Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (12 October 2014)



  • Exodus 32:1-14 & Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 (Isaiah 25:1-9 & Psalm 23)
  • Philippians 4:1-9
  • Matthew 22:1-14

Kissing calves

The episode of the “golden calf” is an archetypal symbol for apostasy, and it has an interesting history within the biblical texts.

As the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entry indicates, there are 4 major biblical references to this topic as well as several minor references:

  • Exodus 32:1-35 (the basic story and the OT reading for this Sunday)
  • Deut 9:13-21 (Moses berates the people for their apostasy but the calf is not central to the passage)
  • 1 Kings 11-12 (Jeroboam sets up a golden calf in the royal sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan)
  • Hosea condemns Israel for its worship of gold and silver calves (Hos 8:4-5; 10:5–6; 13:2)

Since the Hosea passages may be less known, and yet also present fewer historical problems, they may be worth citing in full here:

They made kings, but not through me;
they set up princes, but without my knowledge.
With their silver and gold they made idols
for their own destruction.
Your calf is rejected, O Samaria.
My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
(Hosea 8:4-5 NRSV)

The inhabitants of Samaria tremble
for the calf of Beth-aven.
Its people shall mourn for it,
and its idolatrous priests shall wail over it,
over its glory that has departed from it.
The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria
as tribute to the great king.
Ephraim shall be put to shame,
and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.
(Hosea 10:5-6 NRSV)

And now they keep on sinning
and make a cast image for themselves,
idols of silver made according to their understanding,
all of them the work of artisans.
“Sacrifice to these,” they say.
People are kissing calves!”
(Hosea 13:2 NRSV)

The minor references to the golden calves can be listed as follows:

  • 2 Kings 10:29-31 refers to the sin of Jeroboam and condemns Jehu (king of Israel, 842-815 BCE) for not eradicating the calf cult
  • 2 Kings 17:16 explicitly names the maming of the two golden calves as one factor leading to the fall of the northern kingdom
  • 2 Chronicles 11:13 & 13:8 refer to calf cult in negative terms
  • Nehemiah 9:18 includes the golden calf in the time of Moses among the sins to be confessed
  • Psalm 106:19 refers to the making of a calf at Horeb

It seems clear that there was a well-established place for an image of a young bull in the cult of Yahweh in ancient Israel. This was apparently popular in the northern community but not adopted in the temple cult of Jerusalem. They, of course, had their own favourite cult images, including the large bronze serpent, known as Nehustan (cf 2 Kings 18:4).

See the Healing Serpent tradition in ancient Judah for more details on the southern religious traditions.

In ANE iconography the bull, and especially the bull-calf, was a symbol for Baal and related deities. Its occurence in the worship traditions of the Israelite tribes associated with the northern kingdom would be entirely consistent with the cultural continuity they shared with their neighbours and what the OT tells us in other passages about the survival of non-Yahwistic worship practices in both Israel and Judah.

The famous stela from the Iron Age IIB stratum at Bethsaida is graphic evidence for the bull-god tradition in this region:
Whatever the historical origins of this golden calf which Hosea—a northern prophet active in the middle of the 8C BCE—roundly condemns, it has clearly been picked up by the southern writers as the defining sin of their northern cousins. Whether or not the northern traditions projected the origins of its calf symbol back to the time of Moses, just as the southern tradition projected its bronze serpent back to Moses, the authors of the Pentateuch and of the great National History found in Joshua-Kings, as well as the post-exilic authors of the Chronicles & Ezra-Nehemiah all viewed such a practice as a very serious error.

While the OT does not have the concept of “original sin,” this theme takes us close to that idea as the southern composers of the Jewish Scriptures saw the primary sin of the northern kingdom to have been grounded in an even earlier occasion of apostasy in the time of Moses.

These stories do not tell us how the calf cult developed, but they do tell us how the monotheistic and aniconic traditions of Second Temple Judaism viewed such practices and those (such as the northerners) who were thought to observe them.

Gospel: The Feast

We have three versions of this basic story. Two of them (Thomas and Luke) are quite similar, while the third (Matthew) has been developed in some distinctive ways:

Thomas 64

64 Jesus said, Someone was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. 2The slave went to the first and said, “My master invites you.” The first replied, 3″Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.” 4 The slave went to another and said, “My master has invited you.” 5The second said to the slave, “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.” 6 The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 7The third said to the slave, “My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.” 8The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 9The fourth said to the slave, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.” 10The slave returned and said to his master, “Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.” 11The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.” 12Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father. [Complete Gospels]

Luke 14:15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.'”

Matthew 22:1-13

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2″The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11″But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The International Q Project reconstructs the original Q saying as follows:

A certain person prepared a [large] dinner, [and invited many]. And he sent his slave [at the time of the dinner] to say to the invited: Come, for it is ready.
He came to the first (and) said to him: My master invites you. he said: I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go (and) give instructions to them. Excuse me for the dinner. he came to another (and) said to him: My master has invited you. He said to him: I have bought a house, and I have been called (away) for a day. I will not have time.
He came to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. he said to him: I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.
He went to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. He said to him: My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me for the dinner.
The slave went away. He said to his master: Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused. The master said to the slave: Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.

The Jesus Seminar assessment of this tradition is as follows:

  • Thom 64:1-12
  • Luke 14:16b-23
  • Matt 22:2-13

The commentary in The Five Gospels (p. 352) concludes that, on balance, Luke’s version of this story is closer to the original than Matthew’s version. Overall, the GThom version was preferred although it also has signs of editorial adaptation to fit its current context (p. 510). While Luke perhaps tells the story to illustrate some of the points about table fellowship made in the previous verses, Matthew has modified the story to serve as an allegory of salvation history, including a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by armies acting at the command of the angry king (God).
Bernard Brandon Scott [Re-Imagine the World, 111f] comments on the distinctive features of Matthew’s version:

Matthew clearly has the same parable, but its deviations have led to some debate as to whether Matthew has reworked a Q parable similar to the one found in Luke, or has received the parable already changed in his oral tradition. I incline towards the former view. The themes of the parable are too clearly Matthean not to be from the hand of the author of that gospel.
In this case, the man giving a banquet is a king giving a wedding feast for his son. In the Matthean allegory those first invited are the Jews and when they reject the invitation to the wedding feast, the king destroys their city — clearly a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. In the second invitation “the good and the bad alike” is a clear reference to the church, which Matthew consistently views as mixed, as for example, in his interpretation of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt 13:37-43).
The guest without the wedding garment refers to those who do not produce proper fruit. The parable ends with the man being thrown out into the darkness where “they’ll weep and grind their teeth,” another favorite phrase of Matthew (Matt 8:12; 12:42,50; 24:13; 24:51; 25:30).
In Matthew’s hands the parable becomes an allegory of Jewish rejection, Christian acceptance, and final judgment.

The rabbinic tradition has several parables around the theme of a ruler hosting a feast for his son but, as Samuel T. Lachs observes [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 356f], none of these provide a parallel to this parable apart from the following (and then only to the wedding garment motif found in Matthew):

R. Johanan b. Zakkai said: “A parable of a king who invited his servants to a banquet but did not specify to them the time. The clever ones among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance of the king’s house. They said: ‘Does the king lack anything?’ The foolish among them went to their work, for they said: ‘Can there be a banquet without preparation?’ Suddenly the king asked for his servants. The clever among them entered before him as they were adorned, but the foolish among them entered before him dirty as they were. The king rejoiced to greet the clever ones but was angry with the foolish ones. He said: ‘These who have adorned themselves for the banquet, let them and eat and drink, but these who have not adorned themselves for the banquet, let them stand and merely observe.'” The son-in-law of R. Meir said in the name of R. Meir: “But the foolish would appear like attendants, let both sit down, but let the clean servants eat and drink, while the dirty ones shall go hungry and thirst.” [B. Shab. 153a and Koh. R. 9.8, 3.8]

John Dominic Crossan [Historical Jesus, 261f] suggests:

All three extant versions have interpreted and applied the parable to their own situations by contextual connections and intratextual developments. I think, however, that a common structural plot is discernible behind them all. … It is the random and open commensality of the parable’s meal that is its most startling element. The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality is the radical threat of the parable’s vision. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s mesocosmic mirror, the table as the place where bodies meet to eat. And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open commensality is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.

For a more detailed discussion of this parable by Crossan, see Four Other Gospels (1985: 39-52).
More recently, Bernard Brandon Scott [Re-Imagine the World, 110-17] comments on the significance of the invitation — and the lack of acceptances — within the honor/shame system of ancient Mediterranean societies:

Banquets of the rich followed a set form; they were not spur of the moment activities. One of their primary functions was to bring honor to a host. If honor is to be maintained, guests must show up. Thus part of the set form of a banquet was an invitation issued days before the banquet. Normally this was delivered by a slave who either read it, if he were literate, or recited it. A number of papyrus invitations have survived. … After the formal invitation, a slave would return at the appropriate time to escort the guests to the banquet. At this point the parable begins.
But something is wrong with this banquet. Every one of those who was invited had an excuse and refuses to come. It cannot be a coincidence that all those invited guests have excuses, every single one of them. The man is being snubbed. Instead of redounding to his honor, this banquet will create great shame.
… Whatever the man’s strategy [of gathering people randomly from the street], the banquet he ends up with is very different from the one he planned. It is now a banquet of the dishonorable, and he is shamed.
The messianic banquet lurks around the edges of this parable … The parable of the Banquet burlesques the messianic banquet just as the Mustard Seed burlesques the great cedar of Lebanon. The banquet proposed by the man might be a fitting model for the messianic banquet but the actual banquet is something else. It also points to the here and now as the place of the banquet, and to life on the streets among the peasants as the appropriate model for the banquet, not the world of the elites. Just as the parable of the Unforgiving Slave rejects the imperial model of the messiah, so this parable rejects the banquets of the elites as the model for the messianic banquet. God’s banquet is something else.

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