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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 28 - Proper 23 - Year A
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Phillipians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Alt - Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 28 - Proper 23 - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


EXODUS 32:1-14               While Moses communed with God on the holy 
mountain, the people persuaded Aaron, Moses' brother, to leads them in 
worshipping an idol cast in the image of a calf, a well-known symbol of 
fertility worship in the ancient Middle East.  Modern biblical studies 
suggest that it was not until after Israel's return from exile, nearly a 
thousand years after the time of Moses, that monotheism became the core of 
Israel's religious tradition.


PSALM 106:1-6,19-23          The psalmist exults in God's steadfast love 
for and many providential acts toward Israel.  The second part of the 
reading summarizes the incident of worshipping the golden calf.

  
ISAIAH 25:1-9                (Alternate)  The prophet rejoices in God's 
future deliverance of Israel from oppression the rebuilding of Jerusalem 
as the holy city of God.  It is likely that this prophecy was uttered 
after the return from exile in Babylon in 539 BCE, not by Isaiah who lived 
two centuries earlier.


PSALM 23                     (Alternate)  This shepherd's psalm is perhaps 
the most loved of all in our Bible.  It still brings strength and solace 
to the faithful.
	
    
PHILIPPIANS 4:1-9            Faith, friendship, reconciliation and strong, 
ethical behavior are all wrapped into these few verses.  They are among 
the most intimate words written by the austere apostle Paul.  Since this 
was the first congregation he had founded in Macedonia, a northern 
province of Greece, he had a very special relationship with the Christians 
of Philippi.


MATTHEW 22:1-14              The parable tells of a royal banquet to which 
outsiders were welcomed after all the invited guests sent their excuses 
for refusing has many undertones.  It condemns those who refused to accept 
Jesus as the Messiah.  It is also a prophecy about the messianic banquet 
which was a traditional part of the Jewish expectation of the coming of 
the Messiah at the end of history.
	

A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

EXODUS 32:1-14   While Moses communed with God on the holy mountain, the 
people persuaded Aaron, Moses' brother, to leads them in worshipping an 
idol cast in the image of a calf, a well-known symbol of fertility worship 
in the ancient Middle East.
	
Modern biblical studies suggest that it was not until after Israel's 
return from exile in Babylon, several hundred years after the presumed 
time of Moses, that monotheism became the core of Israel's religious 
tradition.  Scholars have also speculated that Moses and the Israelites of 
the Exodus were remnants of the Egyptian followers of the revolutionary 
monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaton who ruled for only fifteen years in the mid-
14th century BCE.  Akhenaton tried to install the one god Aton, represented 
by the sun, as the only god of the Egyptians.  He brought on himself the 
wrath of the ancient priesthood and many powerful classes whose livelihood 
depended on the traditional deities.  They soon overthrew him and returned 
to the long established traditions.  Since few records exist from that 
brief period of Egyptian history, no proof has ever been found of any link 
with the Israelites.  (http://www.jimloy.com/egypt/akhenatn.htm).  

Cecil B. De Mille used the spectacle of the Israelites worshipping the 
golden calf as one of the key dramatic moments of his 1956 movie, "The Ten 
Commandments." With cautious cinematography, he excluded the most lurid 
scenes of the sexual promiscuity that usually accompanied the false 
reverence for the exotic idol.  But even the off-camera orgy was enough to 
bring one parishioner to his pastor asking for an explanation of what was 
happening.

Making and worshipping idols transgressed the first and most important of 
the commandments.  (Or second in some lists.) When Moses delayed in 
returning from his epiphany on the mountain, his brother Aaron succumbed 
to the pleading of the mob for a more visible object of worship in the 
Egyptian tradition.  Not unknown in Egyptian traditions, the young bull as 
an idol of deity was better known in Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia and 
Mesopotamia.  The issue seems to have been the public outcry for a visible 
deity to lead them through their wilderness journey.  King Jeroboam I who 
reigned over the northern ten tribes after the disruption of the united 
kingdom of David and Solomon is said to have used two similar idols 
representing Yahweh at Bethel and Dan.  They served to reject the 
centralizing of worship in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26-
13:32; 14:1-18.) These latter narratives show how long the alternative 
tradition lasted in the religious memory of the Israelites.

At the instigation of Yahweh, Moses returned to the idolatrous site at the 
foot of the mountain, castigated them for their behaviour, blamed his 
brother Aaron for leading them astray and forced the Israelites to undergo 
an ordeal.  Yahweh would have destroyed them with a plague, but Moses' 
supplication changed Yahweh's mind (32:14).  So the covenant endured and 
the journey to the Promised Land continued despite this tragic incident.  

There may well be several different traditions wound together in Ex. 32.  
On the other hand, it resurfaced again and again in the Hebrew scriptures 
(Deut. 9:16,21; 2 Kings 10:29; 17:16; 2 Chron. 11:15; 13:8; Neh. 9:18; Ps.  
106:19; Hosea 8:5-6; 10:5; 13:2).  This indicates how influential the 
story must have been and how long the idolatry persisted as an alternate 
religious rite.  In post-biblical Judaism, the episode was a source of 
embarrassment and anxiety for many interpreters.  The rabbis even conceded 
that all the calamities that had ever befallen Israel originated with the 
golden calf.  Rabbi Akiba, however, foremost of rabbinic Judaism's 
interpreters, even made God admit that he had cause Israel to worship the 
calf so that Israel's salvation might ensue from their gravest sin.  The 
intention of this line of thought was to renew Israel's hope and self-
respect by assuring them of Yahweh's continued forgiveness and love.  In 
Christian polemic literature it became a symbol of the crime of the 
crucifixion and refusal to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah (c. Acts: 7:41-
53).  Augustine went so far as to draw a parallel between the powder made 
from the calf's head given to the people of drink and a sacrament.  Thus 
the worship of the calf became the worship of the devil.


PSALM 106:1-6,19-23   The psalmist exults in God's steadfast love for and 
many providential acts toward Israel.  The second part of the reading 
summarizes the incident of worshipping the golden calf.

A rather sharp distinction also exists in the moods behind vss. 1-5 and 
vss. 6-48.  Rejoicing in Yahweh's constant love and repeated acts of 
salvation marks the introduction.  A somewhat doleful lament about 
Israel's history in response to Yahweh's call and care darkens the 
remainder.  Although some may see here two separate compositions, it is 
best to regard the first few verses as an introduction to the rest of the 
psalm.  Unlike Ps. 105 which recites many of the same events in Israel's 
history, this is a sad tale revealing a repeated pattern of sin, appeals 
to Yahweh for help, deliverance and subsequent forgetfulness.  (Cf. also 
Ps. 78; Neh. 9:5-37.) The psalm may have been composed for some unknown 
liturgical occasion.  Vss. 1, 47-48 are quoted verbatim in 1 Chron. 34-36 
suggesting a dependence of one on the other and a probable date in the 
Persian post-exilic period.

The second part of the reading stands as a succinct review of the incident 
originally described in Ex. 32.  The accusation that the Israelites 
"exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass" could 
not be more plaintive.  How could they have fallen so low? The use of the 
name Horeb, for Sinai, the only occurrence of this Deuteronomic term in 
the Psalter, again suggests a late date and the formula that runs through 
that documentary collection.  Repeated failure to keep the covenant and 
Yahweh's repeated forgiveness and redemption of Israel from the 
consequences of its sin forms the basis for the psalmist's initial 
rejoicing, as well as the final plea for salvation and doxology (vss. 47-
48).


ISAIAH 25:1-9   (Alternate)  The prophet rejoices in God's future 
deliverance of Israel from oppression the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the 
holy city of God.  It is likely that this prophecy was uttered after the 
return from exile in Babylon in 539 BCE, not by Isaiah who lived two 
centuries earlier.  

My professor of OT at McGill, later of Princeton, Dr. R.B.Y.  Scott, wrote 
*The Interpreter's Bible* introduction and exegesis of Isaiah 1-39 (vol.  
5.  Abingdon Press, 1956) at the time he was teaching us the OT prophets.  
I naturally turn to his work as my basis for this summary.  Scott held 
that the whole section of Isaiah from which this reading is taken, chs.  
24-27, is "a collection of eschatological prophecy, psalms and prayers 
dating from the later postexilic period ...  appended to an earlier 
edition of the book ...  which comprised the bulk of the material now 
found in chs. 1-23." 

Scott's view of this passage is that a victory over some unnamed enemy 
city is celebrated in vss. 1-5.  A feast of triumph and an end to sorrow 
form the theme of vss. 6-9.  The RCL uses it as the OT lesson for Easter 
Day in Year B, Easter Evening in Years A, B and C, and All Saints in Year 
B  As such, it is appropriate for reading on the day on which we celebrate 
the resurrection of Jesus and of all Christian saints.  Christians of the 
lst century CE found it especially worth remembering.  Its words were 
repeated in Revelation 21:4 and interpreted with deepened faith because 
they knew that Christ had risen from the dead.  This seems to be 
particularly fitting to celebrate God's victory over sin and death.

The reference to a feast in vs.6 undoubtedly recalled to early Christian 
minds the messianic feast featured in later Jewish eschatology (cf.  
Baruch 29:3-8; 2 Esdras 6:52; Mark 2:19; Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24; 
Revelation 19:9, 17).  In earlier times, festal observances marked the 
renewal of the covenant.  The promise of feasting always enhanced the 
expectations of those about to be freed from oppression or in celebration 
of similar events initiated by Yahweh.  The Passover meal was one such 
festive occasion, originally eaten with the anticipation of freedom and 
remembered as such in Jewish tradition ever since.

On the other hand, as Scott pointed out, there was a parallel to vs. 8 in 
the Canaanite myth of Baal's victory over Mot, the god of death and the 
underworld.  A similar myth also existed in the reappearance of Attis in 
Asiatic mysteries.  Christian belief found both of the traditions helpful 
in interpreting the resurrection, especially to Gentiles familiar with 
those myths, however different the Christ-event may have been.  This in no 
way discounts the meaning and value of either the Jewish or the Christian 
celebrations.  As Scott wrote: "The idea of God's ultimate triumph over 
his enemies will also be a victory over death and pain takes on a new and 
deeper meaning here, because the thought of God was more true and worthy 
in Israel than in north Canaan centuries before.  And when in Revelation 
21:4 the words of this passage were quoted, it was in the light of a new 
certainty which was theirs who knew that Christ had risen."

The metaphor of death being swallowed up (vs. 8) is particularly vivid in 
view of the almost universal practice of human burial from prehistorical 
times.  It still sounds the note of victory at the start of many services 
of Christian burial.  

The reference to "rebuke" (KJV) ("reproach" [RSV] or "disgrace" [NRSV]) 
suggests that death was more than a cause for grief.  It recalls the 
opening episode in the story of Ruth. (1:1-9) For women in ancient Israel, 
the death of a husband was considered more than an end to economic 
security.  It was indeed a rebuke from God and a disgrace in their 
community, especially if the death had occurred as a national disaster 
such as defeat in war or an extended famine.  These were interpreted as 
acts of Yahweh's vengeance in punishment for sin.  

In a rural village in Ontario within the past few decades, where women 
outlived their husbands by many years, widows were frequently excluded 
from social gatherings until they found their "proper" place in a 
fellowship of other widows.  A young widow who was still physically 
attractive was shunned as a genuine threat by other women with husbands 
who might be led astray.  Gossip could quickly attach "sinful" behavior to 
her name if she was seen keeping company with any man, married or single.

That this hymn of praise has an eschatological emphasis comes out in the 
phrases vs. 9 "on that day" and "we have waited for him." The anticipated 
salvation lies in the future, as is our expectation of resurrection which 
Paul had in mind when he referred this passage in 1 Cor. 15:54.


PSALM 23  (Alternate)  This shepherd's psalm is perhaps the most loved of 
all in our Bible.  It occurs six times in the three year cycle of the RCL.  
It still brings strength and solace to the faithful.  Ancient tradition 
and a title in the Hebrew scriptures claimed that it was from the hand of 
David, Israel's legendary shepherd king.  Though not entirely impossible, 
it is unlikely.  Reference to the "house of the Lord" in verse 6 indicates 
a later date, since the temple was not built until after David had died.  

On the whole, the metaphor of the divine shepherd appeared in many OT 
references (Ps. 100:3; Ezek. 34; 37:24).  This should not surprise us 
because the ancient Israelites to whom the OT authors looked for their 
definitive traditions were primarily a pastoral people with their chief 
wealth represented by their flocks.  During their early history, they 
depended on flocks of sheep for most aspects of their livelihood including 
food, clothing, tent, a medium of exchange and the central offering of 
ritual sacrifice.  Even today in the thoroughly urbanized state of Israel, 
one can still see Palestinian shepherds with their large flocks on 
hillsides within a very short distance of Jerusalem and Jericho.

There is a second metaphor which memory frequently overlooks in reciting 
this psalm.  Vs. 5 transfers the scene to the obligatory hospitality which 
every Middle Eastern pastoral society extended to anyone fleeing from 
enemies.  Tribal feuds caused many such flights.  A hunted man merely had 
to touch the tent of anyone with whom he might seek refuge to lay upon his 
host the requirement of providing sanctuary and sustenance.  As seen by 
the psalmist, the divine host provides far more than is necessary: indeed 
a feast with sweet unguents poured on his head and an overflowing wine 
cup.

The scene again changes to the temple (vs. 6) where the psalmist expresses 
his delight in continuing to worship as long as life lasts.  While this 
psalm is a favorite for use in modern funerals services when Adwelling in 
the house of the Lord@ becomes a heavenly image for us, the psalmist 
considered death as a terminal point to be avoided if at all possible (vs. 
4).  Nevertheless, who can gainsay the measure of comfort which people 
still find in this most familiar of psalms.


PHILIPPIANS 4:1-9   Faith, friendship, reconciliation and strong, ethical 
behavior are all wrapped into these few verses.  They are among the most 
intimate words written by the austere apostle Paul.  Since this was the 
first congregation he had founded in Macedonia, a northern province of 
Greece, he had a very special relationship with the Christians of 
Philippi.

Quarrelling in any modern congregation causes great disruption.  
Apparently the same was true in Paul's day.  We know nothing other than 
their names about the two women Euodia and Syntyche.  Nor do we know 
whether their quarrel was personal or theological.  The "loyal companion" 
whom Paul asked to help them resolve their differences may refer to 
Epaphroditus whom Paul had sent as his letter carrier.  

Actually Paul looked past this temporary distress among the Philippians 
and invited them to rejoice with him in the Lord.  There is a sense that 
this invitation has a double meaning.  Paul had a constant awareness of 
the presence of Christ throughout his ministry and sought to share this 
with his converts.  He also believed implicitly in the early return of 
Christ.  The simple declaration, "The Lord is near," may have been spoken 
with both meanings in mind.

Paul was also a man of prayer.  Here he speaks of two very significant 
ways of praying:  supplication and thanksgiving.  It was normal for him to 
begin his letters with a word of thanksgiving for those who he addressed.  
(Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor.  1:4; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:3.  
He felt it very normal to bring every concern he had before the throne of 
grace expecting that he would ultimately know God's will in each 
situation.  It was this life of prayer that gave him "the peace that 
passes understanding."

Strong moral behaviour marked all of Paul's admonitions to his 
correspondents.  Here in vs. 8 he summarized how he believed every person 
should live in the real world.  In doing so, the Philippians would be 
following his example and doing as he had taught them (vs. 9).  It may be 
difficult for Christians of our day to realize just who made up many of 
these early congregations.  As it had been with Jesus in many instances, 
it was the moral outcasts like prostitutes and the ethically corrupt like 
tax collectors who were attracted to the Christian way.  Paul's ministry 
in Philippi had begun with two people, neither of whom would have been 
among the prestigious citizens of that Roman city - a woman of commerce 
and the town jailer (Acts 16:14-15, 25-40).  In the households of both of 
these who were baptized would have been many slaves too.  Their former 
life had been like, Paul expected everyone to behave according to the same 
high standard.  


MATTHEW 22:1-14   The parable tells of a royal banquet to which outsiders 
were welcomed after all the invited guests sent their excuses for refusing 
has many undertones.  It condemns those who refused to accept Jesus as the 
Messiah.  It is also a prophecy about the messianic banquet which was a 
traditional part of the Jewish expectation of the coming of the Messiah at 
the end of history.

Note first that it is a parable of the kingdom.  As such it has a distinct 
eschatological aspect as well as an "already, but not yet" tenor.  
Throughout his ministry Jesus accepted into his company those whom others 
rejected and in turn was fully accepted by them.  Bruce Chilton's theory 
that Jesus himself was something of an outcast, a *mamzer,* due to his 
uncertain parentage emphasizes this very clearly.  (*Rabbi Jesus: An 
Intimate Biography.* Doubleday, 2000) The gospel tradition described him 
as a constant disruptive element to the social control of the religious 
authorities.  This too is reflected in the parable.


Luke 14:15-22   gives a brief and slightly different version of the same 
parable.  So does the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas 64.  We naturally conclude 
that it was a common possession of the early church and oft repeated 
because of its strong emphasis on the sharp divisions within the social 
milieu in which the Christian faith struggled to survive.  The leadership 
of the mainline churches in advocating social justice and the preferential 
option for the poor in the late 20th and early 21st centuries finds more 
scriptural foundations here too.

More puzzling, however, is the latter part of the reading (vss. 11-14) 
which seem to be appended to the basic parable.  It introduces a note of 
judgment found in other parables referring to an eschatological separation 
of good from evil at the end of time.  (Cf. Matt.  8:12; 13:42; 24:51; 
25:30.) Certainly Matthew generally presents the church as consisting of 
both good and evil until the final judgment determines who will be 
admitted to God's eternal presence.  Most middle of the road, tolerant 
Christians today shrink from the judgmental element of our tradition.  As 
relativists we tend to see things subjectively in tones of grey rather 
than black and white.  We look for the universalist aspects of our 
tradition, not to obvious judgmentalism to be found in many of the 
parables.  Can it be true that not all kinds of people will be acceptable 
to Jesus? Does that not conflict with the claim that he is the Saviour of 
all? 

That is where we come up against the seemingly harsh statement that ends 
the passage, "For many are called, but few are chosen." Many commentators 
deal with vss. 11-14 as a different parable dealing with a marriage feast 
rather than a royal banquet.  The main parable, however, also tells of a 
wedding banquet hosted by the king for his son.  It would have been an 
insult to the host for a wedding guest not to have come appropriately 
dressed.  (This pastor recalled performing a marriage ceremony disturbed 
by the father of the groom drunkenly banging his cane on the floor of the 
church immediately behind the wedding party.) Being excluded for a variety 
of reasons has been part of the church's history, doctrine and moral 
behaviour being only some of those.  Racial issues have divided 
denominations for generations.  Evolution and creationism currently brings 
forth heated debates in some churches.  Homosexuality is another painful 
issue confronting congregations and denominations.

It is easy for us to define the criteria for acceptance into the presence 
of God.  In all probability, the dialogue - too often a dialogue of the 
deaf - as to who is and who is not acceptable will go on to the end of 
time.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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