Proper 24 / Year A
In the name of Jesus Christ, who liberates us from slavery. Amen.
Sometimes we forget who we are and whose we are. We get so wrapped up in the external performances of our resumé, our job title, political affiliation, religious label, and the persona we display in our visible lives, that we forget the astonishing beauty hidden within our interiority, where we discover who we truly are and to whom we truly belong. When Jesus liberates himself from the trap the Pharisees and Herodians set for him in this morning’s Gospel, it is not so much what Jesus says, but the hidden Truth of what Jesus leaves unsaid that reminds us of our true identity. Jesus says,
“Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They 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.”
The power of Jesus’s one-liner is in that hiatus: the missing, implied, rhetorical question that isn’t spoken but which our minds must fill in. Since the image on the denarius is the emperor’s we understand what it means to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, but if we are to understand what it means to give to God the things that are God’s, we have to answer Jesus’s unspoken question: “what or who bears the image of God and therefore belongs to God?” What bursts out of the answer to that question is the Ultimate Truth: everything and everyone who bears the image of God belongs to God, and can never be owned by the emperor. Jesus not only liberates himself from the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ double-bind, he frees us all from the trap of forgetting who we are and whose we are. Let’s go deeper into this Gospel text to understand what this really means.
If Jesus had only said that it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he would have offended the Pharisees and the Jewish poor who were suffering under Roman occupation and burdened by the emperor’s tax; and if Jesus had condemned paying taxes to emperor he would have given the Herodians, who were loyal to Rome, evidence of being a revolutionary rabble-rouser preaching sedition. Instead, Jesus creatively reconciles the binary in their lose/lose double-bind by reminding the Pharisees, the Herodians, and each of us today, that everything that is, seen and unseen, belongs to God and must therefore be given entirely to God. And while he may concede to paying taxes to the emperor, the Ultimate Truth revealed in Jesus’s unspoken question is that “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” including the Pharisees, Herodians, and emperors.
How might this help us to navigate our own double-bind of trying to remain healthy when even the New England Journal of Medicine has denounced this country’s “dangerously incompetent” political leaders who have actively produced the largest public health crisis of our time? How do we remain true to who we are and whose we are when this political crisis and pending judicial endgame threatens to harm the dignity of every human being? When we’re being taxed by daily mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish, what Good News exists? Today’s Lesson from Exodus and today’s Epistle help us to find and to embrace that Truth revealed in today’s Gospel.
After the Israelites have broken their covenant with God by worshipping the idol of a golden calf, God removes God’s presence from these stiff-necked people, and instead offers to send an angel to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey. Well, Moses will have none of that. This morning’s Lectionary text drops us in the middle of Moses’s persuasive argument with God, in which he holds God accountable to caring for God’s people by being fully present with them. In a post-George Floyd world, we come to a new reverence for Exodus people who require the Real Presence of God, not an angel, but God’s presence and God’s presence alone, to heal and to recover from the centuries-deep trauma of slavery as we and they wander through a wilderness of grief, loss, confusion, anger, and pain, searching for true liberty and freedom in a promised land. Moses finally succeeds in reconciling God with God’s people and God says, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then the story gets even more beautiful. We read,
Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” God said, “you cannot see my face.”
Goodness, Graciousness, and Mercy, cannot be imprinted on any emperor’s coin. The Real Presence of God that gives us rest; the Glory, Goodness, Graciousness, and Mercy of God only manifest when we participate in the metanoia proclaimed in this morning’s Epistle. When we turn away from idols and turn back to God; when we turn away from idolizing the images we have made of and for ourselves and turn back to God in whose image all people are made; when we turn away from idolizing our job, our politics, our religious labels, our money, our achievements, and our reputations, and turn back “to serve the living and true God,” that’s when “Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” shows up.
In his posthumous collection of writings, Walking in Wonder, Irish mystic, poet, and philosopher John O’Donohue writes,
When I see predictability and habit and similarity, I am always wondering what is hidden underneath. Or when I see really good people, or really good families, I ask myself, where is the dark stuff hidden here? What is buried under the gleaming surface? Because every image is partial, and most images have a great falsity in them. When you get below the image level to the river of otherness and difference that is in every soul, that is when your eyes fill with wonder. You realize that maybe just for a little second, you are getting a glimpse of another world that is somehow there behind what you thought you knew.
Friends at St. John’s, in you I have glimpsed this “river of otherness and difference that is in every soul.” My eyes fill with wonder when Jesus shows up in the ways each of you is loving and serving God in others. I see what today’s Epistle calls “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” in the encouraging phone calls, voicemails, emails, and text messages; in the greeting cards that arrive in the mail; in each face that turns up on a screen to pray, to study, or to work together. I see another world in which we know who we are and whose we are. When we are sick and tired of being taxed by an emperor whose grotesque image is everywhere, we must remember who we are and whose we are. When we are sick and tired of presenting false, gleaming, surface-level versions of ourselves, we must wade into the deep river of otherness and difference hidden below our images – into the beautiful, dark stuff of our souls where God’s Glory, Goodness, Graciousness, and Mercy flow. When we are tired of feeling lonely, abandoned, and exhausted, we must remember that we are made in the image of God in whose Real Presence we truly belong and in whom we shall always find freedom and rest. I leave you with the timely words of Thomas Merton:
Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.
 Psalm 24:1
 John O’Donohue and John Quinn, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World (New York: Penguin
Random House, 2018), 14.
 Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton On Religious Experience and Social Concerns (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993).