On a first hearing, this story from Exodus might seem a bit quaint if not a little myth-like. Moses has asked to see the glory of God; to look upon the holiness of God with his very eyes. This, of course, has been the challenge for the freed Hebrew slaves all along. They want to see this God that Moses has been telling them about; they want to be able to lay hold of God in the same tangible ways that other nations could see and touch their carved statues and cast idols. And now Moses, who up to this point has been pretty darned good about resisting that particular temptation, makes his request.
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And the Lord said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, the Lord said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’
And so Moses is tucked into a cleft of the rock, his eyes covered. As God passes by, the hand will be lifted from Moses’ face, “and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” You can almost picture it, right? As God races by and uncovers Moses’ face, he turns his head to get just a glimpse of the divine shoulder blades… if there seems something comic about that, well, maybe there is.
And yet… the Jewish imagination that produced these texts and all that underlies them was clearly pre-modern—ancient—but it wasn’t primitive or unsophisticated. What has been rolling forward since the story of Moses encountering God in the experience of the burning bush is a series of ongoing unveilings; a deepening of understanding of what it means to be human in the presence of the divine. That is very much there in that first experience when Moses learns that he is in the presence of “the God of your ancestors,” which points to the past, but also in the presence of the one named YHWH; in Hebrew an elusive word that means “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be” or even “I Will be There.” Not simply the God of the past, but of the unfolding future.
This understanding deepens with the giving of the Commandments in the Sinai wilderness, which begin with the proclamation “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” and then says that you can’t carve this God into an idol or turn the divine name into a source of power by invoking it for vain purposes.
As Exodus rolls forward, there is an even more definitive statement of the “where” of this God: “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live among them.” (Exodus 29:46) Not, mind you, in any carved or graven form, yet still in their very midst. This is a highly sophisticated theological and spiritual move that these freed slaves are being called to make; a whole new thing, in fact.
And then here in this text there’s a sense that Moses still needs some kind of a reassurance. The opening section we read had Moses really pressing on God: “you must go with us,” he says, which is something God has already promised of course. And then that request to look upon the glory of God with his very eyes, to which the Lord says, Moses, you can’t look upon my face; for no one shall see me and be able to survive.
I like to think that what the text is dealing with here is the struggle of a leader—a great leader at that—to shift the paradigm from the old to the new. Moses has done remarkably well up to this point, even arguing with God on behalf of the people when they failed. He’s been able to adjust to this new spiritual paradigm in which his whole interaction has been with a holy presence with an elusive name, but now for whatever reason it seems he needs to see something. Okay buddy, I’ll meet you halfway… but seriously, you do not want to look upon my face.
But why not? There’s a strong sense in the Hebrew scriptures that the face of God must be so pure and so holy that to look upon it would turn any one of us to dust; that’s there, for sure. But I also think that there’s an insight in there that says, basically, were you to see the face of God you would want to record it or preserve it, and before you knew it you’d have a bronze statue in hand that you’d be calling your god, dancing around it, offering it blood sacrifice, and carrying it into battle as a source of power. I’m not going to let you fall into that trap.
Now think about the gospel reading for a minute, with its famous line “Give therefore to the Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” I’ve heard that line used again and again to try to say, “see, the church has no business messing in politics; keep the spiritual matters of the church separate from the political matters of the state.” In fact about twenty-five years ago I was chairing something called the Public Social Responsibility Commission for the diocese looking at things like food justice and homelessness, and I received a letter from a local politician telling me that our commission was out of order because Jesus had said “give to the Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s.” It was a bit chilling for an enthusiastic young priest.
But no, this exchange is not actually about neatly dividing the spiritual from the social and political, but actually a fairly powerful statement about politics and idolatry. It begins with the statement about how “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus,” adding that they sent their people to him, along with the Herodians,” which says right there that we’re dealing with politics. The Herodians were those Jews who were supportive of Herod and of the sort of alliance he’d built with the Roman Empire; something not shared with the Pharisees. Yet they come together, their only commonality the desire to discredit Jesus. That’s a political move, and it is a political question they ask about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar.
Well, Jesus sees through that—he’s clearly very good at this business of debate and entrapment—and asks them to show him the coin they’d use for the tax; a denarius. And you know what is on that coin? Not just the face of the emperor, but the words “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus,” with the title Pontifex Maximus or “high priest” stamped on the other. Now we’re dealing with idolatry, and a very political and very violent idolatry at that.
Give the debased stuff back to Caesar, with his claims that he is the son of a god and a high priest. Go ahead, give Tiberius Caesar his money. He’ll fade away, his empire will eventually collapse; they always do. Just give to God what is God’s… which, given Jesus’ thoroughly Jewish way of seeing things, meant give your everything to God, for God is the source of everything good and true and real and lasting. The empire is none of those things, and will not last. This is very much in line with the earliest statement of belief of the ancient church: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord, which always comes with a silent echo that says, “and Caesar is not.”
And here’s the tie back to that peculiar story from Exodus, in which Moses—tucked in the cleft of the rock—could look only at the divine back, and not upon the face of God. In Jesus—the very image of the unseen God—they had finally looked upon the unveiled face of God. They’d seen a very human face; they’d seen one who was with them, as surely as had been promised in that ancient name YHWH; “I will be there.” And he was there, in a way so different from the violence and the power politics of Caesar; in servanthood, restoration, healing, and self-giving love. And he is there, through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit; always there with us. Here with us. Even in those darkest days when it can be hard to grasp, always with us.