16 October 2011
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24A (RCL)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Jesus’ response to the question of the Pharisees and Herodians works on many levels, and forces us to think about the nature of our relationships with our government, our economy and God. When Jesus asks the Pharisees whose image is on the coin (the NRSV translates “head”), he uses the same word (eikon) that the Septuagint uses for the image in which God created humankind: Let us create humankind in our eikon. The understanding at the time was that all money belonged to the emperor, and he could call it back whenever it pleased him. Often, that happened in order to debase the currency, to dilute the silver in it with other metals, in order to make more money.
It raises the question for us of how money works. Our money, of course, is paper, and our coins have long since stopped being made of precious metals, and the paper is no longer backed by gold in some vault somewhere. Now, when we want to make more money, we don’t have to call in the existing coin and melt it down to add some other metal; we just add zeros in a computer program somewhere. So, money, in itself, is “nothing worth.” What makes it worth anything at all is simply our common agreement, our trust. So, what we are exchanging when we exchange money is the network of reciprocal indebtedness that ties us together, our mutual obligations, hidden behind some zeros in a computer file.
So, when Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar Caesar’s things,” he is telling us to consider carefully what we owe to our human community. When he says, “Give to God God’s things,” he is telling us to consider carefully where God’s image is stamped. What kind of network of mutuality binds us together as God’s people? How do these loyalties live side by side? He’s not just telling us to pay our taxes, but to think about what we owe each other and God.
Moses is one of the classic examples in the Old Testament of someone who struggles to understand and negotiate his relationship with God, and the relationship of God’s people with God. The passage we read this week comes immediately after the affair of the golden calf. God has responded in anger by severing God’s relationship with the people. Moses has broken the tables of the covenant. The people stand in a very precarious situation. What will happen to them now? God tells Moses to take the people up from where they are, and go toward the land of promise, but God will not go with them. Moses begins to negotiate with God.
He goes back to what God said to him on the mountaintop, when God threatened to destroy the people and start over with Moses. “If I have found favor in your sight,” Moses says, and repeats again and again in this negotiation. Moses talks God back into a relationship with God’s people, and extracts a promise that God will be with God’s people, for otherwise, they would not be distinct.
We react against this portrayal of God as vengeful, and needing to be negotiated into relationship, but it gets at a profound theological problem for us. If God is involved in history, and not just some static cosmic force that guarantees the hierarchical order of the universe, but doesn’t get involved in the messiness of history — if God is involved in history, then God will have to be dynamic, changing as we change. The author of Exodus does not shy away from portraying God in relationship with God’s people. Moses and God both argue with each other, cajole, implore, joke, and finally become intimates.
How different would our prayer life look if we thought like Moses thought? God does not become God without our involvement. Moses says to God on the mountaintop, “How would it reflect on you if you destroyed this people, known by your name?” Do we ever try to shame God into action in our prayers? I think we are much too timid to try. Of course, you can’t pray like that without the support of a community, which grapples to understand God’s self-revelation, and then how God might want us to carry out that self-revelation in the world.
Jesus is asking us to engage in essentially the same activity as we try to sort out our relationships implicated in our economy and in our humanity (the image of God stamped on us). This will not be a facile kind of prayer, but ask us to give to God what is God’s, our very selves.