Pentecost 20 ~ Negotiating with God

October 22 2017
Exodus 33: 12-23 ~ Psalm 99 ~ Matthew 22:15-32

Whether you call it shameless audacity or chutzpa, Moses certainly pushes the limits in his negotiations with God.  Moses is actually in the middle of an argument with God about what God’s ongoing relationship will look like with this newly formed people of Israel.

Last week, we heard God enter into a covenant relationship with this group of liberated slaves – giving them the 10 commandments and later instructions for a portable tabernacle as signs of God’s dwelling in their midst.

But in a matter of days, the people get into mischief –  the infamous golden calf incident.  God is not amused. And while Moses manages to talk God out of smiting the people, God decides to change the shape of God’s relationship with the people.

From here on I will not travel with you, says God, in case this stiff-necked people do something foolish and I consume themBut neither will I abandon you. I will send an angel to journey with you to the Promised Land.

In other words, God is doing this to protect the people.

But Moses is not satisfied with the new plan, and says something like: You got me / us into this.  These are your people – your responsibility.  You promised to journey with us. And if that’s not going to happen, let’s just stay here. For how will people know that I / we have found favour in your sight, unless you go with us?

Surprisingly God does not smite Moses and actually concedes a little.  But I’ts not enough for Moses and he pushes God until God says, alright Moses, I’ll do as you ask. Which only inspires Moses to push his luck a little further. Show me your glory. Moses asks. But this time God says, No Moses, for no one can see me and live.  But I will let you see my back as I pass by. So often it is only in hindsight that we can see where God’s grace and goodness have been present in our lives. Also, nestled in the text is a wonderful verse, know that I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  In other words, even Moses doesn’t get to control God’s grace and mercy. No one does.

There is so much to ponder about our relationship with God in the story of Moses and the Exodus.  As one writer suggests, the most amazing thing is that the Creator of the whole universe, whose glory fills the heavens, deigns to abide with finite human beings, and enter into authentic divine–human communication. And that’s what prayer is all about- allowing our authentic selves to enter into an honest conversation with God.

Well, it’s a less-than-honest conversation that the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians want to have with Jesus. They are trying to trap him into saying something that will get him into trouble.

They begin by trying to disarm him with some disingenuous flattery and then they ask the loaded question: Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? They know that if Jesus says to pay the tax, the people will not be happy, for it’s both an unpopular and offensive tax imposed by the occupying Roman government. But if he says, Don’t pay the tax, he’ll be in trouble with the Rome. Either way, he will lose.

But Jesus is aware of their malice and calls them on it. And he’s savvy enough to give a rather ambiguous response. Whether he doesn’t have an answer or just wants to make a point, he asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax to Caesar and they bring him a denarius. A denarius is a small silver coin equivalent to a day’s wage for a common labourer. On the face of the coin is the image of the head of Tiberius Caesar with an inscription that implies he is the son of the divine Augustus. Jesus gets them to identify the face and the title on the coin.  21Then he says, Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Now this response could mean “pay the tax” as the coin has Caesars head on it. “It’s of no consequence; God has claim on the rest of you – heart, soul, mind and strength.” Or it could mean – “everything belongs to God; all that we are and all that we have.  So, decide for yourselves what to give to Caesar and what belongs to God.” But people don’t always like making decisions. They would much rather someone else do that so they can grumble and complain without any sense of ownership or responsibility.  And with that, Jesus’ inquisitors walk away.

Earlier this week, my colleagues were in a discussion about why it is good to pay our taxes.  How many of you enjoy paying taxes? As unpopular as taxes are, they help finance such universal benefits as healthcare, education, pensions, roads and garbage pick up.  Health care and education used to ministries of the church. Being a responsible citizen means paying taxes for the good of the whole.  I’m pretty sure God’s okay with that. Now how many of you feel good about paying taxes?

Being in a committed relationship with God means bringing our whole selves into that relationship – not just the polite and passive bits. Real relationships require that we bring our honest, authentic selves into the conversation.  That may mean telling God that we are frustrated and annoyed, feeling guilty and ashamed, or filled with thanksgiving and praise.

Like Moses, we find that we get much more out of this relationship when we are open and honest with God and with ourselves.

Pat Martin +