For Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011: Proper 23, Year A

The Reading            Exodus 32:1-14

Our readings from Exodus continue with a well-known story: Moses is elsewhere communing with God, God knows where, so the people feel abandoned, and Aaron’s attempted quick fix only makes matters worse. It’s easy in hindsight to condemn Israel as impatient and faithless. Note, though, that Genesis and Exodus exist to show us a group of humans as meatheaded as you or me and how they nevertheless grow into being the people of God.

The Epistle            Philippians 4:1-9

Today we finish our reading of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In the first century A.D., Philippi’s church looks physically east to Jerusalem and west to Rome. Spiritually it looks backward and forward—backward to the messinesses of this world, as instanced in the apparent feud between the Greek women Euodia and Syntyche, but also, with Paul’s encouragement, forward to the Kingdom of God.

Further thoughts

Taken together, the Old Testament reading and Gospel give an unsettling set of images: in the former, God must be talked out of retaliating in rage against humankind; in the latter, the kingdom of heaven is like condemning someone to hell for failure to own a tuxedo.

How on earth can we reconcile these images with Paul’s picture of the God of peace?

I wonder whether the key phrase here might be “on earth”.

Consider again this event in Exodus. It’s is not the first occasion on which humankind has been promised divine destruction. The first time, of course was in Genesis. Noah was a righteous man, and he knew it. Told that he and his immediate family alone were going to be saved, along with two of every animal, Noah didn’t waste time arguing. He duly built the Ark and floated along in it while the rest of humanity drowned in the great Flood.

Moses too walks with God—that’s where he is when the Israelites start feeling abandoned.  But his past includes a murder and running away, and his breaking of the tablets of the Ten Commandments a few verses after today’s reading hints that he still struggles with impulse control.  In short, Moses is flawed like the rest of us—and perhaps his flaws help him identify with his fellow sinners, even to the point of confronting God Almighty on their behalf.

Similarly, Paul puts some of his authority on the line by stepping gently into the quarrel between Eudoia and Syntyche and by begging his loyal companion and the community to intervene in love as well.

This raises a question for the Gospel reading: What if “throw him into the outer darkness” isn’t supposed to be the end of the story? What if Jesus is waiting for someone to do something about this: to intercede on the guest’s behalf as Moses does, or to work with the guest to find a better way as Paul does?

And what if that someone is me?

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