Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Donna G. Joy

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

As I read and reflect on our readings this morning, I am particularly drawn into our first reading from the Book of Exodus, along with our Gospel reading from Matthew. Through these readings I am primarily challenged by the question: what is it that I worship the most. What is it I worship first and foremost, and beyond all else.

Our first reading occurs just after the Golden calf incident and therefore offers some significant wisdom as a result of it. And when I refer to the ‘Golden calf incident’ I am, of course, referring to that very dark moment in Israel’s history where the people become frightened and impatient while Moses is away for a prolonged period of time. This is particularly sad because its not like Moses is away somewhere on a cruise; he is, instead, on the top of a mountain, receiving from God his commandment and his covenant for the people.

But sadder still, is that – in Moses’ absence – the people turn away from God and toward something else to worship; toward something else to sustain them. So they pressure Aaron, the one looking out for them in Moses’ absence, to find them a God they can see, and in his weakness he complies: he collects all the gold he can find, melts it all down, and fashions a golden calf. Then, he builds an altar for the worship of the calf-idol and announces a festival. And, of course, when Moses returns he is enraged. He smashes the tablets of the law, which symbolizes the way in which the peoples’ relationship with God has been fractured. And he destroys the calf, grinds the gold to powder, scatters it on water, and makes the people drink it. This is like the later punishment for adultery: Israel has betrayed God, her husband, and must drink ‘the waters of bitterness.’

So, in response to their feelings of separation from Moses, their leader – as well as their God – they turn their attachment to something else. I wonder if this resonates with anything we – ourselves – have experienced. I wonder if we know that sense of what feels like God’s absence; that sense that no matter how hard we’ve reached out for it, we couldn’t find it? I wonder if we can identify those things we turn to at such times. When times of stress or fear or boredom or crisis come, and God seems/feels far away, what is it that we turn to? Because the truth about each of us is that we all have a golden calf; or most likely: a few. Self medicating is a type of golden calf because we are choosing to turn to something that will temporarily give us a sense of comfort, rather than the God who promises to sustain us – always – with a much deeper sense of comfort. Other golden calves are shopping, luxuries, certain lifestyles… Anything that takes priority over the God who creates and sustains us is a golden calf.

Last week at our soup lunch, our Pastor of Stewardship was pointing this out, as he reminded us that everything we have has been given to us through the abundance of God’s grace, and as we receive all the gifts we’ve been given, we are called to respond generously by giving back to God our time, talents, and treasures. Everything that takes priority, first and foremost, over our support of the ministries of the church, could be defined as golden calves.

As Moses responds to this ‘Golden calf incident,’ his relationship with God grows and becomes increasingly intimate, so together they discern a way forward with these wayward people; as they discern ways to help the people dismantle their perceived need for this golden calf. It is made clear that Moses’ leadership in this important task can be effective only when God is ever-present, and partnering with Moses in ways that are visible to the people. And all this is the context in which this morning’s reading takes place.

Now that it has been made abundantly clear that with God’s covenant, the people must worship God and only God; in times of trial and trouble, as well as those ordinary times when things are moving forward a little more smoothly, they must worship and rely on God and only God… Now that all this has been made abundantly clear, we are given some clues about what this arrangement might look like. Here we discover that Moses asks God to tell him how He will help him lead God’s people to the Promised Land. Moses quotes God as saying, “I’ve known you” and “You have found favour in my eyes,” but he indicates that he cannot really know God and find favour with God unless God informs him what His way will be. So, it is becoming increasingly clear that Moses has been called by God to lead the people into freedom (freedom from the golden calves); Moses and God’s people will be sustained through this challenging responsibility through – and only through – faithfulness and intimacy with God. This intimacy begins between God and Moses, and spreads out to the people.

As we look at the story of Moses’ life, we see him becoming increasingly close with God. For example, earlier in the episode of the water from the rock, God stands on the crag of Horeb, while Moses stands opposite. But now Moses stands on the crag with God. So… Through thick and thin, the people are called to worship no other Gods but the God of Israel, and God promises to be ever-present throughout this journey. Moses, in his deep desire to find true intimacy with God, asks if he may be allowed to actually see God, and although it becomes clear that this request is impossible, God does develop a creative plan so that Moses may at least catch a glimpse. We have since discovered, 2,000 years ago, that God eventually did choose to show himself to humankind when he sent Jesus who is the perfect image of God in human life. All of God’s nature and personality is found and experienced in him.

And this brings us to our Gospel reading which addresses the question: Where are our primary loyalties to be placed? This story begins with a group of Pharisees presenting Jesus with a question that is intended to trick him; put him in a position where he is between a rock and a hard place. No matter how he responds, the consequences are likely to back Jesus into a corner. The question is: Tell us Jesus. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

So, why is this a trick question? Well, the issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus’ day. N.T. Wright makes the point: Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched in to your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen! As we ponder this, we are reminded of a certain, devastating piece of our own Canadian history. That sort of thing still causes riots and revolutions, and it had done just that when Jesus was growing up in Galilee.

A popular Jewish leader when Jesus was a boy, had led a revolt precisely on this issue. The Romans had crushed it mercilessly, leaving crosses around the countryside, with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying the tax was compulsory, not optional. So, in asking this question, the Pharisees know full well that if Jesus tells people that they should not pay this tax, he might very well end up on a cross. At the same time, of course, anyone leading a kingdom-of-God movement, as was Jesus, would be expected to oppose the tax, or face the ridicule and resentment of the people. One would think that the whole point of God becoming king was that Caesar would not.

So, as you can see, Jesus really is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s damned by the Romans if he says don’t pay the tax; and he’s damned by his followers if he instructs them to pay it.

But before jumping into an immediate answer, Jesus asks them for a coin, and this proves to be a clever, strategic move that cuts through a simple answer which favours one response or the other. I say this, because when they produce the particular coin that was used to pay the tax, they are showing that they themselves are in possession of the hated currency. When Jesus asks for a coin, he also asks, “Whose head (image) is this, and whose title?” And the coin, of course, bears Caesar’s image, and belongs to Caesar.

Humans, on the other hand, bear the image of God.

So we have, on the one hand, this coin which bears the image of Caesar who represents unjust power and control (a golden calf image for some), and on the other hand all these people, who bear the image of God. These people may pay the infamous poll tax, but they do not belong to the emperor. They themselves belong to God. The declaration of that ultimate belonging has powerful implications. It is made clear here, that God and Caesar are NOT equals; nor are they symbolic names for separate realms. If so, we could be led to understand that the emperor has his realm in which ultimate allegiance can be demanded, and God is relegated to another, different realm. But quite the opposite is inferred in this text.

Humans bear God’s image, and wherever they live and operate – whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm – they belong to God. Our primary loyalties do not switch when we move out of church and into the voting booth on election day. Read this way, contrary to a common interpretation of this text, it does not solve the question of church and state. But it does set allegiances into an ultimate and penultimate order. This text offers a profound reminder that not only we, but all God’s children, bear the divine image of, and therefore belong to, God. So…

The partnering of these two readings suggests that our allegiance is always first to God. No golden calves. No vices that turn us away from God. When the going gets tough, we turn to God through Jesus, and we are sustained by/through the Holy Spirit. When the going gets tough, we turn to God for sustenance and strength, rather than the many golden calves of our time. And, during the ordinary times in our lives when things are relatively calm, we are called to be steeped and informed by our worship of this triune God, so that everything we are and everything we do is informed and nurtured by that one true source. And with Jesus’ arrival, we get to see this God face to face… finally. What Moses asked for, we have finally been given. And Jesus offers the reminder that through him – through the Sacrament of Baptism - we are stamped with the image of God, and we must always turn to him first.

In a world where there is such a strong tendency to turn to any number of golden calves, I pray that we may remain faithful in turning to God. In a world where we are encouraged to place our loyalties to Jesus after our loyalties to so many others, I pray that we may recognize we bear the image of God, so that nothing is ever more important than our allegiance to God through Jesus, and sustained by the Holy Spirit.