What do we owe?

22 October 2017
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24A (RCL)

Exodus 33:13-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

So Israel, who had been no people when slaves in Egypt, and had become God’s people in the wilderness, messed up badly with the golden calf. At the opening of Chapter 33 of Exodus, God says that God will send an angel before the people as the ‘go up’ to land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the divine self will not go up with them, because they are a stiff necked people. This presents the ultimate crisis for Israel’s existence — without God’s presence, they are no people.

So, Moses bargains with God yet again. Moses repeatedly reminds God that he (Moses) has found favor in God’s sight, and that Israel is ‘your (God’s) people,’ not Moses’ own. Without God’s presence, they will not be a distinct people on the face of the earth. God accepts Moses’ argument, and gives him four powerful assurances: I will make my goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the NAME to you; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious; I will show mercy to whom I shall show mercy. But God gives one major negative: You shall not see my face, for no one sees my face and lives. Just a few verses before this, we have been told that Moses and God used to meet face to face in the tent of meeting. So, because of Israel’s sin, Moses can no longer see God’s face and live.

Moses did not ask to see God’s face, but rather God’s glory. The relationship with God is no longer a relationship with an intimate friend, but the relationship between benefactor and client, between glory and mundane. Israel is chastened. But God does grant Moses’ request in part. God will place Moses safely in a cleft in the rock, and cover him while God’s glory passes by, and let Moses see the back side of the glory. Israel’s relationship with God in the promised land will be mediated rather than intimate as it had been in the wilderness. But without God, Israel ceases to exist as a people. The episode with the calf almost dissolved the relationship altogether.

In the Gospel for this Sunday, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a question about taxes. If he says that people should not pay the tax, he is guilty of treason against Caesar. If he says that people should pay the tax, he is guilty of collaboration. They set the trap very nicely: We know you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show no partiality — they are claiming that his answer will be without regard to consequences.

Jesus, like a good Cynic, dodges the question, and puts the onus of the argument back on them. Caesar’s image and inscription are on the coin, so clearly, it belongs to Caesar. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but give to God what belongs to God. Jesus leaves that question hanging — just what belongs to God?

The craft in Jesus’ question is deeper than it seems at first reading. Caesar’s money was the ‘coin’ of relationship in Caesar’s Empire, the medium of commerce and relationship. Money is a great computer, quickly calculating the relative worth of things, but it completely abstracts those things from the method of their production. It dehumanizes commerce and community. The consumables we buy exist abstracted from the people who produced them. We are able to (pretend that we) get what we need apart from human community and interdependence.

What we owe God is precisely the fear, the awe due the glory God disclosed to Moses. Without God’s presence, we are no people. Without God, the relationships that tie us together in community simply dissolve. What we owe God is to see each other as signs of God’s presence; the ‘coin’ in circulation among God’s people cannot be abstracted from the people themselves. Things like greetings, casseroles, favors done, respect paid, help offered and received, form a much truer economy than Caesar’s coin, because they are signs of God’s glory.

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