So the people are in the wilderness. They have arrived at Sinai and Moses has ascended the mountain. But he is a long time coming down again. The people grow impatient and thy look elsewhere for help. Aaron directs the men to get their wives and children to hand over their gold (note not the men!) and he creates for them a golden calf. He then declares that these are the gods that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The people then lose all moral compass because the writer tells us that they sat down, ate and drank, and rose up to revel. The commentators tell us that the original term indicates that it was somewhat bacchanalian – a wild, wine-soaked rowdy affair often becoming something of an orgy.

These first six verses of the chapter have much to teach us!

It was Voltaire who said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. This is what the people are doing at Sinai. In the perceived absence of the LORD they make their own gods. And in the absence of their trusted leader they seek the guidance of another – it is a misplaced trust. For the leader then offers the people fake news. He rewrites history. According to Aaron it wasn’t the LORD who had led the people out of slavery but the gods symbolised by the golden calf.

Interesting that he pluralises the term – gods – not God. In other words the people have abandoned their monotheism and re-embraced polytheism. Despite all the examples of the LORD’s supreme power they had not let go of their past superstitions. How quickly they reverted when the going got tough and the opportunities arose.

And it all ends in a bit of a mess.

It doesn’t take a great exegete to ask who our golden calves are today.

From the humorous poster I once saw in Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station:

Welcome to Manchester. While here visit the temples of worship: Pictures of a church, Old Trafford football ground and a Boddington’s pub.

To more serious examples:

  • the trust placed in social media, where opinions are valued more than the facts presented by experts,
  • or the admiration some have for ‘here- today- gone-tomorrow’ celebrities,
  • or indeed simplistic political ideologies.

We have created golden calves.

In addition, like the people at Sinai in difficult circumstances, many are prone to forget the lessons of the past and how it was that those before us extricated themselves out of previous crises.

I am currently reviewing Tony Bayfield’s latest book and am finding it fascinating. It is clearly his legacy, his definitive account of his accumulated insight and understanding of his faith after more than half a century as a rabbi and teacher. Every now and then there is a sentence or two, often in the form of a question, printed in bold. At first I thought it was the editor’s comments as I had only a pre-publication copy. But it wasn’t the editor’s comments. It was the voice of God: Questioning. Probing. Cajoling. Admonishing. Quirky but fascinating.

We are often unable to detect the voice of God in the clamour about us. We often miss God’s presence in the narrowing down of focus during difficult times. But I suggest that it is precisely then that God can be detected most clearly for the open and receptive, the willing and faithful.

  • The pricking of conscience
  • The gentle and sometimes not so gentle nudging
  • The awareness of consequences
  • These and other occasions re-alert us to G in our lives and W.

Tony Bayfield’s book doesn’t have a very good title in my opinion, Being Jewish Today, will limit the readership. Had I been asked I might have suggested another, or at least a sub-title – The God who won’t leave us alone.

You see the people may have been in the wilderness and bereft at the foot of the mountain, they may have sought help from those who would do much harm, they may have even had a good time in wine, dance and sex, but it was all short-lived.

Moses descends the mountain and the people are ashamed. So much so that Aaron displays his inadequacies as a leader: he firstly blames the people for his own initiative, ‘they told me to do it, I was only doing what they asked me to do it’ and then goes on to make one of the weakest excuses in the whole of scripture: he claims that he merely took the gold, threw it into the fire and out came the calf, hey presto! Not exactly what was recorded earlier?

Let’s go back to Voltaire. He said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. All too many think negatively of this quote. They see within it an Enlightenment philosopher who might be disposing of God. But nothing could be further from the truth – it was act not meant to be anything other than a retort to atheists.

The full quote goes:

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

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Luke 14.1-6

10 September 2019

These six verses from Luke’s account of the Gospel tell us a lot about issues in the early church community, perhaps 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact I would go so far as to say that these verses tell us more about that early church community than they do the context and contemporaries of Jesus.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jesus ate with Pharisees, after all the Pharisees and Jesus had more in common than our prejudice against the Pharisees allow us to believe. Nor do I doubt that discussions would have often taken place between Jesus and the Pharisees on the Law and interpretations of it. But by the time the compiler came to present the account of the Gospel we know as Luke, relationships between the early Church and Pharisaic communities had broken down.  Sometime before the Gospel account was written down the Temple had fallen, in 70 CE, and only these two Jewish groups thereafter remained viable; as a consequence the early church and the Pharisaic communities became rivals and competed for the hearts and minds of the people. Hence the somewhat accentuated hostility recorded in these later Gospel accounts.

Therefore this hostility we read of, in both Luke and Matthew especially, are more a reflection of that post-Temple period than those few years of Jesus’ ministry decades before.  For example, the debate over healing on the Sabbath, in this and other passages, was less of an issue at the time of Jesus than the Gospel accounts would have us believe. The sanctity of life and care for the sick have always been central to Jewish law and practise. And from the 2nd century before Christ it became pragmatic for Jews to heal on the Sabbath even though it was prohibited by Torah Law.  This was because 1000 Jews had been massacred having refused to take up arms to defend themselves when they came under attack from Macedonians on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath Law was more important than defending the city. Thereafter it was agreed that there should be greater flexibility in the interpretation and observance.

Now I know this is a challenge to the preconceptions of many Christians, likewise the fact that much of the teaching on the Sabbath that has been attributed to Jesus is actually part of the debate between Rabbis Eleazar and Akiva, however what is important is not who said what, when and where, but the fact that healing is an integral part of our being: the desire to make whole, to restore and to save.  This is our Judeo-Christian heritage and it is our calling today: to make whole, to restore and save souls, heal hearts, bodies and minds.

The Psalmists and Prophets believed that God healed the broken hearted and bound their wounds. The followers of Jesus came to believe that Jesus was anointed to do the same and that his Spirit enabled them to continue such a ministry. That which had been the work of God is now the ministry of believers.

A stupefying fear is gripping our nation. So stunned are we that many of us are unable to express our concerns let alone formulate some kind of action. We know that things are not okay and yet we are so overwhelmed by the relentless rhetoric of our politicians that it is as if we have become perturbed and paralyzed in equal measure.

The seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of dishonesty in British politics is becoming so normalized that those who dare question a blatant lie with an appeal to the facts are somehow seen to be missing the point. There is little care about consequences anymore, this is now an age of impunity. Even the Prime Minister is threatening to ignore an Act of Parliament and by doing so a substantial section of the electorate, maybe even the majority, applaud him; this could be seen to be the promotion of anarchy, it is certainly an unhelpful and unhealthy precedent for our nation. It seems that the old rules that held us together for so long are now falling apart. Our constitution may not be without fault but thus far has been sufficient to restrain the demagogue and promote the nation’s interests. Let us be clear: a demagogue is one who seeks to appeal to the prejudices of the people rather than draw on rational argument. Tyranny has so often followed a time when little regard is shown for authority.

And where is the Church in all of this? I can’t help but consider the possibility that future historians will conclude that we were so focussed on making disciples that we overlooked our neighbours’ needs; we were so keen to increase membership and secure a future that too great an emphasis was placed on evangelism than on addressing the societal changes of the last decade. We sought greater attendance and failed to hear the cries of the neglected and hungry. Our voice of righteous protest is muffled because we have been blind to the signs of the times: we overlooked the fact that inequality causes anger and anger mistrust and mistrust populism. If we shout now then the response of our critics may be that it is a case of too little too late. But we know that throughout history the Church has always been at its best when its back was against the wall. So now is the time for us to come out of the corner and fight for the truths that show the lies up for what they are, to express the love that dispels all fears and to bring a halt to the rush to the cliff edge.

Much of the German Church in the 1930s left the politics to the politicians, the same mistake cannot be made again. Learning from this error the Latin American Church resisted the dictatorships, the South African Church stood against the apartheid regime and similarly the British Church must rise to the challenge of today. It is incumbent upon us to not reflect the tolerance so many have to the utterance of lies; it is necessary for us to not be swept along with the tide of intolerance that marks so much of social discourse. There is no shame in listening to those whose views differ markedly to our own. There is nothing wrong in learning something from someone we thought we had no common ground with. There is everything to gain from open hearts and minds. We are far more complete when we come to lay down having done what is right in the sight of God.