Signpost for Sunday 22 October, 2017: Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thess 1.1-10; Matt 22.15-22.
The face of God is a very difficult proposition. The Roman Emperors claimed some sort of divinity, and their images were on the coins they issued. There were other symbols on them that point in that direction.
But strict Jews hated images. They were not allowed by the commandments. And the face of God was so terrifying that even Moses shrank from the possibility of looking on it. So the images of Caesar were hated on religious grounds. And that made paying tax difficult. There were some coins that did not bear such images, and which were acceptable for tax-paying as well as for contributions to the Temple. So you could exchange your common coins for these – at a premium for the money-changers, of course.
The Romans understood some of these things, and they did not insist on the Jews worshipping Caesar as a God, as long as they paid their taxes. They liked peaceful client states!
The Pharisees kept the Law. They rejoiced to do so. They did it as both duty and delight. They interpreted the Law to fit every new situation. A rabbi is, and was, more a Law-applier than a preacher as the Church understands it. Applying the Law so strictly cut them off from a lot of other aspects of life, as today’s Exclusive Brethren are cut off.
The Herodians were less religious and more political. They sought what was practical in society. They supported the Herodian Family of rulers, and tended to copy Roman and Greek ways, even to becoming athletes at times. For some of them, Herod was the Messiah.
Pharisees and Herodians gang up on Jesus with this question. If he goes one way, with the Pharisees, the Romans will regard him with great suspicion. On the other hand, the Herodian answer will turn the crowds against him.
There is a third party in the background, the Zealots. They do not enter into this conversation. They were more terrorists than teachers. For the Herodians, violence would be biting the hand that feeds them; for the Pharisees, it would be a lack of faith in the God who alone could deliver Israel.
The central problem is one of images. We think in images. We see God in terms of a (super-) human being. The long white beard has not yet disappeared from our minds and our traditional art. Why do Western Missions in India portray Jesus as a blond? At least we can see a Maori Jesus “walking on the water” in the window of St Faith’s Ohinemutu! But perhaps we are happier thinking about the parables because they do not force us to image God.
What accommodations do we make to the political life? Do we curse our opponents, or hate those who vote differently? Do we object to paying taxes – or rates? These readings speak to today.