What is God’s?

19 October 2014
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24A (RCL)
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 25:12-22

The reading from Exodus seems, on the face of it, very confusing. Three or four times, Moses asks God if he (Moses) has found favor in God’s sight. Unfortunately, we have a truncated version of this episode in our reading, because it would be too long if we included all that was needed. After the episode of the golden calf, God has withdrawn God’s presence from Israel. God has told Moses to take this people up to the promised land, but only and angel of God will accompany them, not the divine self. The narrative is then interrupted to relate how Moses used to go out to the tent and talk to God face to face.

Now, God has withdrawn God’s presence, and Moses refuses to take the people up unless God go with them. God promises to go with the people, and Moses ups the ante and asks to see God again, face to face. God refuses. The loss of innocence in the episode of the golden calf means that no one, not even Moses, can see God face-to-face and live. God’s judgment is not part of God’s presence with God’s people. Nevertheless, God lets Moses see the divine self and speaks to Moses the divine name. The relationship has changed, just as the relationship changed with Adam and Eve.

The RCL does not choose Old Testament lessons to go with the Gospel, instead reading the narrative of God’s saving acts in course. Yet, this passage from Exodus fits very will with the episode in Matthew. The Pharisees and Herodians attempt to entrap Jesus by forcing him into a choice. Does he accept the reality of imperial hegemony by paying taxes, or does he rebel against it by refusing to pay taxes. Jesus turns their question around and asks them where they encounter God. The NRSV does us no favors with the translation: I offer my own below.

The Pharisees went and took council together how to ensnare him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true since you also teach the way of God in truth, because you do not concern yourself with anyone, for you do not look upon the face of a person. Tell us then what you think; is it permitted to pay the census to Caesar or not?” Knowing their evil intent, Jesus said to them, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin of the census.” They offered him a denarius. And he said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose epigraph?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore, return to Caesar the things of Caesar, and God’s things to God.” When they heard him, they were astonished and left him and went away.

Note that the Pharisees and Herodians “offer” a coin to Jesus. This is the same verb used for presenting an offering at the altar. Also, Jesus does not look upon the face of a person — and idiom that means shows no partiality, but also carries overtones of looking on the face of God. And it is not “whose head” as the NRSV translates, but whose image, using the same word the LXX uses for image in the creation story that God created the human beings in God’s image and likeness.

This story is deeply ironic. Temple law forbade carrying imperial coinage in the Temple precincts. Rome had allowed the Temple to continue issuing its own coinage (Temples served as “banks” in the classical world – one could put gold on deposit in a temple and receive a letter of credit called a pistis, a “faith”). Jesus had just overturned the tables of the moneychangers, so that it was now impossible for people to change their imperial coinage for Temple coinage. Nevertheless, one of the Pharisees or Herodians had carried an imperial coin into the Temple.

Jesus then points out that the image of Caesar is on the coin, in direct violation of the first commandment about having no other gods before God, and making no image. He doesn’t answer, but begs, the question, “What belongs to God?” What are we supposed to give to God? Where do we find God’s image? Jesus is not a regarder of faces at least according to his interlocutors, but that is precisely where we find the image of God — in one another.

Money, when we come to see it as a thing in itself, rather than an agreement within a community, masks (hides the faces of) the relationships it implicates us in. Jesus is forcing us to ask what the purpose of money is. It is meant to keep us in relationship with one another. We are to “offer” one another and ourselves to God. Our taxes are supposed to be part of that process, lifting up the whole community. When we see money as a thing in itself, it becomes a limited commodity, and the economy a zero sum game. When we offer up the life of the community to God, the economy becomes an open sum game — the more we give one another to God, the more we have to give. Moses may no longer be able to look on God’s face at the tent of meeting, but we can look at God’s face in one another’s faces.

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