20th Sunday after Pentecost Year A

 Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22.  

Israelites wondered how God was present to Moses, and Jesus expected us to distinguish God’s stuff from the Emperor’s.  

Exodus 33:12-23.   

The Torah reading is a set of reflections on the assurance of God’s presence to Moses—and thus to the Israelites—during the transit from the holy mountain to the promised land.  

God’s Presence is speculated on in terms of three daring images:  God’s Face, God’s Back, and God’s Name.  

God’s Face.  Those who shaped Israelite tradition did not hesitate to speak of God in very physical terms, to speak about God’s body.  When God promises that his presence will accompany them, he says, literally, “My faces will walk (along with you).”  (In Hebrew idiom “face” is plural, probably because we have both a left one and a right one.)  When Moses says, “you have not let me know whom you will send with me” (verse 12, NRSV), God’s reply is, “My Face will go and I will give you rest” (verse 14, literal from the Hebrew).  

This is a rather daring way of insisting that Moses truly had access to the great God’s own self.  In a later summing up, Moses was the unique prophet, “whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).  Moses’ link with the Holy One was so direct that God’s own Face was present to him.  This was the basis of Israel’s confidence that it was distinct from the nations.  

God’s Back.  The later part of the reading (verses 18-23) presents an equally physical elaboration on God’s body.  Moses asks to see God’s “glory,” which is a bit like asking to see God naked!  God’s “glory” can be physically present to the Israelites as a fiery column by night and as a bright pillar of cloud by day (first introduced into the Torah narrative in Exodus 13:21-22).  When, assured of his special status with God, Moses says, “Show me your glory” (verse 18), he is asking to see what is inside that nocturnal glowing column and that daytime cloud pillar.  

For those speculating in these stories about the divine nature, there is a dilemma here.  Just how nakedly can any human actually behold the Most Holy One?  Moses may be a unique human and thus have some claim to special divine favor, but there ARE limits!  (A very daring treatment of what is inside the cloud of glory is presented in Ezekiel 1:4-28.)  

God arranges a compromise.  The first principle is firm:  “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (verse 20).  But, God will make his “glory” pass by Moses as he is shielded in a cleft of the rock—further protected by God placing his hand over the cleft at the most intense moments.  And just when God has passed, Moses may glimpse God’s back!  “…You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (verse 23).  Thus the keepers of the traditions understood that some extremely supernatural things were granted to Moses—never to be conceived for later people—but even for him there were boundaries and limits to intimacy with God.  

These passages reveal a craving on the part of Israelite sages to conceive God in human terms.  They desperately needed to revere a great God who comprehended being human in the world.  God’s body was a daring envisionment for them.  Only Moses, of course, could have experienced it, but it was terribly important to be assured of the human-like-ness of the Holy One of Sinai.  

God’s Name.  The great revelation to Moses did leave behind one lasting feature of the divine presence:  God’s name.  God’s name remained with Israel, and not just with Moses.  “I will…proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord [Yahweh],’ and [as a continuation of the name] I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (verse 19, NRSV).  

That the Holy One bears a name that defines God as gracious and merciful is what Israel takes with it on the long journey after Sinai.  

Psalm 99.  

The Psalm reading is a great hymn to the Holy One who is revealed to the world as King.  

The psalm has three parts, the third twice as long as the first two.  Each part concludes with a solemn chant of the Holiness of God.  

(The Greek translators turned it into a two-stanza psalm, divided after verse 5.  They made the refrain in verse 3—“Holy is he!”—a run-on clause referring back to the Name, “...your great name for it is awesome and holy,” instead of letting it stand as a great liturgical shout.  They were preparing a text for readers instead of recording the liturgy used orally in the temple.)  

The structure of the psalm in Hebrew is this:  

The Lord is king in POWER.  “Holy is he!” (verses 1-3).  

The Lord is king in JUSTICE.  “Holy is he!” (verses 4-5).  

This great Lord responded to famous servants (Moses, Samuel) 

            by FORGIVING or PUNISHING their deeds.  

            “The Lord our God is holy!”  (verses 6-9).  

I Thessalonians 1:1-10.  

The Epistle reading is the apostle’s thanksgiving for the Power of God that broke out at the Great Revival in Thessalonica.  

“…Because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit” (verse 5, NRSV).  This spirited movement among the newly saved Thessalonians was itself the proof that they were the called of God.  “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message…came to you…in power…” (verses 4-5).  

Clearly some dramatic things happened in Thessalonica the year or so before this letter was written (51 CE).  According to Acts, which, as far as it goes, seems to be confirmed by references in the letter, there was lots of uproar caused by the evangelists Paul and Silas.  Paul had started his preaching about Jesus as the Messiah in the synagogue, and after three weeks some of the Jews had accepted his message, but even more people “of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” also joined the new faith, taking it well beyond only Jewish circles (Acts 17:4).  

Then, however, “the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplace they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5).  Jason, one of the prominent citizens who had accepted the faith, was jailed and then released on bond to keep the peace.  The court settlement probably included the condition that Paul and Silas had to get out of town, and they headed down the road to cause more trouble in Berea.  

Paul thanks God constantly that the Thessalonians have persisted in the faith and have grown in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (verse 3).  The message that Paul and Silas brought had obviously caught fire and was sustaining a growing community of faith in that capital city of Macedonia.  

This very survival and growth was to Paul proof that it was the work of God.   

Matthew 22:15-22.    

The Gospel reading continues the series of challenges or tests put to Jesus as he took his stand in the Jerusalem temple in his last days.  Here, the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus if, in his teaching, it is permitted to pay taxes to Caesar.  

A little background may be helpful.  Jesus is now in Judea, not Galilee.  The two regions were under different administrations in Jesus’ time (from 6 to 41 CE).  Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great.  Antipas ruled over Galilee for forty-three years (4 BCE to 39 CE), and it was he who collected the taxes in Galilee.  

Judea (and Samaria) had originally been ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, but Archelaus was a thorough foul-up, and the Romans fired him in the year 6 CE.  They then put Judea and Samaria under the direct rule of a Roman prefect (later called a procurator)—for the first time since Rome conquered the area almost seventy years earlier.  In order to implement the new Roman administration, and the collection of its taxes, they took a census of all the population (of Judea and Samaria) around 6 CE.  Then they implemented a per capita tax, requiring one denarius per year for each person.  (A denarius was one day’s pay for an agricultural laborer.)  

This census of 6 CE prompted a resistance movement, initiated by a certain Judas of Galilee.  (Judas was from Galilee, but his resistance movement was mainly active in Judea where direct rule was going into effect.)  As the historian Josephus saw it, Judas’ movement turned into the Zealots, who precipitated the Jewish War of 66-73 CE.  Josephus described this “fourth philosophy” as follows:  

This school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master. (Jewish Antiquities, xviii (23), Loeb Classical Library translation.)  

Judas the Galilean, and those of his followers who were around during and after Jesus’ active years, were certainly opposed to paying taxes to Caesar.  Thus, if the Pharisees put this question to Jesus it was an explosive one, for at least a minority of the population.  

Jesus’ famous answer to the question was to hold up a Roman denarius—the coin with which the head tax had to be paid.  On this coin was an engraving of the emperor’s head and a text that identified him as “Caesar [emperor] Tiberius Augustus.”  Jesus said, “Give … to the emperor [literally to Caesar] the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (verse 21, NRSV).  

In part this is a trick answer.  It doesn’t tell you how to distinguish between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s.  Deciding what is God’s is especially difficult.  If everything is God’s, then Caesar has nothing (presumably this was the Zealots position).  On the other hand, what belonged to God also included a tax—a tax that was paid to God (that is, to the priests).  Every Jew in the world was obligated to pay this temple tax every year.  (Matthew has Jesus agreeing to pay it in 17:24-27.)  This annual religious tax was, in fact, twice as much as Caesar’s tax.  

However, the bottom line of our text is this:  Jesus insists that YOU CAN MAKE A DISTINCTION.  It IS possible to separate what is owed to the government from what is owed to God.  (At the very least, Caesar’s coin belongs to Caesar.)  

This is an answer that rejects the revolutionary’s totalitarian platform.  At least until God changes the earthly regime by bringing a divine reign to earth, there are worldly taxes to be paid. 

The Pharisees, who hoped to force Jesus to show himself as either a lackey of Rome or a supporter of rebels, are frustrated, and Jesus’ disciples are directed to live at peace with the Roman administration.  

 

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