Words on the Word – Sunday 18th October 2020

Lectionary Readings for today, Year A Proper 24:

  • Exodus 33:12-23
  • Psalm 99
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
  • Matthew 22:15-22

These readings can also be read online here.

Exodus 33

Those Israelites! In Chapter 32 we read of their disgraceful behaviour when they begged Aaron to fashion a golden calf so they could worship it while they waited for Moses. We read of Moses’ violent anger, but in this chapter it threatens to get much, much worse.

Up until now, God’s presence has been with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, resting visibly in their midst when they camped, and going on before them when they travelled. God’s presence was the reason for their identity. God’s presence fashioned them out of “nobodies” into “Israelites”. Now they realise that if God deserts them, their very existence hangs in the balance. They could become “nobodies” again and simply vanish into history. “Go on ahead!” says God to the people in v3 of this chapter, “but I will not go with you”. They are crestfallen and mourn bitterly.

Notice too how in their act of mourning they strip themselves of all their jewellery (v6) – the very items which they had previously taken to fashion the golden calf. Strip them off lest we are tempted that way again, they think to themselves. God’s chosen people are about to become a People With No Name. Can Moses help them again?

Moses goes into the Tent of Meeting for a ‘face to face’ meeting with God. What is the state of the Covenant? Is it broken for ever? No, says God, but things will be different now. From here on we have the re-written stone tablets, the renewal of the Covenant (never broken anyway by God, only broken by God’s people) and the establishment of the Tabernacle in place of the Tent of Meeting.

Show me your glory! Moses pleads with God. This is almost blasphemous in itself, for no-one can see God and live. [Yet still this phrase bizarrely makes its way into several of our contemporary worship songs…] God does not respond with more righteous fury, but rather offers a compromise – God’s glory will appear and pass by Moses while Moses has his back turned, so that Moses might live. 1 Kings 19 tells a similar story about Elijah.

The story continues. There will come a time when we shall see God’s glory.

And the name of God’s glory is Jesus (John 1.14). Full of grace and truth.

Psalm 99

This short Psalm serves as a Prologue for Psalm 100, that great Psalm of praise “Be joyful to the Lord, all you lands!”. Why should all the lands be joyful to the Lord? Simply because God is holy, and this Psalm echoes with that loud refrain.

Choose a couple of different translations of this Psalm and note that whichever version we use, this Psalm is filled with great words of power and awe. Obviously it is a commentary on the Exodus narrative, and as with other Psalms, it gives song to the ancient histories of God’s people so that they will never be forgotten.

You can almost hear the unspoken warning – never again must you dare make a golden calf (in whatever form your idolatry may take). God is holy. Bow down before God’s throne – in fact God is so holy, just bow down before God’s footstool.

1 Thessalonians 1

With any of Paul’s letters, it’s good to pause on the opening words. There’s a three part structure, typical of letters at that time:

  • Sender
  • Recipient
  • Greetings

Note that Paul has already started to ‘Christianise’ the opening of this letter, even before he has finished with the greeting. Indeed, sme writers suggest that this greeting never really ends, and is still going in Chapter 3!

The work of threes continues. Paul says that he and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy are:

  • Giving God thanks
  • Remembering the Thessalonians before God
  • Mentioning them in their prayers

before commending the Thessalonians for their

  • Work of faith
  • Labour of love
  • Steadfastness of hope

Faith, hope and love – have we seen that somewhere else?

Matthew 22

Now these Pharisees and Herodians didn’t exactly get along. The Jewish people were under Roman occupation: The Pharisees, being Jewish, hated the Romansl the Herodians; being on Herod’s side, supported the Romans. The only thing they had in common, then, was their hatred of Jesus. So here they are, in a rare moment of agreement, plotting to put to Jesus a question so well crafted that whatever way Jesus replies, they will have grounds for a riot.

The tax to the Emperor was money given to support the Roman Occupation. Not only that, it had to be paid using Roman coinage, which was untouchable to the Jews. If Jesus said it had to be paid, then he would be supporting the Romans (and inciting the Jews against him). If Jesus said it shouldn’t be paid then he would be charged with sedition and have the weight of Rome bearing down on him.

The Roman coin in question, we are told, is a Denarius. It would have had an image of Caesar (most likely Tiberius) with the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Remembering that “Caesar” means the same as “Lord” or “King”, this is saying:

Tiberius is Lord. Tiberius is the Son of God.

Jews would see this as double blasphemy – the graven image and the idolatry. Incidentally, you can see now how seditious it was for Christians to cry:

Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God.

You hypocrites, says Jesus, to the Jews who have been carrying this doubly-blasphemous coin in their robes while accusing others of blasphemy.

Jesus gets straight to the point and once again confounds his opponents. The trap has failed. The coin already belongs to Caesar, so give it back to Caesar. But when you do that, remember that everything of God should be given to God.

It is all the Pharisees and Herodians can do but walk away empty-handed again.

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