“What’s the Question?”
Texts: Exodus 33: 12-23
Matthew 22: 15-22
By: David D. McDonald
October 18, 2020
NRSV Exodus 33:12-23
12Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
17The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and 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 have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
NRSV Matthew 22: 15-22
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Moses in our morning text from Exodus 33 wants to know if he will see God or not. In our Gospel text, the Pharisees want to know if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not.
“For some of us the world is an either–or kind of place. For some of us, God is an either-or kind of God. But for Jesus, the tension between Caesar and God did not exist. God was everything. To Caesar he gave respect, but never the authority over how he was to live or die. We see this most profoundly at the end of his life, when Jesus stood before Pilate, the highest Roman official in Israel, the one who had the power of Jesus’ life and death in his hands.
“Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above . . . ’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor’” (Jn 19:10-12).
While it’s easy to focus on ourselves and to become overwhelmed by the stresses and demands of our daily lives, we need to look up and look out. We need to remember that we are part of something bigger: a larger community, a nation, a world. For Christians, the basis for our allegiance to our community, our nation, and our world is our faithfulness to God and our commitment to following the way of Jesus Christ in love, in justice, in forgiveness, and in peace.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
With God’s help – we will.” (Ministers Annual Manual Oct. 16, 2011)
Some might summarize Matthew 22 with a simple observation. “Beware of those who come with loaded questions! You just might be the game they have in their sights!” Jesus made enemies. That may give us some consolation when others do not like the way we look, what we have to say, or the way we lead our lives. It may surprise you that Jesus, such a good man who lived out His life the way God intended would come to such heartache and be executed. This story is about hatred, hidden agendas, dirty politics, unpopular taxes, and how best to get rid of Jesus. Some things just do not seem to change, do they? Among those who would like to be rid of Jesus are the Pharisees. The Pharisees represented a very popular Jewish movement that sought control of Israel. They are rigid in their religious beliefs. They sincerely believe that their way is the only way. They conceive of the Law as the be all and end all of religious life. It is their point of view that God is to be found in a way of living. We would certainly agree that our faith commitments ought to dramatically influence the way we live our lives. The Pharisees do not want the state of Rome to take their taxes. They abhor the idea that their money might go for roads in heathen cities. They do not want good, public education, if that means they will have to live with folks from other religious backgrounds. They would prefer to be a separate, autonomous community, which controlled the lives of its members. They would like their own state. The Roman, "census" was the foundation of the hated "head tax" and became the irritant that finally led to the Jewish revolt in 66 and the destruction of the temple. Consider that in the light of the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were heading to Bethlehem when Quirinus was governor of Syria and they were going to be counted. The question on the list of hot conversations was, “Why should we be counted accept to pay more taxes? There was a tax revolt in the making. The people were hopping mad at the stock market in Jerusalem! The Pharisees would eventually spawn the radical Zealots. The Zealots hated Rome with a passion. They hated anyone who suggested that peaceful accommodation and negotiation might be a profitable path to follow. They hated Jesus, because his words were as caustic towards biased, bigoted religious people as they were towards, idolatrous degenerate heathen.
The second religious group mentioned in this passage from the twenty-second chapter of Matthew was the Herodians. We do not know as much about the Herodians because they disappeared when the Romans outlawed the Jewish faith in the empire. Prior to the Jewish revolt; however, they represented those Jews who had learned to profit from and accommodate the Roman occupation. They had learned the fine art of playing politics and winning pork for the hometown - especially their own family. Anyone who upset the Jewish king and his court or threatened the Roman authority was an enemy. Herodians were willing to compromise religious beliefs to stay within the graces of the state. They hated Jesus because he failed to wave the flag of state and empire. The Herodians would assert that whatever was best for Rome was best for Israel. They did not share Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God. In the mind of a Herodian any such kingdom might pose a threat to the status quo and the comfortable and cozy arrangement between Rome and Jerusalem. They did not want any ethical commentary on the sordid affairs of Rome, Jerusalem, or its rulers. They wanted no one asking questions!
So, it came to be that two groups that were politically and religiously miles apart joined forces with one purpose in mind - rid the world of Jesus. They wanted to narrow the political field. They wanted to select their own king. A plan was hatched. They planned a major debate. They appealed to a well-known philosophical tool - the dilemma. They really thought they had Jesus on the "horns of a dilemma." They posed a question whose intent was not to discern truth or clarify belief or even promote faith. The intent of the question was to get Jesus.
"Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?"
To answer, "Yes" was to run afoul of the Pharisees who believed that Rome was the greatest problem. Like today, popular people railed against taxes. It was popular to argue for independence. It was popular to paint the world's problems as a "spiritual battle” being waged in the Roman courts and Roman legislature. It is the fallacy that somehow the problems of sinful humanity can be solved by sinful humanity. It is the fallacy that somehow we can solve all the world's problems with enough money and power; that we can force "good' into the hearts of people and that mixing or blending religious institutions and state affairs will produce a force for the transformation of society into a godly kingdom.
To answer “No” on the other hand was to run afoul of Roman authority. Should Jesus choose to answer “No” a quick word with the procurator would put an end to the matter. If Jesus was not summarily executed; he would be left to rot in prison.
Clearly, in this passage from Matthew, neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians were open for change. Neither group had any intention of listening to Jesus. They were like two jackals brought to the scene by the smell of blood, but would just as likely turn on each other if given the opportunity.
What is wrong, no human being can fix. The change, which must come, must be brought by God's hand. It is a change of heart. The hardened hearts of people must be softened. The priorities of people must be placed in a new order. The situation is very reminiscent of the exile, centuries before. Patiently, God had tried repeatedly to bring the people back to himself. God had tried repeatedly to be their God. Time and time again they had strayed and followed other gods and followed the desires and devices of their own hearts. In the warfare, destruction, and captivity that ensued God came to them over and over again and promised through the prophets to return them to their promised land and to honor the promises that He had made to their fathers. They would once again become a nation. The prophet Ezekiel in one of those marvelous passages spoken to the remnant in captivity writes:
"Therefore say: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. When they come there, they will remove from it the detestable things and all its abominations. I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people and I will be their God." (Ezekiel 11: 17-20)
In other words, new priorities would be set. New agendas would be followed. As in the days of Moses they would be lead by God and follow in his shadow. A companion passage to this morning’s lesson from Matthew in the lectionary readings for today is taken from Exodus 33 and helps the renegade, sinful people who cast the golden calf at Sinai to reorient themselves to God and signifies the restoration of God’s covenant to a sinful people. The Lord instructs Moses how his glory may be revealed and reads like this:
21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 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 have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Clearly, the Lord is in the lead. God will only reveal His back. The restoration and forgiveness of Israel will involve a change of heart. That sense of coming change for our time was given voice in the hymn, "Here I Am Lord" written by Daniel Schutte in 1981 and appears in The Presbyterian Hymnal:
"I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people's pain.
I have wept for love of them, They turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone, Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak My word to them. Whom shall I send?"
Questions often give birth to other questions. In the favorite words of Dr. Mickey Efird whose Bible Study on the Gospel of Mark is part of a video series the Pharisees and the Herodians have been asking the wrong questions! Jesus uses a Roman coin to point them towards a more relevant question:
"Whose head is this and whose title?"
The word for head used here is eikon from which we derive the English word icon. We might translate the word also as image. That is, the image belongs to Caesar, but it is not the man. The point of Jesus works at several levels. In one sense, Jesus speaks to those who would follow the Pharisees saying something like this:
"They may force you to pay the infamous poll tax. In fact, it may be in your best interests to pay the poll tax, but remember you belong to God, not the emperor. Nothing they can say or do can take you away from God. They may take your possessions. They may take your life. Nevertheless, it is possible for your heart and soul to belong to God.”
Further, this story of Jesus speaks to those who would follow the Herodians saying something like:
"God and Caesar are not equal. God controls even the breath of Caesar. God makes even Caesar in His image. Caesar's kingdom is temporary. The land and the power are God's. Caesar rules only by the permission of Almighty God. As God gives so can he take away. Caesar lives for but a moment in time, Almighty God rules forever."
So, the point of our Lord seems to be that we always live in His creation. All of our gifts and talents are His. We are the clay and He is the potter. Each of us, in our own way bears the stamp of his creative hand. We have, in a sense, his thumb print upon our forehead. Each of us, according to Genesis was created in His image. We are a reflection of God in us. We bear his eikon in our very being. We are not God, but a reflection of his image. We are, in a sense, the coinage of creation. We are God's people.
“One of the things that we do when we come to church is to “see things in a different light.” That’s why we have stained glass windows. We come with our rather colorless, none-too-inspiring drab little lives and we see them in God’s light. And they are thereby transformed.
Continuing the visual metaphor, church is also where we look at our lives from a different perspective – God’s way of seeing things. In church, when we’re at our best, things come into focus, and we see what things are worth, and how much certain things cost.
I talked to someone who had lived through a horrible hurricane and flood. She had “lost everything” as they say – house, car, furniture, clothing, and keepsakes. When I offered her sympathy for her loss she said, “One thing I’ve learned. It’s not right to say that I ‘lost everything.’ I lost a lot of stuff. Most of the material possessions that I had been accumulating got ripped off. But here I am and my family is still with me. Let’s just say that God has powerfully reminded me of what’s valuable and what’s not.”
Now, I don’t know if I believe that God sent that flood and hurricane. However, I do believe that God can take even the worst events of our lives and use them to show how worthless is so much of the stuff that we treasure and expend so much of our lives upon.
In other words, God can take even the loss suffered in a hurricane and a flood and make this a moment for worship.” (Pulpit Resource, Oct 19, 2008)
Several years ago, when a tornado hit Sanford, North Carolina; my wife had a call from a friend of ours in Sanford that attends the Jonesboro Presbyterian Church , where I had served as pastor. Her son Rodney and our son were good friends, played high school football together and now both are grown and live in Raleigh. They were one of those families whose homes were destroyed in the tornado that struck there in the spring. Rebuilding their home was rapidly coming along. She was more worried about Rodney who had a tortilla chip stick in his throat and punctured his esophagus. In that context, the question, “How’s Rodney doing?” seemed a whole lot more important then the question, “How’s the construction of the house coming along?”
We are stewards for God. We carry within us the image of God who cares for all people. The disciples of Christ strive to care for others even as God cares for the world – patiently, lovingly, and with generosity. God gives us great choice and great responsibility. We may use our lives and our possessions to further the work of Christ and His kingdom or we may chose to abandon Christ and throw him out of our thoughts and abandon His ways. Surely, in this passage we are taught that the way to God is through following Christ even in our political, economic, and social responsibilities. The litmus test for all such efforts is simply this:
"Who do we serve?"
Elton Trueblood once said, “Our faith becomes practical when it is expressed in two books; the date book and the checkbook.”
Let us strive to be God's people, allowing God to the claim our lives and set the agenda for the living of each day. Let us strive to serve the Lord, by placing the sovereign God in the center of our thoughts. Let us endeavor not so much to posses as to be possessed. In so doing, we will be transformed into His image. God gave his only Son says scripture. It is in God’s nature to give abundantly. Those who strive to be the disciples of Jesus Christ will surely give of themselves and their possessions.
We have to put our possessions in perspective. Our nation and many communities are really having a hard time. Even so, the world continues, limping along as a refection of peoples’ pain. So, why tell a Jesus story? William Willimon writes:
“As parents, we ended each day by reading our children bedtime stories. The purpose of these stories? To put the children to sleep. And they usually worked. Often, before the story even ended, the children were fast asleep.
I get you together here in the church and I tell you Bible stories. The purpose? To wake you up!” (October 16, 2011, Pulpit Resource)
When we do not know the best answer, it may be best to ask a good question. That’s what Jesus did. May God help us to ask good questions before we try to give answers.
So here again is the question for us all today – “Who do we serve?
Alfred Ackley answered that question in his hymn, “I Serve Risen Savior.” The first stanza sings:
I serve arisen Savior, He’s in the world today; I know that He is
living, what- ever men may say; I see His hand of mercy, I
hear His voice of cheer, And just the time I need Him He’s always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and
talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives, He lives , sal-
vation to impart! You ask me how I know He Lives? He lives within my heart.
Let us continue the worship of God.