God is Persuaded
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the wee hours of the morning, rain was falling on the roof and I could hear trees outside being tossed by the wind. I was writing when my son Timothy let out a piercing wail I heard all the way down stairs that let me know something wasn’t quite right, something beyond normal middle of the night hunger. Just in case, on my way upstairs, I made a quick detour into the kitchen to fetch a bottle from the refrigerator. When I arrived in the nursery, Timothy was standing in his crib holding onto the rail and crying out. Putting his bottle down on the bookshelf, I took him in my arms and whispered, “There, there, it’s going to be all right, it’s alright my boy,” and I held him tightly. He began to quiet down.
Then I proceeded to turn on the light and change his diaper. His volume went back up a bit at that point. I quickly finished changing him and picked him up and held him again as I eased over to the rocking chair, turned the light back out and groped for his bottle in the dark. He began to quiet down even before I found his mouth and managed to get the bottle positioned just right. He took a few swallows, and then turned his face away. I put the bottle back down and rocked him, back and forth, back and forth in time to the ticking of the clock: tick – tock; tick – tock. I rocked him for a while, longer than I normally do. One of our cats jumped up on my lap and joined us, purring. Timothy slowly fell asleep in my arms. As I listened to the rain beat on the roof and the trees outside being tossed by the wind, all slowly became quieter as the storm wore itself out. Then, and only then, it slowly dawned on me that it hadn’t been about hunger. It had been about comfort.
Moses was a man who, when he was first summoned out of Midian to return to Egypt on behalf of his people, argued against God’s call on him, saying, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” Before finally giving in and going down into Egypt to lead the Israelites out of slavery, Moses tried one last time to get out of it, saying, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.”
In today’s passage, however, Moses speaks out with God, saying “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.”
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
For Moses, that was not enough. He goes on to argue most persuasively with God, “If your Presence does not got with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
God is persuaded to listen to Moses and answers, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
At first glance, it seems Moses came a long way from that first encounter at the burning bush when he trembles and falls face down on the ground to avoid looking at the Holy. Now he demands to see God’s glory? However, I wonder perhaps if Moses hasn’t actually come as far as we first think. His conversation with God leads me to believe it is actually about something else. I think Moses was looking for the reassurance that comes from knowing he would not be alone. “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and your people unless you go with us?” Moses asks. It was not about the hunger to see God’s glory. It was about comfort.
Separated by 6000 years or so, it is still the same question Timothy was asking me with his wordless cry in the wee hours of the morning: “Daddy, are you there? Will you keep me safe? I’m scared. I don’t want to be alone.”
“And the Lord said [to Moses], ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
That is a powerful reassurance for Moses in his time of need, and indeed, as the Common Lectionary takes us further through Exodus we see how
God is indeed with Moses and with the Israelites through all their desert experiences and on into their promised land.
That is not the only story we are given for today. I must confess I was intrigued how the collaborators for the Common Lectionary made a connection between this story with Moses and today’s New Testament passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
What connection did the Lectionary writers see? As I read them over and over, some central questions from each text began to emerge for me; and they may give us a clue. As we have already heard, Moses demands of God, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What will distinguish [us]?”
The New Testament passage seems to point to a completely different question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
You can imagine how perplexing it was for me to unravel the connection between these two passages, until I began to ask myself, “Is the the central question about taxes?” As I reflected on the answer Jesus gave to them, I suspect there was a much deeper question, one that was not even recorded or spoken aloud, but Jesus, who sees straight into the hearts of all, answered instead that deeper question.
For Moses, the deeper issue was one of comfort and identity: “Are you going to go with us?” “I don’t want to be left alone.” “Will you keep us safe?” “How will we be distinguished from all the other people on the face of the Earth?”
In the Gospel story, we may have to dig a little deeper to discover the unspoken question Jesus answers. The Pharisees, who were ardent Israel nationalists opposed to Roman rule, and the Herodians, who were ardent supporters of the Roman Empire, were normally in direct conflict. In this instance a rare collaboration occurs to trap Jesus in his own words. Why? These very different groups, usually on opposite ends of any issue, come to Jesus with flattering words and ask, “Tell us, then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Here’s what the Pharisees and Herodians think they were about to do: they thought they would entrap Jesus by forcing him into a black and white answer. Either the “yes” or “no” answer would have been beneficial to these two groups; for both wanted Jesus silenced. According to both the laws of the land (Roman) and the laws of the religious (Pharisees) this is what would have happened:
If Jesus had said, “No,” the Herodians would have reported him to the Roman governor and he would have been executed for treason; for not paying taxes is in effect saying, “you have no jurisdiction over me and I defy your sovereignty.” If he had said, “Yes,” the Pharisees would have denounced him to his fellow Israelites as disloyal to his own people and thus be liable for the highest punishment due violators of the Jewish law, understood by the Pharisees to be handed down from the time of Moses. Either way, Jesus is removed from the scene and the Herodians and Pharisees can go about their own business secure in their two-party conflict.
Let’s reexamine these central questions, and direct them instead to ourselves, in our context today. In the words of Moses, how would anyone know that God is pleased with you? Especially for Christians this question has real relevance. Faced with our modern reality where mainline Reformed churches are shrinking, what distinguishes us; you, me, or anyone who loves and follows the Lord? How will we know that God is with us? Those are the first questions.
For the second questions, we may need a little bit more background on the Gospel of Matthew before we can discern for what purpose did Matthew include this story about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Biblical scholars tell us that the community for which Matthew was written was caught somewhere in the transitional process from Jewish sect to Christian religion. Some of the pressing issues continually addressed in this Gospel center around wrestling with the validity of Jewish law – that is, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament as we know it – and its traditions and the fulfillment of its scriptures for a new age.
The question posed to Jesus certainly points to a wrestling of conscious about Jewish law – versus Roman law.
Matthew was written in Greek, so it’s original readers and hearers were Greek-speaking. However, Biblical scholars tell us they also seem to have been Jews, as there are elements throughout the Gospel that point this out. Some examples include Matthew’s concern with fulfillment of Old Testament passages: tracing the decent of Jesus from the Jewish patriarch Abraham, use of Jewish terminology such as “Kingdom of Heaven,” which points to the Jewish hesitancy to use God’s name when reading or speaking, the emphasis on Jesus as the Son of David, linking him to the Golden Age of Ancient Israel when both church and state were linked inextricably together and David expanded the Kingdom almost to its furthest reach.
Yet here we are, in the midst of the Roman Empire, with the Israel people subjugated, no longer an independent nation, and faced with all the obligations of Roman citizenship whether they want it or not.
In the midst of all these specific Jewish references to Matthew’s community, Matthew also includes intriguing examples of a universal religious outlook, stretching the claim of Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah to those outside the fold of the Jewish flock; something never before considered. For example, the coming of the Magi. They are most definitely not Jewish, yet they come to worship the infant Jesus, King of the Jews. Also woven into Matthew’s account is the view that Jesus saw the harvest as the entire world, not just a harvest of Israelites. Matthew’s full statement of the Great Commission makes this abundantly clear:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age. (Mt. 28:19-20).
In today’s passage, Matthew brilliantly records what Jesus says in answer to the question about paying the tax: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s” they reply. Then he said to them,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
(Hold up one hand) In the words of Moses, “How will anyone know that you are pleased with [us] unless you go with us? What will distinguish [us]?”
(Hold up the other hand) Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and give to God what is God’s.”
Again, for our own context, (Hold up one hand) How do we know that God is with us?
And again for our context, (Hold up the other hand) “Give to God what is God’s.”
I submit this is the central question of our New Testament passage for today: Are we giving to God what is God’s? Are we giving ourselves wholly over to the Lord and to the work of the kingdom of heaven? And, like Moses, how do we know if we are giving of our whole selves to God and to God’s purposes for us in this community and in this place and time?
God, are you there? Will you keep us safe? We may be scared and uncertain of our future, but like Moses and Timothy, we don’t want to be left alone. We long for the very near comfort of God as we move forward into the unknown.
Friends, be at peace, for even as a coin inscribed with an image of Caesar tells all that it is Caesar’s, inscribed on our very deepest and inner-most selves, we are made in God’s image, male and female, created in God’s likeness. Friends, there is no doubt, God is with us.
The challenge remains: with these God-shaped hands in these limited and imperfect bodies, it is ours to enact the love of God in this place and time, reaching out with the arms of Jesus, the grace of God, and the life of the kingdom of heaven. This is no easy task, but remember, God, who is inscribed on our very beings, is with us every step of the way.
May the glory that is God’s shine for all to see, and may the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ, show us the Way. Amen.