Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 22, 2017
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22
It appears Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew puts us near the end of his earthly ministry. In previous readings, you’ll recall how Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, takes one look at all the crooked dealings going on in the temple and has a little house-cleaning party. In no time flat, the chief priests and elders come calling. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds with a question that traps them in their own deceit. Then, to hammer home his opinion of the way things have been going, Jesus tells three parables to put the religious rulers in their place. In essence, Jesus proclaims a new day with new kingdom rules to follow.
Now what? The religious authorities are livid. “This ‘false prophet’ must be shut down. Look at the crowds, how they follow him. This is getting out of hand.” They’ll stop at nothing to put an end to this man who claims to be something he couldn’t possibly be. So the Pharisees go out and make some strange bedfellows. They team up with the Herodians. Now, we don’t know much about the Herodians except that they are almost certainly supporters of Herod Antipas. Still, the Pharisees go into cahoots with them—with one common goal: Get rid of Jesus!
Can’t you just hear the sweet, syrupy tone of their voices as they open their mouths to speak? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus wasn’t born yesterday. He can see straight through them—straight through them to their heart and soul—and what he sees is hypocrisy. Never one to mince words, Jesus asks, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” (Interestingly, the Greek word for hypocrite means actor, a stage player, a pretender.) How odd it is that these pretenders, bent on trapping Jesus, speak the truth even in their ignorance? Jesus is sincere. Jesus does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Jesus shows no partiality. Oh, if these hypocrites only believed that which so easily slips from their lips!
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. (Show me the money!) And there in broad daylight, they hand over a coin. On one side, there is an image of the emperor and on the other, words claiming his divinity. Therefore, what these religious leaders hand Jesus is nothing less than a graven image.
You remember the 1st and 2nd Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an idol (or graven image), whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”
Even though, supposedly the Pharisees are against having in their possession any sort of graven image, someone has a coin in his pocket. At this point, I imagine you can hear a pin drop. Everyone waits with bated breath. The trap is set. Anticipation builds. If Jesus answers no, he is in trouble with the Roman authorities and a quick trip to Pilate will set things straight. If Jesus answers yes, he is in trouble with many of his own followers.
Indeed, it appears Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. “Whose head is this and whose title?” he asks. “The emperor’s.” Then Jesus responds, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are Gods.”
Without question, Jesus has strong opinions on money matters. Well known are his teachings: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” [i]; AND “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[ii]
While being good stewards of earthly things matters, Jesus always pushes us to see the greater reality—something we so easily miss! In 1st Century Palestine, this coin represents the dictating powers of Rome and their annual taxation, which is administered by the Jewish authorities. In his response, Jesus allows room for Caesar—for the emperor—for governing bodies but that is not the end of the story because he adds, “…and to God the things that are God’s.” So the greater reality to which Jesus points is this: Even the reign of Caesar is overruled by the reign of God Almighty.
“Give to God the things that are Gods.” Isn’t everything God’s? All of creation! And if we’re talking about what belongs to God, we must surely include ourselves. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Tertullian wrote in the 3rd Century, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image which is on man.”[iii] We are made in God’s image. We are God’s coins. How will we allow God to spend us, to use us? How will we make available to God —all of our being—all for God’s glory?
It’s God’s glory that Moses yearns to see. Moses and Yahweh have been discussing whether or not God’s presence will continue to be with Moses and the people as they go forth. Moses won’t go without God. When God agrees to continue on the journey, Moses makes a grand request: “Show me your glory, I pray.”
God says, “[Y]ou cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock; and I will cover you with my hand until I pass by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”[iv]
It appears that Moses is between a rock and a hard place—but all the while he is in the presence of the glory of God. God’s glory cannot be grasped. God’s power is too much to behold—the shadow of God is all that Moses can stand. “No one can live and see my face,” God says, but, for those who have eyes to see, Jesus reveals the other side of the coin. While you cannot look at God’s face and live, you can look at the emperor’s face all day long. You can look at Caesar’s face, as my grandmother used to say, “’til the cows come home,” and no harm need come to you for the emperor holds no power other than what is given to him.
But God’s power—now that’s another matter—which makes it even more remarkable that we are made in the image of God. And baptism, baptism marks us as God’s currency. But sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves as God sees us, isn’t it? As one commentary writer put it,
When we look at each other, or in the mirror, we tend to see the inscriptions that our business with the world has left on us: you are what you look like, what you have, what you wear, what you do, the company you keep. Nevertheless, under all those inscriptions is a much deeper mark: the kiss of light in the eyes, the watery sign of a cross made once upon a time on the forehead, the image of all those children in the arms of their mothers, and the little ember of resolve to remember them. All those faces are a part of your face, when you begin to see the image that God sees…[v]
Made in the image of God, we are God’s currency. Even if, sometimes, we find our selves between a rock and a hard place, even there God’s glory can be found. In all that we say, in all that we do, may we be spent for the glory of God.
[i] Luke 18:25
[ii] Matt. 6:19-21
[iii] Quoted by Susan Grove Eastman in Feasting on the Word, 193.
[iv] Exodus 33
[v] Richard E. Spalding in Feasting on the Word, 192
*Cover Art ”Show Me Your Glory” ©Jan Richardson; used with subscription