Friday, September 23, 2011

Proper 24 Year A

Proper 24 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 33: 12-23; Psalm 99


Isaiah 45: 1-7; Psalm, 96: 1-9 (10-13)

Thessalonians 1: 1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22

Moses continues to press the Lord, who has given him the responsibility for leading the Lord's people, to reveal the Lord's-Self--"let me know Your ways, that I may know You...," Moses implores.  The Lord promises that "My presence" will go with Moses and the Lord's people.  Moses wants something more specific: "how, then, will it be known [to Your people and other peoples]  that I have found favor in Your eyes...?"  Even after the Lord responds, yet again, with assurance of the Lord's "favor," Moses persists: "Show me, pray, Your glory."  Instead of direct revelation, which no one could survive anyway, the Lord promises to reveal the Lord's "goodness-grace-compassion."  The Lord offers an alternative experience.  Moses should hide in a "crag," so that when the Lord "passes over" the Lord will "shield" Moses with "My palm until I have passed over."  Then, the Lord will take away the shielding "palm" and Moses will see the Lord's "back, but My face you will not see."

In vv 1-6, the psalmist calls upon the whole earth to give due regard to God's Name, which is great, fearful, holy. God's justice is like an ideal monarch's. Having painted a picture of the monarch/God enthroned, he now summons all to bow down to God's footstool (as close as one dare come). In vv 7-9, the psalmist asserts that this God of all people is the same who entered into the history of the chosen in specific, saving ways.


God has just ordained Cyrus, King of Persia, as "shepherd," (44:28). Now Cyrus is called "my
anointed" (a "messiah") as was David. Cyrus is given this sacred role to play by God although " you do not know me." God is the God of all creation, of "weal and woe," as well as of the chosen. There is no God comparable.

Patching together well-known fragments from other psalms, the psalmist offers what he calls a "new song" that praises the God distinct from all other gods. This God "rescues" all
people daily (whether they know it or not), and gives fair justice. This God reigns throughout all nations and throughout all creation.

In the
salutation of his letter to the congregation in Thessaloniki, Paul quickly reviews crucial points: faith, love and hope are verbs; God has chosen you; we have already proven to you the kind of people we are; your example of turning from idols "to serve a living and true God" inspires others wherever it is told; with us, you wait for the return of God's son.

Matthew ratchets up the tension between Jesus and the
Jewish leaders by saying they are out to entrap him in public. The political/religious lightning rod is a tax imposed by the occupying Romans on the Jews. The Pharisees promote not paying the tax as a act of resistance, while the Herodians support paying the tax. (Herod's tact is to cooperate with the occupiers. It's how he rebuilt the Temple, after all, not to mention several palaces for himself as well!) On the surface, Jesus' answer seems obvious: pay to Caesar what you owe to Caesar and pay to God what you owe to God. But has he responded to their issues? His would-be entrappers are "amazed" and move away from the crowd around Jesus.

A subversive streak runs throughout the biblical narratives. At one point we were told Moses talked to God "face to face" (Exodus 33:11) and then immediately told no one sees God and lives. The dominant theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures is God's relationship with the chosen, but then God relies on a pagan superpower, Persia, and its King, Cyrus, to rescue and restore the chosen, even though Cyrus does not even know God. Throughout his entire teaching and in unforgettable dramatic daily demonstrations, Jesus continues and intensifies the insistence of the Law and the prophets on justice, but when it comes to application of the Law to the most important religious/political question of the day, he will not take sides.

We cannot not pin God down. God's ways are not our ways is a truism about which we must remind ourselves again and again.  Yet, we can "know" God reliably.  In Robert Alter's splendid translation and commentary on
The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), the professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkley, writes about today's appointed first excerpt from  the Hebrew Scriptures:  "God's intrinsic nature is inaccessible, and perhaps intolerable, to the finite mind of man (sic), but that something of His (sic) attributes-- His (sic) 'goodness,' the directional pitch of His (sic) ethical intentions, the afterglow of the effulgence of His (sic) presence-- can be glimpsed by humankind." (p. 506)

Still God takes the initiative to bridge this gap with sometimes dazzling and sometimes mundane traces of infinite "goodness-grace-compassion." Despite occasional brief successes in bridging this gap, there is also disappointment, confusion and flat out rejection on our part. But God tries repeatedly.

Responding to the latest work of Jean Luc Marion, Kathryn Tanner distills in a few sentences this story of God's giving of Self to us over and over. She writes: "God wants the return of our own love and gratitude and devotion to God's own mission of giving to others; that is the soteriological point of God's giving to us. Benefiting others is the end and whether God too might be benefited in some attenuated sense of 'benefit'-- our weak chorus of praise drowned in the already fulsome radiance of God's glory-- does nothing to corrupt the motive since God gives regardless. The unconditionally of God's giving simply means that God gives before any such return on our part, and that God continues to give even when that return fails to be made. indeed even if any such return were never to be made, for the sake of enabling it." (
Counter-Experience: Reading Jean-Luc Marion, pp 221-222)

God uses what ever means God chooses, orthodox and unorthodox. It is equally true that we can and cannot see God; we get a glimpse-- God's glory "passes by"-- but we never fully see or understand because God's purposes are beyond understanding and only appear to us as extravagant, wild, unstoppable, senseless love, especially given our clueless responses.

Jesus chooses not to take sides in the issues that are so urgent to us at any given time because God has bigger fish to fry; God's interests lie with the whole world, those who know God and those who do not, those who acknowledge that God "rescues" each day and those who do not, those on both sides of our prejudices, the "weal ( well-being) and the woe," given your personal interests and perspective.

But there is another interpretation of Jesus' not taking sides-- and it is very important. The biblical narratives are jagged with "contradictions" and blanks left not filled in to our satisfaction to preserve its "subversive" task. Here the
heuristic method in the biblical narratives becomes clear. We are told enough to engage our own moral responsibilities but God does not settle them on our schedule and to fit our needs. The biblical narratives do not offer facile settlements to our burning issues, rather they goad us to a deeper place to struggle and arrive at our best response, open to review by the community of believers and others who have a stake in our decisions, and, therefore, open to change. God tolerates wrong choices, even expects them. But God becomes impatient with short-cuts we devise to avoid the moral struggle that is at the core of the human experience.