Title: God’s own people
Date: Oct 19, 2008
Author: Tom Lehman
Texts: Psalm 99, Exodus 33:12-23, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Today is the last of nine consecutive Sundays for which the lectionary prescribes passages from the book of Exodus. Quite by coincidence, my sermon in August started the series. We have looked at the birth of Moses, his call to lead the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, the first Passover, the subsistence diet of food & scarce water in the desert, the Ten Commandments, and the casting of a golden calf. Now in Exodus 33:11 we find this astonishing description of the relationship between Moses and God: 11Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” However, by verse 20 the relationship is more remote; God declares that “‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” But when Moses dies he is remembered for “face to face” encounters with God.
We might expect consistency within a Biblical narrative. Here this appears to be a foolish expectation; an Old Testament scholar (Brevard Childs: The Book of Exodus. A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974) thoroughly analyzed the book of Exodus and pointed out that it consists of many short fragments from several sources, so that the editing and even the story being told can change in the span of a very few verses.
Moses and God are in serious conversation. Moses at first admits that he is fearful because God expects him to lead the Israelites into the promised land; they had escaped from Egypt years earlier, and have been shuffling through the desert ever since. Moses is determined to get God’s favor before going ahead, which means that God must be responsible for the outcome. (NIB) The exchange goes like this:
MOSES says: 13Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.
GOD says: My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.
MOSES, unconvinced, replies: If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.
In these few sentences Moses lays down two of the foundational ideas of the Old Testament. First, when he says “Consider too that this nation is your people” he is courting God’s favor by declaring the Israelites to be monotheistic; they recognize and belong exclusively to this one God. Second, when he says “(W)e shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth” he is declaring that the Israelites are God’s chosen people. These two principles – There is but one true God, and we are his chosen people – will define the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, and many observant Jews to this day. Every Friday night in most synagogues these words are recited: “Blessed are You Lord our God…who chose us from among all the nations.”
Monotheism did not come easily to these weary nomads; in the previous chapter Aaron has led an understandably tired population to make a golden calf and worship around it while Moses lingers on Mount Sinai to bring down God’s covenant with the people. The other peoples of the ancient Near East believed in many gods. In declaring allegiance to one God, Moses is ahead of his people; the monotheism that we now take for granted was not fully grasped by the Israelites for centuries.
Psalm 99:1 reads in part “He sits enthroned upon the cherubim.” In its simplest sense, cherubim is the plural of cherub, a sweet-faced, healthy-looking child, usually with wings. However, cherubim are “sometimes regarded as personifications of wind or storm clouds.” (James Waltner, in his commentary on the Psalms). Thus the image here is of God riding stormy weather.
Four times Psalm 99 calls God holy. It has the words “Lord our God” four times; clearly the people belong to God. The Psalm is strongly monotheistic, in contrast to Exodus. One timeline has the earliest Psalms written around 1000 BC, about 350 years after the book of Exodus. Some Psalms were probably written hundreds of years later; monotheism has had some time to consolidate since the Exodus.
Verse 4 of Psalm 99 says of the Lord “you have executed justice and righteousness.” The phrase joins justice, which applies equally in the secular and sacred worlds, with righteousness, a term found mostly in the Bible. However well they may behave, we do not speak of the righteousness of the Attorney General or the righteousness of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Lest you think that every phrase in Psalm 99 is clear, consider verse 8, which speaks of God’s dealings with Moses, Aaron, and Samuel: “(Y)ou were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.” This is contradictory: a forgiving God does not avenge wrongdoing. To put it differently, if God avenges all misdeeds, nothing is left to forgive. Commentators (e.g., James Waltner & New Interpreters Bible) recognize this tension. However, we learn nothing about how God decides when to forgive and when to punish.
The New Interpreters Bible concludes that “(F)or the holy God to be involved with humankind means that God has a problem. (p 1075) That’s more witty than helpful; humans also have problems with humankind. In a fine sermon two weeks ago on the Ten Commandments, Ryan reminded us that “freedom means living in community; it means learning how to live with our neighbors… (O)ver half of the commandments deal with how to faithfully honor one’s neighbors and their property.”
The author of Psalm 99 could be telling us that God’s ways are veiled in paradox and lie beyond human understanding. However, this is out of character with the rest of the Psalm, which is positive and affirming. [Cf. the Paradox entry in Handbook of Christian Theology. World Publishing Company, 1958]
The Psalms are full of parallel lines or parallelisms, i.e., pairs of words or phrases that say the same thing twice; Psalm 99 offers some ready examples:
(v 4) Justice and righteousness
(v 4) Mighty King, lover of justice
(v 5) Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool
(v 7) His decrees and statutes
(v 9) Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain;
In telling us of a forgiving God, also an avenger, the present writer joins two contrasting terms into a riddle. We will see another parallelism in today’s Matthew text, and I will argue that it also presents difficulties, but for an altogether different reason.
Scholars agree that Paul was the first New Testament writer to take up his pen. The first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the first letter he wrote, around the year 50, so that we are entering the earliest book in the NT. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, Revised Edition, 1999, p. 281) In collaboration with Silvanus and Timothy, Paul greets them with grace and peace, and it is at once clear that he is very happy with this early church. They have made a name for themselves by the tremendous reception they gave to Paul’s presentation of the Gospel; the missionary movement is off to a great start.
Several lines in this passage stand out: In v. 4 we learn that the sisters and brothers in Thessalonica are beloved by God, who has chosen them based on their response to the Christian message. This is reinforced in v. 8, where we read “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”
I can hardly imagine a greater compliment to any congregation. The little group, led by the Holy Spirit, dazzled the early Christian world with its powerful response to Paul’s preaching. Though communication was primitive, the word got out.
They also excelled in hospitality (v. 9), one of the great Christian gifts. It is surpassed by the faith, love and hope mentioned in v. 3, but hospitality is essential in building up the church.
In v. 9 we’re told that they had turned from idols, a reminder that the pagan world of the New Testament era continued to believe in many gods. The new Thessalonian believers belonged to the true God.
In our Gospel text from Matthew 22 the Pharisees are trying to undercut Jesus’ teaching authority, so they send their hit squad to ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. If he says it is unlawful to pay taxes he could be charged with sedition, and if he says it is lawful, he is saying that his disciples should pay their dues to an emperor who expects subjects to worship him. Jesus at once senses a trick question, as mischievous as any that are asked of today’s presidential candidates.
Jesus calls them hypocrites, then throws back an answer that leaves them speechless: “19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Stanley Hauerwas, always popular here, describes the common misunderstanding of this parable as follows: “It is assumed that Christians are a people of a double loyalty to God and the state.” (Matthew, Brazos Press, 2006, p 190)
The punch line is a parallelism, and nearly symmetric: Give to the emperor what is his, and to God what is his. We can imagine Jesus gesturing with one hand, then with the other. It sounds like support for equal loyalty to the emperor and to God. Can we really serve two masters, in opposition to Matthew 6:24? Are we supposed to? Understood that way, Jesus’ reply is perfectly misleading; if we note that the emperor is to be given a mere coin, and that in Matthew 10:37 we are even told to love Jesus more than father and mother, we see that the giving of our full lives and energies as we follow Jesus is an incomparably greater obligation than a coin to the emperor. Jesus didn’t say in detail what he thought was due to God, but keep in mind that the questioners came to trip him up, and when Jesus amazed them with a clever answer, they went away.
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective nowhere cites today’s Matthew passage, which surprises me. Perhaps the authors saw no particular use for it. Given the Mennonite reluctance to fall in line with governments, I think it has something to teach us. Belonging to Jesus is serious business, and can quickly put us at odds with the ways of the majority.
1 Peter 2:9-10, written to scattered New Testament believers, reintroduces the concept of a chosen people:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Though we are distant in time and space from the original chosen people, God’s wide-ranging mercy means that we also can claim to be chosen people. As such we belong to God. Belonging means to have the same attitude toward our lives and the people around us throughout the week as we have when we join in worship. Belonging means that everything we do and think is seasoned with our love for God and God’s love for us. Belonging means that we care for God’s creation and are hospitable to all people. Belonging means that we do not live for ourselves, but that we live in accord with God’s will insofar as we can know it. Belonging means that we are committed to building as much of God’s Kingdom as we can on earth.
I certainly have not lived up to the standards just listed. The path toward the Kingdom leads ever upward, and we walk it together. Let us commit ourselves to support and encourage each other on this journey of a lifetime. God has chosen us.