The Hebrew Bible lesson picks up in the middle of a ‘heated discussion’ between God and Moses. Previously God had told Moses that God would be present with the Israelites as they journeyed to the Promised Land (Exodus 25:8; 29:45-46). Intricate instructions were given on the building of a tabernacle (a portable tent that would provide a home for the presence of God in the midst of the Israelite camp). The marriage of God and the Israelite people was on good footing. Then the Israelites cheated—the covenant was broken, the happy union was shattered, and God was one angry groom.
Moses was talking God down, but he was only getting so far. Moses had convinced God of this much: God was no longer going to annihilate the people from the face of the earth. However, God could no longer hang out with the Israelites like God had done in the past, and promised to do in the future.
“Go, leave this place, you and the people…to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…I will send an angel before you…but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff necked people” (Exodus 33:1-3).
Moses was still not satisfied. An angel wasn’t going to cut it. It was God or nothing. So Moses daringly challenged God. The Message paraphrase captures the feel of the conversation, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way,,, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”
Moses demands to know who it is that God will send (Who is this angel? What good will this angel be?). Moses reminds God of his previous statements of fidelity to Israel. In the end Moses’ demanding ways wins out, and God renews God’s commitment to travel personally (not representatively) with Israel. In essence, Moses wins the argument. That’s heavy stuff—but it is the best reading of the narrative.
Perhaps it was the great feeling of triumph (it’s not every day you convince the omnipotent creator of all to see things your way) that prompted Moses to give God a final imperative, “Show me your glory, I pray.” God agrees to show Moses his backside, but not his face—“you cannot see my face; for no one may see me and live.” This final exchange reminds us that even when God initiates a covenant with us, and chooses to be with us (personally), God still remains distinct from us, holy, separate, and mysterious. In this way God is God, and we are human. There is no religion without awe and wonder.
Shortly after Jesus entered Jerusalem he was cornered by a mixed group of Herodians and Pharisees who presented Jesus with a question, “Tell us…what you think. It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This was a calculated move on the part of the Pharisees (the group orchestrating the public ambush). Jesus was surrounded by people with differing political allegiances, and he was sure to anger one group or the other with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer. This is good political maneuvering—split the base, cause dissension, divide and conquer!
Jesus’ responds by asking for a coin. They bring him a denarius.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
There were actually a few different coins serving as the denarius in those days, some read, “Tiberius, Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, the high priest,” others read, “Tiberius, Caesar, The majestic son of God, the high priest”—both were lofty bits of political propaganda. They were highly offensive to the principled Hebrew, who saw violation of the Torah in both the portrait and the inscription. But what could you do?—you couldn’t pay your taxes in goat’s milk, or chicken eggs! The very possession of the coin meant that you were compromised, and yet, this was Caesar’s world. Of course we can’t help but notice that even in Caesar’s world, Jesus had no coin—he had to ask for his. That was the trick. When the Pharisees fished around in their pockets, extracted a coin, and then handed it over, they lost all traction. The ambushers were ambushed. They were the object in this object lesson. Whose head and whose title? They swallowed hard and replied, “The emperor’s.”
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”
The truth is we all compromise—so be careful who you back into a corner with your political traps and your endless strategies. Regardless, even though we all cut deals of compromise with our culture, Jesus doesn’t simply condemn us—he instead challenges us. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” If we “owe” the denarius to one—what do we “owe” the other? If with one hand in our pocket of coins we compromise with culture—in what ways are we holding back, resisting, marking ourselves as different? If we have invested so heavily in these kingdoms—what is our investment in the coming kingdom? We do pray for it, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” It’s ironic really, in a time when many churches avoid the very dangerous and polarizing political debate, this oft repeated prayer is one whale of a loaded statement. You can see it clearly if you do a little substitution, how about, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, may your politics come, your economics be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Is that what we want? Would we vote for that position on Election Day? Is it even there for our choosing?
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the presence of God amongst us. God has thrown God’s lot in with us. God is ‘dangerously’ close. The presence of God has been carefully mediated. We see God’s ‘afterglow’ for the full brunt of God’s glory is unimaginably terrifying. Why? Because we are people of this world, and our best attempt at holiness is always a compromise with culture. Nevertheless, God has promised to abide, and God’s spirit is given to each of us. In our worship we seek forgiveness for our compromise, and we are encouraged to seek the sanctification of God’s dangerous presence. Our salvation is the Lord’s doing.