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The Golden Calf, or Change is Hard

The Golden Calf, or Change is Hard


The Beatitudes in Matthew are so familiar that sometimes their deeper meaning is lost. Today’s Gospel, Matthew 5:1-10, really hangs on the following verse, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” That will be rewarded in heaven (Matt 5:11-12). Because these blessings are about pleasing God by doing his will. Yes, comfort will be given. But they are not only about social justice for the oppressed. Let’s listen anew. Poor in spirit? Get rid of my spirit. Leave room for the Spirit of God. Be empty. This is our kenosis, emptying out, as Jesus poured his whole self into our fragile human body and lived our complex, often painful, human life. And mourning, is Jesus prefiguring the mourning of those who loved him and saw him die? And meek means more than being weak, but being humble before God. It also means patient, fore-bearing, gentle. Because God already knows our suffering, our fear of uncertainty, human fear. So be meek and trust in God. We all know the hunger for God. It draws our hearts, fills us with a special kind of longing, restlessness, an emotional anticipation that will last our whole lives until we see our Beloved face to face. Mercy and purity of heart come from that longing as a gift of the Spirit. And the peacemakers, ah, yes, the peacemakers. Nobody likes a peacemaker. Peace means compromise. That puts a target on your back. Peacemakers are those who bring Christ’s peace by showing forth mercy and purity of heart, those who are doing the Gospel in the world. But it can also bring personal sacrifice, persecution for speaking truth to power. As it did for John the Baptist. And Jesus. And Bonhoeffer. Martin Luther King, Jr., people we know, reformers, whistleblowers who must speak out, and will suffer in this world. So these Beatitudes are not just comfortable words that uplift the oppressed. That is also true. But they are a warning that to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus just might end on a hill hanging from that Cross. The Sermon on the Mount, a compilation remembered from Jesus’ teaching,  is a new way, a new relationship with God, one which not only includes the ethics and morals of the Hebrew Law, but expands to an inclusion of loving all, even enemies. This will not be completed until the Sacrifice on the Cross and the sending down of the Advocate, opening a sea change in the relationship between God and humankind.


An earlier sea change occurred in Exodus when God instructed Moses in a new kind of understanding of God, one beyond the polytheistic gods whom people looked to for their simple human needs – fecundity for food, herds, and wealth. This narrative tells of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-20). After Joseph gave Jacob, his father, land holdings in Goshen, the Hebrews settled into Egypt. At some point the success of these people threatened Pharaoh. And so the wheel of Salvation history began to turn. Moses led his people out of Egypt to a long inhospitable pilgrimage. Moses was called up the mountain by God for a 40-day fast and instruction on God’s commandments. The Jews had long worshiped Yahweh, but also his consort Asherah, the Queen of Heaven, in high places where an altar and post, or tree, represented them, and where new moon worship was held. Moses was shown a new way, where God, I AM, is beyond human understanding. A way that opened a personal relationship that would be made manifest in Jesus the Christ. This must have been difficult to understand for this simple herding people in a crisis. Moses’ people are your basic congregation. Some have deep devotion, but some are willing to follow their leader, here Moses, but when Moses fails to return after weeks and weeks, their faith fails, and they want worldly assurances. Wealth was measured in livestock, not the stock market, and the image of a calf or bull were symbols of power, wealth, fertility, food, and the gods. Aaron, and the people in his cure, probably didn’t understand the betrayal, the sin, the abrogation of this new Law which Moses brought from God. This God was not meant to be a patriarch, who eliminated his wife, but a God above all gods, beyond the human struggle for survival. And now Moses, with his hard teaching, is gone.


Moses comes down from the mountain, emotionally and physically exhausted, lugging those two precious stone tablets, sees the people dancing around the Golden Calf, and goes ballistic. He smashes the tablets. Later, he confronts his brother, Aaron, and asks him what he has done? Aaron answers that the people made him do it and you, Moses, were away, and they gave him their gold and he threw it into the fire, and, like magic, a golden calf came out. What that sounds like is, “The woman made me do it,” and “The snake made me do it, and he was so nice.” This is a recapitulation of the expulsion from Eden. The retribution which Moses imposes is horrible. He calls to him the Levites and orders them to kill, not the blasphemers, but each man’s brother or best friend. It was a bloodbath. A sacrifice of blood spilled on the ground to appease an angry God? Blessed mourners? Blessed are the hungry for mercy? Not blessed, sanctified. Punished viciously. And God isn’t finished. Then he sends a plague ( Ex 32:21-35).


Blood sacrifice has always been part of Salvation history. God preferring Abel’s meat offering to Cain’s hard won grain offering, ending in the first fratricide and spilt blood. And the blood on the doorposts from the Passover lamb to keep the people safe. Leviticus specifies sacrifices for sin, thanksgiving, peace. Blood means life. Taking the life, the Breath of God, from any living being and spilling its blood is as great a sacrifice before God as can be given by humankind.


And finally there was the Lamb of God, without sin, unblemished, who died as a sin offering for us. Yes, theologians have justified this in other ways, be it substitution for human sin, selfless love, obedience to the Father. But without the Cross, and Jesus’ spilt blood, there could be no resurrection, no forgiveness, no eternal life. There are reasons why Jesus was compared to Moses. The Beatitudes, which were seen to precede an imminent End Time, teach the faithful how they will again leave a strange land and go to a land of promise. Jesus exhorts not only to follow the Hebrew Law in care for the orphan, widow, poor, but to love one another, a love extended to enemies. To everybody, for God includes everybody. The sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ explosive reaction is now turned on its head. Mistakes happen. Sinners can be saved. Jesus has not come to abolish the Law. He has come to both simplify and expand it. It is not about dietary laws. It is about God’s love. We are redeemed by his Blood, the cup of Salvation.


Two moments in our Salvation history. Moses who brings the Law which says, “The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” God will provide everything you need. Break it at your peril. Jesus shifts to a new way of sanctification, one which we reach through Jesus. He is our sin offering. We are forgiven, even as we are ever tempted to cast Golden Calves.


Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California


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