Glad to see you again. How was your Thanksgiving? I had the biggest turkey coma ever! It was sad not to be able to eat dinner with all our children and grandchildren; we soldier on, trying to prevent the spread of the disease. Lord, give us all strength and endurance.
Our texts for the coming Sunday, Pentecost 20, are the following: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Exodus 33:12-23. The story of the Exodus continues. Here we get to see some character development of Moses. He’s clearly becoming more and more of an intermediary. I don’t know how to state it in modern terms. The best I can come up with is advocate; he advocates for God with the people, and he advocates for the people with God. He can talk both “languages”, i.e., he knows what to say to whom and when. He’s a go-between.
Today’s story takes place right after the Golden Calf incident (you’d be doing yourself a favour to read it; it’s short). This is a complete crash of the relationship between the people and God. It seems the people have to have a daily dose of direct experience of God; anything longer, and they forget. Now Moses has come down the mountain with the tablets of the Law, and upon finding what's going on (the Golden Calf), he throws the tablets down and smashes them. Some have referred to this as “enacted prophecy”; the smashing of the tablets symbolizes the breaking of the relationship.
Now Moses is trying to mend the relationship; he asks God to remember that these people are HIS people. A way of showing this is for God to go with them: “For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (Exodus 33.16) In his anger, Yahweh intended to send the people on to the Promised Land under the protection of an angel, but without himself (see Exodus 33.5). But now, Moses has intervened, and God consents to go with the people after all.
Now Moses asks for something really big; he wants to see Yahweh’s face. Yahweh says to him, “I can’t show you my face; if you see my face, you’ll die. However, I will show you something of me. Hide in this crevice in the rock, and I’ll pass by; you can see the back of me.” Some people see this as a joke; all he gets to see is Yahweh’s backside!
Psalm 99. This psalm is a theological discourse. Theology is ‘talking about God’, and that’s just what this psalm does. It tells us some of the characteristics of God: 1) God’s cosmic sovereignty – it was God who created everything. 2) God’s faithfulness – despite continual provocation, God stays with God’s people. God loves justice—where everyone has enough. And 3) because of God’s infinite power, God’s will can’t be thwarted; what God wills will, sooner or later, happen.
The psalm also brings up the three most significant intercessors in the history of Israel: Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. Moses and Aaron we already know. Samuel lived at a time of conflict with the Philistines.
The psalm also reminds us that God hears and acts: 1) the Law is a response to injustice; 2) God is always at hand, and God answers; and 3) God forgives and sets things right. So what does that call for from us? Thanks and praise.
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10. This reading is typical of the beginning of a letter in the ancient world. It starts off by saying who wrote it—kind of like the signature of a modern-day letter. Then it goes on to say who it’s addressed to—kind of like the inside address of a modern-day business letter. Then it goes on to give a blessing: “Grace to you and peace … .” Finally, it gets down to business—often something about the people to whom it’s addressed. In this case, Paul says he gives thanks for these people— for their faith, love, and steadfast hope.
Then we get on to what some call the “Scotch Tape” model of learning in the ancient world. It’s called “Scotch Tape” because it’s 3M—the three Ms: memory, model, and maxim. REMEMBERING what was taught, MODELLING (imitation), and then arriving at a conclusion—the MAXIM. Here, Paul praises the Thessalonians for their imitation of him, as he, in turn, imitates God.
So Paul is giving thanks for the fact that his evangelising has changed the people. They’re not just some passive audience; they’ve taken what Paul has said to heart. But this change has been reciprocal. Any teacher can tell you that. When students learn well, it changes the teacher as well; it gives the teacher confidence, seeing how well things have gone.
Not only have the Thessalonians learned well, but they’ve shared their learning, and now the word of the Lord goes on from them to the people around them.
Matthew 22:15-22. Well, you’re going to say, “If I have to hear about challenge and riposte one more time, I’m going to scream.” Sorry, friends; this section of Matthew’s gospel is about conflicts Jesus has with the leaders in Jerusalem, so it’s bound to involve argument. Let’s walk through this one.
Thus far, Jesus has been challenged by the Temple authorities—the chief priests and elders—about his authority. In response Jesus has told several parables: the Parable of the Two Sons, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Now it’s some lay religious factions that come to challenge him: (the disciples of) the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were very scrupulous about living a life of obedience to the Law. The Herodians were the party of Herod, the Jewish ruler. Herod held his position at the pleasure of the Roman invaders; the Herodians were functionaries in Herod’s government. They did everything they could to please the Romans; they knew which side their bread was buttered on.
The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus because he taught a new approach to the Law and specifically challenged the Pharisees because of how difficult they made life for others around them. The Herodians felt challenged by Jesus because the Law is very revolutionary and countercultural; it demands right living and justice—which is a challenge to many who hold power in the world.
So the disciples of the Pharisees come to Jesus and butter him up before getting to their question: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Uh-oh. Here it comes: "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” When they say “lawful” they’re asking a theological question; they’re talking about the Law. They’re also talking about Leviticus 25:23: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”
“The land is mine.” If the Romans are there and they’re charging taxes, that’s wrong in Jewish minds. The Romans have no business there—the land is God’s—and they certainly have no business levying taxes.
So here’s the challenge and riposte we talked about. In the ancient world, no question is neutral; it’s always a challenge. It may be to see if you know the answer, and if you don’t, you shame yourself. Or it may be that your answer is going to discredit you somehow. The way this question is built—"Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”—it’s going to make problems no matter which way you answer it. If you answer “yes” then you’re going to alienate the PHARISEES on theological grounds. If you answer “no” then you’re going to alienate the Herodians—and behind them, the Romans; you’ll be guilty of sedition.
That was the challenge. Now comes the riposte. Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax,” and one of the disciples of the Pharisees reaches into his pocket and pulls out one of the coins. Oh no! Right away, that’s damning evidence; what’s a Pharisee’s disciple even doing with one of those hated coins in his pocket?! Then he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The image on the coin is of Caesar and around the edge are the words Ti[berius] Caesar divi Aug[usti] F[ilius] Augustus ‘Tiberius, Caesar, worshipful son of the divine Augustus’. That’s another reason why it’s unthinkable that a Pharisee would even have one of the coins. The coin has an image on it—it’s idolatrous—and it says that Caesar is a god: “divine Augustus.”
Now Jesus springs the trap: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” By virtue of the fact that the Emperor’s image is on the coin, it belongs to the Emperor. So Jesus is saying, in effect, “Give the Emperor his little coin back; it’s his anyway.” But it’s all about images; we’re created by God in the image of God, so when we give to God the things that are God’s, we give OURSELVES. Come to think of it, EVERYTHING is created in the image of God, so it’s ALL God’s, including the coin!
Some see this as an argument for the separation of church and state. When we look at it, though, we’re ALL God’s servants, including our leaders. Everything we argue for on the basis of our beliefs—as God’s people, the church—has political ramifications, and our leaders are GOD’S AGENTS, meant to be doing God’s will. So in reality, church and state are not separated.