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Sun, Oct 22, 2017

Images of Glory

Duration:22 mins 42 secs

“Images of Glory”

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22, Exodus 33:12-23

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

For centuries, Christians have appealed to this saying of Jesus as an argument for the separation between church and state. Give to the state those things that are proper to the state – respect, taxes, obedience to the laws of the state – and give to God the things that are proper to God: worship, reverence, obedience to divine laws. The problem, of course, is when the laws of God come into conflict with the laws of the state. However such a conflict might play out, this saying of Jesus seems to suggest that there are realms of experience that have to do with the daily business of getting along in the world, fulfilling civic duties, and staying out of trouble; and that there are other realms which have strictly to do with our relationship to God, matters of eternity and salvation. It’s what N.T. Wright once called a “split-level world,” in which faith and religion belong upstairs, and society and politics belong downstairs.

But what if that is not what Jesus was talking about?

The Pharisees and Herodians who come to Jesus with their question about whether or not to pay the tax are an unlikely alliance. These two groups had nothing in common except their animosity toward Jesus of Nazareth. The Herodians, or members of the “Herod party,” were a priestly group who were in cahoots with the Romans; the Pharisees, law-observant Jews associated with the synagogue, hated the Roman occupation.

The question was not about taxes or political authority in general, but about a particular tax. Jews in first-century Palestine paid several taxes: a temple tax, customs taxes, and land taxes. The tax in question was especially controversial, though: it was the annual tribute tax to the Roman emperor. Some Jews, like the Herodians and most of the Temple authorities, who collaborated with Roman rule, did not have an issue with the tax. Other Jews, who disliked and maybe even resisted Roman authority, like many of the Pharisees, also disliked paying the tax.

This tax was especially offensive because it had to be paid in Roman currency. The coin in question, the denarius, had stamped on it the head of Caesar Tiberius with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, and high priest.” So the coin bore both a graven image and an attribution of divinity to the emperor. So unclean was this coin that it had to be exchanged in the temple courtyard for other currency before anyone could buy a sacrificial animal for the temple worship.

The Pharisees and Herodians who came to trap Jesus knew how dangerous their question to him was. If he said, “Don’t pay the tax,” he could have been arrested by the Romans for sedition. If he said, “Yes, go ahead and pay it,” he would have looked like a hypocrite and lost his standing among the people. In answering their question with a question of his own – “Whose name and image are on the coin?” – thereby prompting his interrogators to produce the coin, Jesus reveals their hypocrisy: for in pulling the hated denarius from their own pockets, they make it clear they have no problem with trading in the coin of the empire.

The currency of a nation promotes the claims of the nation-state. Think of the British coin called a “sovereign” (no longer in circulation but still available to collectors). It had a nominal value of one pound sterling and was stamped with the likeness of the British monarch. The nation where the coin is traded bears, in some sense, the image of that monarch, or sovereign. The sovereign “puts his (or her) stamp” on the people: they are loyal subjects of the king or queen. The glory of the monarch is seen in the tribute the people pay him.

The controversy in Matthew 22 centers around a little token of earthly glory. Jesus doesn’t engage the debate with the Pharisees and Herodians, but he points them to a different kind of glory. It’s the kind of glory Moses was interested in when he tried to negotiate with God in our reading from Exodus. When we find him in Chapter 33, Moses is getting tired and frustrated in his dealings with the children of Israel. In today’s text he is negotiating not only for the people but also for himself.

First he insinuates that God has given him an order – lead the people through the wilderness to the Promised Land – without giving him the support he needs to carry it out. Then he uses God’s own words against God: “You say that I’ve found favor in your sight, but if you don’t go with us, no one’s going to believe it.” And finally he says that the people are God’s problem more than his: “Consider too that this nation is your people.” Amazingly, God agrees to what Moses has asked, quite nicely and pleasantly considering how brazen Moses is. But then Moses pushes his request too far: “Show me your glory, I pray.” In other words, “do something for me. I’ve got these impossible people to carry through the wilderness, so give me something they don’t have. Let me see the divine stuff you’re made of.”

One way of looking at this is to say that Moses is simply seeking greater intimacy with God, deeper knowledge of God, which is what all of us say we want. But it is a request that oversteps a boundary. God has made it clear that “no one can see God face-to-face and live.” What would happen if someone did? The Bible doesn’t exactly say, but it implies that there would be something like a disintegration of the self, a melting down and burning away, something that would leave you a wrecked and shattered shell if you did come out alive. No one had ever observed this, of course, because as far as anyone knew it had never happened.

The Bible is clear that God needs to tone down or filter the full force of divinity in order to encounter human beings. It is something God does out of mercy. We don’t know exactly what the Bible means by God’s “glory” – in Hebrew it has the same root word as the word “heavy.” So God’s glory is something shining, brilliant, glowing and shimmering, something like pure light – but it is also something with weight and substance enough to crush a person who is unprotected.

So when Moses asks to see God’s “glory,” God grants him part of his request and uses some qualifying language: “I will make all my goodness pass before you…but you cannot see my face.” Then God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock, shields him from the full weight of the glory passing by, and gives him just a glimpse of something ineffable.

Moses can demand a lot from God, it turns out, but he cannot control or contain God. That is part of God’s glory. God is too majestic, too sovereign for human manipulation.

When the Protestant Reformers talked about the “sovereignty” of God, part of what they were talking about was this “otherness,” this singularity, this free and majestic presence for which there are no human analogues. John Calvin talked about how we cannot contemplate God without immediately perceiving our own smallness and insufficiency, the relativity of all our claims and interests, the paltriness of what we call glory.

So to go back to that coin: You can’t put God and Caesar opposite each other as if they were two opposing rulers, each with equally-weighted claims and spheres of influence. By “Caesar” we mean the state, culture, politics, the social order, economics and finance, the whole range of human affairs. There is no neat divide between God and Caesar, no area in which we can legitimately say, “This is Caesar’s, this is mine, this is God’s.” What Jesus says to the Pharisees and Herodians is essentially this: “Give to Caesar his little coin, as it is obviously important to him. But be careful. Don’t go giving him what is rightfully God’s. Caesar’s image is stamped on that coin. But you have been stamped with the image of God. What does that tell you?”

The God we worship can’t be put in a compartment. There is not a split-level world, in which the things of God can be relegated to the upstairs rooms while we carry on with the things of Caesar down here. To speak of the glory of God is to acknowledge that all created things pay tribute to God, that the whole world is to be the theater of God’s glory. And we, made in God’s image, are to bear that image in everything we do, and are.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

October 22, 2017


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