24 September 2017
When I glanced over the road from where we were staying and saw a Pachinko parlour with the name in English among all the Japanese characters “The golden calf” I felt coldness.
Did they really know what the name meant?
The story of people fooled and duped by their own impatience and wish to be pleased. The fact it was a gambling place – gave even more poignancy to the title, money, and happiness, what was being pursued?
The gaily coloured Gods in the temples didn’t have that effect – they simply are not relevant to a Christian, they are interesting but do not have any power to move of hear. Some were exquisite - beautifully made, others were not even that. Some covered with gold and others brightly painted - to worship such images was simply pointless. To look beyond them to one of the Gods they represented even more pointless.
But the golden roof of the huge new temple gleaming in the sun repelled me as I thought of the money that had been poured out to make it when people were in need. I wondered if a new cathedral has the same effect on others?
And I realised that this story of the golden calf is one which goes powerfully deep into the question of allegiance and who we allow to claim us and what or whom we worship.
It would of course be ridiculous for us to worship a golden calf. For a start we would have to have a guard on it to protect it from the assault of the gold, for others would not respect it.
The Board of managers would have to spend hours discussing the new gold leaf and putting it on. We would have to spend time and effort caring for it and no doubt some bright person, an Aaron would think up ways we could have a party – for the golden calf of course. I think that very few would be tempted to worship a golden calf.
But why would the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32 seem bizarre to us?
We get daily updates on the latest golden supermodel or partygoer. The worship of the self has a "rich" tradition.
"It appears that Ms. (Paris) Hilton’s blond ambition knows no bounds," says a May 2 article in The New York Times. "She commands anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 to appear at a party for 20 minutes. ‘If it’s in Japan I get more,’ she said."
Sports heroes get even more of our time and attention. And great sums of money are paid for the best players – a far cry from the days when people just played the game.
We know this story well, and its underlying meanings.
Most people prefer a tangible God. One they can view, touch, admire and hopefully manipulate.
We prefer instant results, we prefer to get our way with violence rather than the longer but more lasting way of love, that takes time and the results aren’t necessarily ours to see – not immediately anyway. We like to be like those around us - use their measure of success, and of what is important.
So were the Israelites any different?
Lets travel a few hundred kilometres north of Sinai, to the ancient city of Askelon. For over 5,000 years Askelon (not far from the modern Tel Aviv) was a busy seaport. It stayed that way until it was finally destroyed during the Crusades.
A team of archaeologists has found in the level of the dig dating from a period a little before Moses, a small pottery shrine and in it a little silver-plated bull calf. It has been viewed as a Canaanite symbol of fertility, with the people worshipping it as a sign of life renewing itself in a dry and inhospitable climate. Others see it as a version of the bull, which was worshipped in Egypt as a god of war. If this interpretation is followed, it emphasises the people’s turning away from God, as they have only recently witnessed God’s victory over the military might of the Egyptians and their chariots. J. Gerald Janzen writes that it is one of the ‘ironies of Exodus’ that the people turn and worship the very sort of image of power as that which had enslaved them in Egypt.
I wonder how many people had sincerely put their trust in that little silver calf which the archaeologists have retrieved from the distant past?
What do we put our faith in? Really?
It’s often only when we are up against it we find the depths of what really matters. When we are stripped of our money, shelter, health, mobility, friends, family, status, reputation - all those things that we depend on - that we find what we really believe and who or what governs our actions. It’s when we learn things about ourselves, which have the power to shock us and bring us to our senses.
The people of Israel were bereft of everything.
Surely the ancient gods of the region were more accessible than the God of Moses. The longer Moses spent up the mountain the more restless the people became. Would he ever return? Did he in fact meet with God on the mountain or was that just an old man’s yarn? Why was it that only Moses was allowed to see and speak with this God? They wanted a real god! One they could see and touch.
Aaron, the brother of Moses, was left in charge.
Aaron does what the people want. He uncritically reduces God into something easily accessible and tangible. He leads the people in worship that is experiential, but that lacks clarity about what sort of God is to be its focus.
The ringleaders cried out: Now this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
Aaron went along with this nonsense, built an altar and proclaimed a religious feast day the people offered sacrifices to the golden calf and then feasted and got drunk. All which put them in the mood for dancing and singing around the altar. Quite party atmosphere!
Then Moses came down the mountain from meeting with Yahweh, the One God of heaven and earth. In his hands were the tablets of stone bearing the Commandments. First he heard the singing, then came into view and saw the golden calf. In his anger he threw down the tablets of stone and they shattered.
What follows is extraordinary. He took the idol, had it ground into powder, and then made the people drink it down with water. How could they ever again worship a god that was so powerless that it could be ground into dust and consumed?
Then Moses stood at the gate of the camp and demanded that they make a choice: He shouted out: “Who is on the Lord’s side, come now and stand by me.”
The Levites were the first to stand with him. Others, who were quite content with the people and the gods of the land, chose to slip away and be absorbed into the pagan tribes.
What does this ancient story say to us?
I hope it speaks to us about the need to keep true to God even when the going is tough. I also hope it speaks to us about the dangers of the temptation of joining in the worship of the idols that others pursue.
The lord is my shepherd says the psalmist therefore I shall not want (Psalm 23). Why would we turn to golden calves when real pastureland is there to feed us so we are satisfied.
And Matthew tells us about God’s banquet, those who took it lightly who put important and good things first and didn’t bother to go deprive themselves out of what is best. Our golden calves are not necessarily bad in themselves but they deprive us of what is real and good. And prevent us from being and acting as part of the kingdom of God.
Matthew invites us to a party – where everyone is invited including the Paris Hilton’s. Many are called, but few are chosen," Jesus says (Matthew 22:14). Our task is to invite everyone, to show them the living God, living in our midst with love and compassion and celebration. Then the golden calves become irrelevant and without substance. We invite everyone and leave the choosing to God.
Who welcomes all who come into life?
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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