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Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 32:1-14 AND Psalm 106:1-6 OR Isaiah 25:1-9 AND Psalm 23:1-6, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

The Bible frequently pictures God as a blustering human writ large. God expresses all the emotions of a sometimes petulant human being. It’s the anger that especially troubles our sensibilities. One of our recent readings from Philippians encourages us to have the mind of God (as seen in Jesus) in us. Today’s reading from Exodus gives us another look into the mind of God. How often do we think of God as changing his or her mind? But there it is in Exodus 32:14—“ . . . the Lord changed his mind . . .”

This is not the only time it happens. In fact, the prophetic message assumes that God will changes God’s mind about the predicted doom—if the people repent and turn “from their evil ways.” Jeremiah’s reports these words from the Lord several times: “It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them . . .” Jeremiah 26:3—See also verses 13 & 19) Jonah gets upset when God changes God’s mind about destroying the Ninevites. (See Jonah 3:9-4:2) In the New Testament, we have the story of the widow who persists in asking the judge for justice. The parable suggests that it is Godlike when the judge finally responds to her persistence pestering. (Luke 18:2-7, with verse seven asking, “ . . . will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”)

Let me suggest that it is a human way of picturing a God who is compassionate, who forgives. Compassion requires a response. A plea for forgiveness is useless unless someone or something can be moved by that plea. Charles Hartshorne, in The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God, argues that sensitive to the feelings and actions of another is a sign of higher development, so that a being with the highest level of perfection would be most affected by the joys and sorrows of others. “I invite you to perform with me a mental experiment,” Hartshorne writes. “Imagine someone to read aloud an eloquent poem, in the presence of: (A) a glass of water, (B) and ant, (C) a dog, (D) a human being unacquainted with the language of the poem, (E) a human being knowing the language but insensitive to poetry, (F) a person sensitive to poetry and familiar with the language.” Each, Hartshorne suggests, is more sensitive to the sounds, until the final listener “may go through a deep and thousandfold adventure of thought and feeling.” God, for Hartshorne, becomes the one who is supremely sensitive.

Now to the biblical stories. The people of God are still out there living on the edge—in the wilderness. They are looking for a friendly sign. Some philosophers talk about our struggle to “personalize the universe.” Out there in the wilderness, life can be rough. They need something to hang onto, to know that someone or something cares, to be able to feel things are not entirely out of control. Moses has gone up the mountain and will be bringing back something to give their lives structure, but who knows whether he’ll ever make it back. He’s been gone a long time. (Exodus 32:1)

The story is so human. We too get impatient. The story tells us that the people decide to take things into their own hands, devise a God of their own making, like the people around them worship. Do we ever do that—look around and follow whatever the masses seem to pursue? Is it coincidental in the story that their idolatry centers on gold? The world is a scary place. Surely we can buy our way to safety and security—yet the gods of the stock market seem precariously positioned these days. (vss. 2-6)

In the story, God doesn’t like what they are doing one bit. He tells Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them . . .” (vs. 10) Moses pleads with God to consider who they are and what the consequences would be (vss. 11-13), and God changes his mind. (vs. 14) The bottom line, what the people remember in their singing in later years, is that God is compassionate. “Praise the Lord!” they sing. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 106:1) The Psalm goes on to retell the story of the golden calf and how “Moses . . . stood in the breach . . . to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (vs. 23—See starting at vs. 19)

The reading from Isaiah is filled with images of compassion. We are unable to identify with certainty the enemy city that has been destroyed (Isaiah 25:2), but we treasure the pictures of the mind of God given us in this chapter. “ . . . you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress . . .” (vs. 4) “ . . . the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (vs. 8) We aren’t sure about the specific mountain described in verses six, but a feast that includes “all peoples” is more than once used to describe the intimacy of God’s people as they sit at table in the divine presence, as they are gathered to the mountain of the Lord. The familiar 23rd Psalm, another of this week’s readings, pictures a compassionate God, who, among other things, “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies . . .” (Psalm 23:5)

When the scriptures speak of God “changing his mind,” it is for me a way of picturing a compassionate God, a universe that gathers up my joys and sorrows giving them meaning and purpose. There may be moments when all of life seems to be angry with me, out to destroy me, but a heart of compassion beats behind the anger, able to change its mind.

The reading from Philippians is less about the compassion God has for us and more about compassion in our relationships with one another when we are guided by the mind of God. Remember the instruction to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:5) God is still very much present in this week’s reading from chapter four: “Stand firm in the Lord . . . Rejoice in the Lord always . . . The Lord is near.” (vss. 3-5) The Philippians are told to remain on intimate terms with God through prayer.” (vs. 6) In taking care of one another (vs. 3), in acting toward one another with gentleness (vs. 5), in being true and honorable and just and pure, etc. (vs. 8), it is finally “the peace of God” which “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 7—See also vs. 9) The mind we have in our relationships with one another and the mind of God as seen in Jesus are closely connected throughout the letter to the Philippians. We are to paint a picture of God’s mind in our caring for one another.

On the surface, the parable from Matthew 22 seems little focused upon compassion. Luke’s interpretation of the same parable makes it clear that the dinner host reaches out to “bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (Luke 14:21) In that sense, there is an element of compassion in the accounts of both Matthew and Luke. (See Matthew 22:9-10) In Matthew, it is a wedding banquet for the host’s son (Matthew 22:2), so higher standards of proper behavior may have been in play. In both cases, the emphasis is upon the “proper” people who were too busy to come. (Matthew 22:4-6 & Luke 14:18-20) In Matthew especially Jesus is critical of the hypocrisy of some of the religious leadership and of their sense of privilege, assuming that their position is above reproach. We are given several parables where they are not so gently told that if they do not come to the banquet, others (generally thought of as less worthy) will be invited. Notice Matthew records that the host's slaves “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad . . .” (vs. 10)

The most troubling part comes when Matthew adds something that some suggest comes from another parable. The host notices someone who is not dressed properly. (vss. 11-12) He is taken out and cast “into the outer darkness.” (vs. 13) That certainly doesn’t seem very compassionate. My take (along with some others I have read) is that it’s not about the clothing. It’s about not having any sense of the wonder of this occasion. Some who come in from the streets (“both good and bad”) will be no better than those who were originally invited and couldn’t take time to enjoy fellowship with “the son.” Some say that wedding robes may have been available at the door. If so, the point may be that God offers us the Spirit with which we can be clothed when we come together in love, but some refuse to notice or “wear” it. Is that the meaning of verse 14? “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

God offers compassion beyond measure—to many, to all—but we may miss it if we get too busy making idols of the various things with which we easily get preoccupied. It is when we focus on the honorable, just, pure, etc., that the peace of God (the compassion of God?) is painted in our minds and lives. May the God of peace (and compassion) be with us as we take care of one another.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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