The theme that we have chosen for this academic year for our corporate meditation and reflection is “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” We are familiar with the context of this biblical verse. When Yahweh commissioned Moses to lead the liberation struggle of the enslaved people from their slavery in Egypt, Yahweh instructed Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him; “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” In our dominant interpretations, we tend to think that God liberated the enslaved people because in Egypt they did not have the freedom to worship the true God. In other words, it was not the sinfulness of slavery that prompted God to initiate their freedom from Egypt; rather they were released for the specific purpose of worshipping God. But if we read the book of Exodus carefully, we realize that the people were worshipping God regularly while they were still slaves in Egypt. Even during their liberation struggle they were involved in elaborate public observations of religious feasts and rituals, affirming publicly their faith in Yahweh. Also, it is interesting to note that the Bible does not indicate that there was a qualitative difference in the worship life of the liberated slaves in the wilderness. How do we theologically understand the connection between liberation from the shackles of oppression and worship? What is the meaning of worship even as we continue to equip ourselves to minister in the context of new Pharaohs who demand our allegiance and claim lordship over us?
Prayer, according to Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, and falsehoods.” To put it differently, worship is a subversive activity that contests and overthrows the prevailing sinful order of injustice
and inequality. For Moses, the Mount Horeb experience was not only an alternative experience of theophany, it was also a tutorial for an alternative understanding of worship. The alternative experience of theophany enabled Moses to re-imagine God as the vulnerable One, deeply affected by the scars of slavery. In the vision of the burning bush Moses encountered God as a co-sufferer who was embodied in the life-stories of pain-pathos and struggles for freedom and dignity of the enslaved communities. The sacramental and liturgical symbol of fire in the burning bush provided Moses an alternative understanding of worship. Worship should instill in the enslaved community the audacity to believe that the blazing fire of the Empire cannot destroy the beauty of life. The green leaves in the liturgy of the burning bush empowered Moses to believe in the possibility of a beyond of Egypt.
Moses’ commissioning into the mission of liberation was also a liturgical act. He was asked to remove his sandals because he was standing on sacred ground. We can also interpret Moses’ removing of the sandals as a rite of passage or an initiation ritual to become flesh in the struggles of the colonized people. In fact it was a public denouncement of his privileges and power which was a prerequisite to get organically connected with and grounded in the struggles of the underdogs. Worship is therefore a life-changing experience where we are invited to realize and denounce our power and privileges in order to become credible and authentic comrades of the communities at the margins who are engaged in the salvific mission of turning the world upside down.
So “Let my people go so that they may worship me” does not mean that God’s liberative mission is to enable us to worship God in a safe and comfortable space; rather the very struggle for liberation is the act of worship. Let us paraphrase Rabbi Heschel’s interpretation of prayer contextually. Worship is our political engagement to overthrow and ruin the pyramids of economic injustice, and social exclusion such as casteism, patriarchy, and heterosexism. Such discernment helps us to go beyond our binary thinking of worship and social work, and ministry and social action.
We heard the story of the Golden Calf in the reading from the Hebrew Bible. God liberated the slaves from their bondage in Egypt. But they ended up creating and worshipping idols. The story of the Golden Calf is an invitation to critically evaluate our faith and spirituality to see whether we have replaced the God of the oppressed with the ungods of power, prosperity, and status quo. All human initiatives of liberation in history unfortunately have the potential to become oppressive, thanks to the reality of sin and our inability for self-redemption. When we absolutize our fragmentary liberation experiences as ultimate victories, we fail to recognize the pervading hegemonic presence of the Empire within us which lure us to internalize and embrace the logic and culture of the very pyramids that we destroyed in our liberation struggles. The story of the Golden Calf reminds us that the betrayal of our liturgical celebration of liberation is theologically legitimized through the liturgy of the ungods.
The liberated slaves in their journey towards Promised Land experienced Yahweh as the journeying God. But when Moses, who went up the mountain to receive the commandments, delayed his return even after forty days and nights the people became anxious and proposed Aaron to “make gods for us, who shall go before us.”What we find here is the human tendency to reduce the mystery called Divine into idols of certainty. We also see here the institutionalization of a faith movement for liberation into an organized religion with its hierarchy, priesthood, rules and regulations, and the apparatus and paraphernalia of spirituality.
The dominant always uses religious institutions and religious leaders to exploit the religious sentiments of the common people to grab their possessions to create new idols which ensure them prosperity and power. This was precisely the role of Aaron in this story. Idolatry is nothing but the fetishization of our imperial projects, and liturgy in the context of idolatry celebrates the sacrifice of the powerless and the voiceless in the altar of patriotism, progress, family values, and cultural nationalism. The history of Christianity is also the history of the creation of the Golden Calves. Ungods are created in history to offer spiritual and theological legitimization to the pyramids of injustice and exclusion. For Sebastian Kappen the Christian Ungod “is the god whom Christians fashioned to legitimize their lust for wealth and power. It is the Christian ungod who authorized the Christian kings to colonize and enslave all pagan nations and to exterminate indigenous tribes of the Americas and Australia. It is the Christian ungod who permitted the Trans-Atlantic slave trade involving more than 30 million Africans. In short, the Christian ungod is a god who takes the side of the affluent and powerful against the vulnerable, a god with hands dripping with the blood of the innocent.”
The history of Christianity in India is also not different. At critical times in our history, we betrayed our faith in God and worshipped the ungod. Patriotism, progress, development, caste privilege, patriarchy, heteronormativity, regionalism…the list of our golden calves continues. Many a time we become the worshippers of the ungods to protect and safeguard our vested interests. We are more comfortable in depending on the mercy of the ungods who rule us, than in the empowering presence of the liberating God. We have lost the courage of the early church to say boldly; “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Today, in the context of fascism, we have betrayed our calling, and became followers of the Golden Calves. Here we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, and we need to listen to their voices. When the German churches legitimized the fascist tyranny of the Nazi regime, the Confessing Church came out with the Barmen Declaration affirming that, “we reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.”The Kairos document from South Africa reminds us that, “State theology is simply the theological justification of the status quo with its racism, capitalism and totalitarianism. It blesses injustice, canonizes the will of the powerful and reduces the poor to passivity, obedience and apathy.” Forty years ago, when we as a country encountered fascism in the form of emergency, our churches and the ecumenical movements in general were competing with each other to worship the ungod. But there was a remnant within the remnant, and they had the audacity to challenge and dismantle the golden calf. The NCCI campaign “no one can serve Christ and caste” is yet another attempt to denounce the legitimacy of the Golden Calves.
The gospel lesson that we heard this evening is a text that we often use to encourage the faithful to contribute generously to the church. However, the interpretations given by Gerald West and Ched Myers provide us a new meaning to this text which is important for our reflections this evening. The very fact that this text is sandwiched between Jesus’ condemnation of the religious people who devour widow’s houses and his forth-telling of the destruction of the temple invites us to go beyond the conventional interpretation of this text. The dominant interpretations focus on the contrast between the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman, and exhort the people to go and do likewise. In fact, what we find in this text is Jesus’ lament. He is not praising the widow for donating her last coin; rather he is pointing to her as an example of the exploitation of the poor widows by the religious leaders. She is not there to have her faith praised; rather she is there for the damnation of the ruling religious elites.
As Ched Myers rightly observes, scribal affluence was a product of their “devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers.” Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness, scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for stealing and abuse. Though it was the vocation of the Jews to ‘protect widows and orphans,’ yet in the name of piety the widows were being exploited while the scribal class amassed more wealth. So Jesus’ observation here is a lament and condemnation of the temple and temple authorities for impoverishing this woman in the name of religiosity.
If we read this text juxtaposed with the story of the Golden Calf, we see lot of parallels. We see here the way religion legitimizes the oppressive systems and unjust structures which are antithetical to the gospel message. Religion with its distorted theology, liturgy, and morality continues to incorporate its followers into the band of idol worshippers. We have lost our ability to distinguish between the God of life and the ungods of prosperity and power. We have become devotees of the Golden Calves.
Even as we prepare ourselves to become fulltime ministers, we need to be reminded of the possibility for us to become Aarons and the Scribes of Jesus’ time. In our times it is not only illegitimate to speak against the Golden Calves, it can also cost our life and our job. This challenges us to continue the exodus even in the Promised Land. Egypt is around us and within us, and we need to discern it and gather the prophetic courage to destroy the Golden Calves of our times. It is our faith imperative to occupy our churches, our spiritual practices, and our institutions, so as to reclaim them from the worship of the ungods. It is in our unending journey towards freedom, dismantling the pyramids of systemic sin and evil, that we worship the God of life in truth and spirit. As we enter into the Advent season, let us prepare to welcome the eternal con-conformist into our lives and our communities. Let my people go so that they may not worship the ungods. Amen
Credited: George Zachariah (UTC, Professor)