Biblical Words 
Israelites wondered how God was present to Moses, and Jesus expected us to distinguish God’s stuff from the Emperor’s.
The Torah reading is a set of reflections on the assurance of God’s presence to Moses—and thus to the Israelites—during the transit from the holy mountain to the promised land.
God’s Presence is speculated on in terms of three daring images: God’s Face, God’s Back, and God’s Name.
God’s Face. Those who shaped Israelite tradition did not hesitate to speak of God in very physical terms, to speak about God’s body. When God promises that his presence will accompany them, he says, literally, “My faces will walk (along with you).” (In Hebrew idiom “face” is plural, probably because we have both a left one and a right one.) When Moses says, “you have not let me know whom you will send with me” (verse 12, NRSV), God’s reply is, “My Face will go and I will give you rest” (verse 14, literal from the Hebrew).
This is a rather daring way of
insisting that Moses truly had access to the great God’s own self. In a later summing up, Moses was the unique
prophet, “whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). Moses’ link with the Holy One was so direct
that God’s own Face was present to him.
This was the basis of
God’s Back. The later part of the reading (verses 18-23) presents an equally physical elaboration on God’s body.
Moses asks to see God’s “glory,” which is a bit like
asking to see God naked! God’s “glory”
can be physically present to the Israelites as a fiery column by night and as a
bright pillar of cloud by day (first introduced into the Torah narrative in
For those speculating in these stories about the divine nature, there is a dilemma here. Just how nakedly can any human actually behold the Most Holy One? Moses may be a unique human and thus have some claim to special divine favor, but there ARE limits! (A very daring visionary treatment of what is inside the cloud of glory is presented in Ezekiel 1:4-28.)
God arranges a compromise. The first principle is firm: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (verse 20). But, God will make his “glory” pass by Moses as he is shielded in a cleft of the rock—further protected by God placing his hand over the cleft at the most intense moments. And just when God has passed, Moses may glimpse God’s back! “…You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (verse 23). Thus the keepers of the traditions understood that some extremely supernatural things were granted to Moses—never to be conceived for later people—but even for him there were boundaries and limits to intimacy with God.
These passages reveal a craving on the part of Israelite sages to conceive God in human terms. They desperately needed to revere a great God who empathized with being human in the world. God’s body was a daring envisionment for them. Only Moses, of course, could have experienced it, but it was terribly important to be assured of the human-like-ness of the Holy One of Sinai.
God’s Name. The great
revelation to Moses did leave behind one lasting feature of the divine
presence: God’s name. God’s name
That the Holy One bears a name that defines God as gracious and
merciful is what
This is one of the theophany psalms proclaiming Yahweh’s Enthronement as King, over-ruling the powers of chaos and establishing order and justice in the world. The other such psalms are 93 and 95-98, each adding its own special touch to the common glorification of the Lord as King.
Here there is a three-fold proclamation of God as holy:
Holy is he! (Verse 3.)
Holy is he! (Verse 5.)
The Lord our God is holy. (Verse 9.)
These declarations divide the psalm into three parts:
Verses 1-3. The Lord is king in POWER. When he is seen enthroned (“on the cherubim,”
that is, on the
Verses 4-5. The Lord is king in JUSTICE. By his appearance he has “established equity” and “righteousness in Jacob.” “Holy is he!”
Verses 6-9. The Lord as king was PRESENT through times past. He was present to Moses, Aaron, and Samuel – exercising judgment, responding to pleas, forgiving them but also punishing wrongdoing. “The Lord our God is holy!”
I Thessalonians 1:1-10.
The Epistle reading is the apostle’s thanksgiving for the Power of God that broke out at the Great Revival in Thessalonica.
…because our message of the gospel
came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit… (verse
This spirited movement among the newly saved Thessalonians was itself the proof that they were the called of God. “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message…came to you…in power…” (verses 4-5).
Clearly some dramatic things happened in Thessalonica the year or so before this letter was written (51 CE). According to Acts, which, as far as it goes, seems to be confirmed by references in the letter, there was lots of uproar caused by the evangelists Paul and Silas. Paul had started his preaching about Jesus as the Messiah in the synagogue, and after three weeks some of the Judeans had accepted his message, but even more people “of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” also joined the new faith, taking it well beyond only Judean circles (Acts 17:4).
Then, however, “the Jews became
jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplace they formed a
mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5).
Jason, one of the prominent citizens who had accepted the faith, was
jailed and then released on bond to keep the peace. The court settlement probably included the
condition that Paul and Silas had to get out of town, and they headed down the
road to cause more trouble in
Paul thanks God constantly that
the Thessalonians have persisted in the faith and have grown in “the work of
faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (verse 3). The message that Paul and Silas brought had
obviously caught fire and was sustaining a growing community of faith in that
capital city of
This very survival and growth was to Paul proof that it was the work of God.
The Gospel reading continues the series of challenges or tests put to
Jesus as he took his stand in the
A little background may be
helpful. Jesus is now in
This census of 6 CE prompted a
resistance movement, initiated by a certain Judas of Galilee. (Judas was from
Josephus described this “fourth philosophy” as follows:
This school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master. (Jewish Antiquities, xviii (23), Loeb Classical Library translation.)
Judas the Galilean, and those of his followers who were around during and after Jesus’ active years, were certainly opposed to paying taxes to Caesar. Thus, if the Pharisees put this question to Jesus it was an explosive one, for at least a minority of the population.
Jesus’ famous answer to the
question was to hold up a Roman denarius—the coin with which the head tax had
to be paid. On this coin was an
engraving of the emperor’s head and a text that identified him as “Caesar
[emperor] Tiberius Augustus.” Jesus
said, “Give … to the emperor [literally to Caesar] the things that are the
emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (verse 21,
In part this is a trick answer. It doesn’t tell you how to distinguish between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s. Deciding what is God’s is especially difficult. If everything is God’s, then Caesar has nothing (presumably this was the Zealots position). On the other hand, what belonged to God also included a tax—a tax that was paid to God (that is, to the priests). Every Judean in the world was obligated to pay this temple tax every year. (Matthew has Jesus agreeing to pay it in -27.) This annual religious tax was, in fact, twice as much as Caesar’s tax.
However, the bottom line of our text is this: Jesus insists that YOU CAN MAKE A DISTINCTION. It IS possible to separate what is owed to the government from what is owed to God. (At the very least, Caesar’s coin belongs to Caesar.)
This is an answer that rejects the revolutionary’s totalitarian platform. At least until God changes the earthly regime by bringing a divine reign to earth, there are worldly taxes to be paid.
The Pharisees, who hoped to force
Jesus to show himself as either a lackey of