Today’s readings include the golden calf incident during the Exodus, and the parable of the wedding banquet
You may have seen, as I did, the story this week of a young girl who chose a new, white suit in which to make her First Communion. She and her family were told that she would not be welcome to participate in the public ritual if she did not put on a white dress instead. “Many are called but few are chosen,” indeed! We rightly snarl at such obvious missing of the point of Holy Communion, its promise to all people of an invitation to Christ’s table, a reconciliation of betrayer and betrayed, of God and humanity, sharing in one bread, one cup. To be cast out of the party, with weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong cut of clothing? Incomprehensible! we say; then we turn ourselves around to read the parable of the underdressed wedding guest.
Cast that child as the one wearing the wrong sort of robe, and see whether it doesn’t change your whole perspective on the king and his party. It has become, all of a sudden, a cautionary tale about how we remake the kingdom of God in our own image, cast it in gold and bronze, and worship our own religion as an idol.
The king was throwing a wedding party for his son, but except for a passing reference to that insignificant little background detail, you would never know it. There is no evidence, in the telling of the story, that he has any investment in the joy of his son’s marriage, in the soundness of the couple’s love, in the holy mystery that tempts two people to promise forever to one another, as though any of us ever knows what tomorrow may bring.
Instead, the king has hung his self-satisfaction, and the happiness of the day, on having all of the right people at his table (judging by their response, his concept of the “right people” is already a little off); or if he can’t get the right people, then at least enough people to make a good showing; or if he can’t guarantee even that, he can at least make sure they’re dressed the part. It’s all about appearances; shiny, precious, shallow, and godless.
Behind the scenes, a marriage is taking place: the symbolic seal and promise of steadfast love; a covenant of faith; but you would never know it from the king’s story.
He has made a golden calf out of his party, his popularity, his reputation.
A golden calf.
The people who followed Moses out of Egypt had just been given some very clear instructions in a handy, 10-point plan, for living as the people of God. Love the Lord your God, says the 10-point plan, in summary; don’t reject, abuse, or dishonour God. Love your neighbour: don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill, or envy them (because there is no place in love for avarice and envy, only for mutual celebration). Love God, love your neighbour; really love them both, and we’ll all get along just fine.
The people were good with this until the very first time that Moses was late home from work. At which point, they were prepared to burn up every shred of faith and trust that they had in God, melt down their golden rings, and create for themselves something more immediate, less demanding, and more shiny in a precious metals sort of a sense.
Obviously one problem was that they had invested far too much stock in Moses as the messenger of God, forgetting that their faith, and their love, was far better invested in God, godself. God is never late home from work, because that would be a concept beyond time, space, and imagination. The whole debacle could have been avoided if they had heeded the very first point in the 10-point plan: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.
None of us sets out to commit idolatry. It’s more subtle than that. We start out with good intentions: “Let’s dedicate a feast to the Lord,” says Aaron; but we are afraid that God will not show up, and so we take matters into our own hands, and create for ourselves a god that cannot absent itself, that cannot hide from us, nor ask us hard questions about love.
It’s tempting to use these stories to reflect upon the latest arguments about how to honour the flag of these United States. At its best, our patriotism reflects the democratic values that hold all people equal, worthy of honour, beloved neighbours. In the language of faith, we might describe them all as children of God, indivisible and whole. If we find that such equality, honour, and love are sometimes, somehow, somewhat missing, or belated, then how are we to address ourselves to the symbols of these patriotic values, and to advance them, without falling into the idolatry of uncritical adulation? The instant gratification of a symbol is empty unless we are prepared to undergird it with the meaning we ask it to bear. As Richard Niebuhr once wrote, “[T]here is no patriotism where only the country is loved and not the country’s cause – that for the sake of which the nation exists.”
It’s tempting to go there; oh, but then what about the church, and what about our own lives of faith and idolatry? We cannot get away with making comments about other faith traditions and their dress codes without addressing our own tendencies to create sacred cows, and to worship golden calves. It is often easier, shinier, and more instantly gratifying to find temporary solace in criticism, self-justification, and self-congratulation than to repent, and reorient ourselves towards the ultimate goals of loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.
Idolatry divorces the love of neighbour from the person presenting themselves as neighbour in the wrong clothes, at the wrong moment. It fashions a shiny god that is never late home from work instead of loving God as God is: ever-present and often overlooked.
In the table that Jesus sets, the betrayer is reconciled to the betrayed; the sinner sits next to the Son of God; the human and the divine are met together in one bread, one body, and all are invited to take a part. The covenant of faithful love; the love that God has for us, and the love that God demands from us, for God, for our neighbour; this marriage is celebrated and blessed, and all are invited to the table. The Sacrament, the symbol is undergirded by God’s faithfulness, God’s love, and we are invited to invest our love, our lives, to make good our vows to God, loving God and our neighbours, without fear or favour, as ourselves.
Some are busy, and some are late. Some are simply too angry for love. Some are not sure what they are doing at the party. Some party just for show. The tables are filled with the good and the bad, the beautiful and the beastly, the overdressed and the underpaid. A toast is raised, and the people look up, their hearts lifted for a moment by the promise of a love that lasts forever, by hope. Even the king takes a pause from policing his partygoers and raises a glass, seeing the light reflecting off it in a moment of beauty, as the singers whisper, “Rejoice!”
 Richard H. Niebuhr, The Church and its Purpose (Harper, 1956), 35