Overcoming the Golden Calf…
For those of us who come from a western cultural background we find that the feudal system of medieval history impacts significantly on our understanding of God. We have heard people say the kind of relationship we had with our father when we were growing up can impact the way we see God. Well, in the same way the way our culture teaches us about authority impacts on the way we see God.
In medieval culture a lot of emphasis was put on hierarchy. This was essential to the then social structure. Lords owned large swaths of land and peasants worked on that land. In exchange for the lord’s protection during war, the peasants gave their loyalty and rent in terms of produce from the land.
You come to realise that a lot of the way we see and interpret the scripture depends on the kind of cultures we come from. Since the Fall of man these cultures have been constructed from our human fallen nature and are a long way from the image of God. We can’t see this unless we look at how God revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The image of God in Christ is light years from our cultures, even as improved as some of us may think our cultures are today.
Coming back to feudal culture, the respect for the lord was one of the paramount issues. It was common in those days that the punishment for crimes depended on who the crime was committed against. If a crime was committed against a lord then the punishment was greater, because a greater person had been offended. This has been transferred over to our understanding of God. Our doctrine of eternal punishment in those days stressed that because God’s holiness is infinite, then the punishment for sin is also infinite. So this was the way we understood those Hebrew texts (whether in the Old or New Testaments) about judgment, from our western cultural perspective, not from an understanding of Hebrew literature.
But that is another point. In our western theology we have often taken the view that God is most interested in his own honour. So when he comes against idolatry he is doing so because his honour is offended. But what exactly is it that offends his honour?
The issue with God is his love. He hates idolatry because of what it does to people. When Israel was in Egypt they were slaves to the Pharaoh. God brought Israel out of bondage to know him and his character and thus to be free. This freedom was to be expressed in caring for others, just as God cared for them.
But the Golden Calf which Israel made in the Wilderness interrupted that. Made from gold, the calf was an image of prosperity and the good life. This produces ambition for self that is at odds with God’s kingdom. As we seek this good life leaders arise promising it. These leaders tell us other groups are against us and our goals, so war become necessary. This whole idolatrous system of covetousness leads us back to slavery. It’s the same today and it is now called ambition. God hates idolatry because of what it does to people. God loves people of all races.
Pictured above: The monument outside the New York Stock Exchange
God is leading us out of ambition to care for one another, out of our personal goals and into his kingdom, which is focused on his love for people. This was the type of living God had in mind for his people in the Promised Land. It’s the kind of living the gospel is meant to bring us into on earth, in this age. This is what, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth” means. God desires to shape our cultures in his image, rather than have us shape him in the image of our cultures.
Jesus turned all this theology on its head. He said it wasn’t the greatest that mattered most, but the least. He said we should strive to serve the least. He said such a person is the greatest in God’s sight. He said we should care for the “least of these”. He said the last shall be first. He lifted the children and the wounded into the centre. All of these expressions in Jesus’ life and teachings show us what God is really like and what really matters to him. It underlies his whole kingdom, action and message. You wonder why we so often haven’t got this clear message in Jesus.