committed to our faith and involved in the life of the church to feel a need to punish or condemn those whom we feel stand in our way, treat us unjustly, or oppose us. Sadly, these circumstances often evince feelings of anger and/or hatred. It can be easy to argue that justice requires a response to those who hurt us. Paul, however, urges his fellow disciples of Jesus to consider the path of forbearance and, more importantly, that all maintain their commitment to higher goals. This better way offers more than what can be gained from a vigilant sense of “strict justice.” Rather than be consumed by revenge and a desire to even scores, Paul invites us to think rather of “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” How challenging yet wise!

  • Where might we be asked to exercise forbearance vis a vis those we encounter in the church and our lives?
  • How might the modern believer characterize the “peace of God” described in verse 7?
  • How might we concretize and describe those wonderful things Paul characterizes in a general way in verse 8?

Matthew 22:1-14

Contextually speaking, Jesus is addressing this parable to the Jerusalem elites who oppose him. Jesus’ first-century audience would have immediately been drawn in by the irony of the story and would have been very familiar with a number of the cultural clues embedded in the parable. For example, those who made light of the invitation (verse 5), one going to his farm, another to his business, are using an indirect but traditional Mediterranean way of signaling their disapproval of the dinner arrangements. Furthermore, it is rare in traditional cultures for people to share table-fellowship across status lines. (Even Paul ran into this issue, see 1 Cor 11:17-34.) The king depicted in this parable defies the expectations of all, for he is willing to invite those no one thinks worthy of such an honor. (Notice verse 10 – both the good and the bad are brought in.) Jesus affirms that many are invited to be a part of the Kingdom of God, even though the invitation might not be taken seriously. God desires to share the banquet. And among the guests will be some unlikely choices, at least from our point of view. Furthermore, remaining at the banquet is not guaranteed. Verses 11-12 illustrate that those who dishonor the king may not remain. Remaining at the Lord’s banquet, then, requires persistence; one cannot simply rest assured on the invitation alone.

  • What events/circumstances/people in our faith life have tested our willingness to persist as guests at God’s table?
  • Are their times when we have made light of God’s invitations?
  • How do we respond to those whom we see as unlikely choices to be among our fellow guests?

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Christopher Sikkema


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