Exodus 33:12-23+Psalm 99+1 Thessalonians 1:1-10+Matthew 22:15-22
In the beginning, when God created humankind in God’s own image, there was an understanding that this was not metaphorical, that it was literal. We are made to look like God, at least according to the authors and compliers of the early scriptures. Through the course of the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the bible, God appears to Adam and Eve, to Abraham in the guise of angelic visitors. Moses has a number of encounters with God, but most of them are not in human form but are instead a burning bush or a pillar of fire or cloud.
By the time the people of Israel are journeying on from Sinai and the giving of the law, Moses is tired and in need of some encouragement. Just before the beginning of our reading today, however, we are told that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). But we still can’t really know what that means, because in the very next part, as we read today, God says that “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (33:20). So, which is it?
This is a riddle to which I have no answer, other than to say that the sources for the Torah become interwoven and even contradictory as you may recall from our discussions of the creation stories of which there are two, not one.
So Moses asks to see God and God complies except to say that Moses cannot see God’s face but only God’s backside. I remember as a child finding that hilarious. In truth, we don’t know how to interpret what God’s glory or goodness look like. They are terms that are left to the imagination but that somehow come to mean “this is the best experience I have ever had, and I know it is God’s presence here.”
Yet when many of us envision God, we think of the white-haired old man sitting on a cloud, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s vision on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And that is unfortunate. Because if you go back to the beginning, humankind was made in God’s image – all of us – and not one of us is the same.
Jesus and his questioners are talking about images, too, but this is a different kind of image. You remember a few weeks ago when Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple, and I explained that the temple tax had to be paid in temple currency? In fact, Roman coins, with their image of Caesar, were not even allowed in the temple precincts because they violated the commandment about graven images. Well, Roman taxes and Roman commerce had to be conducted in Roman currency, and that currency bore the picture of the emperor, Tiberius in Jesus’s time. The Caesar’s were not just human, they were gods, or considered themselves so, and to have their image on coins was to say, “This is mine. It is all mine. And don’t you forget it.”
We are told that the Pharisees and Herodians set out to trick Jesus with this next line of questioning about taxes. It’s really rather bizarre, because the Pharisees were opposed to the empire as were the Herodians, although the Herodians ruled locally on behalf of Rome, so there was some desire to maintain that lucrative set-up. What they are trying to get Jesus to do is either declare paying taxes to Rome wrong, which would absolutely get him arrested by the Roman authorities, or to declare that taxes should be paid, which would anger his more zealous followers and make him look like a hypocrite.
Here’s where the discussion of images is important. Just as the coin with its picture of Tiberius signaled that it belonged to him, our created image in the likeness of God tells us that we belong to God. As Isaiah says, “I have called you by name; you are mine” (43:1). So it is through us that God is revealed in the world because we are the face that God has chosen to show the world. And if in the beginning God created all things and gave us all things to tend as caretakers – not owners, but stewards, caretakers – not only do we belong to God, but everything we have been given, all of creation, also belongs to God.
Dorothy Day, who was a founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once said, “After one has rendered unto God what is God’s, there is nothing left for Caesar.” It’s all God’s. This is why I believe that Jesus’s non-response is actually his own trick, played on his questioners. Sure, give this coin back. It is just a piece of metal. But all of these – the poor, the lame, the outcast, the meek, you, me – these are God’s. This is the real treasure.
It is interesting that this line of Jesus comes around at this time of year when we are launching our annual giving campaign, and if Jesus is saying that it all belongs to God, it would be easy to think that we are to turn it all over to God’s church. But God knows we have materials needs in order to feed and clothe and house ourselves and our families. God wants us to use the gifts we have been given. The biblical tithe, giving of 10% of what we have back to God, isn’t all that God desires from us.
As Frank Logue, bishop of the Diocese of Georgia wrote:
The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.
What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator. Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.
The Apostle Paul opens the First Letter to the Thessalonians like this: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). Work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope are all part of our giving to God, of showing the divine image to the world around us.
When Jesus says to give to God what is God’s, that means one thing: you.