Bible Study: 19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A)

October 19, 2014

Charlotte LaForestBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matthew 22:20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23

For several weeks now, our Sunday readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have followed Moses through his time at Sinai. After the incident with the golden calf that we heard about in last week’s readings, the Lord sends the Israelites away from Sinai but says he will not accompany them because of his anger. So Moses goes to intercede for the people, and God, out of a pillar of cloud, speaks to Moses “as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).

In today’s reading, Moses appeals to the closeness of his relationship with the Lord to request the Lord’s presence for the Israelites as they continue their journey. Moses prays boldly, reminding the Lord that he has acted faithfully and found favor in the Lord’s sight, and requests that the Lord, in return, accompany the Israelites. And the Lord agrees. There seems to be a relationship between the boldness with which Moses is able to pray and the intimacy of his relationship with the Lord. This is something we can understand because of our human relationships: We often feel most comfortable speaking openly to those we know best.

Are you able to pray with such boldness? What would it take for you to grow comfortable enough to do so?

The final section of this passage contains Moses’ demand to the Lord, “Show me your glory.” Again, this is a bold request. The Lord grants the request, but has specific requirements and does not allow Moses to see his face, only his back. This is a reminder that, despite the intimacy of Moses’ relationship with the Lord, there is still mystery and beauty that is beyond human capacity to comprehend. This glorious, mysterious God who will lead an entire nation is the same God whom we find and speak to in quiet places.

Which of these understandings of God do you find yourself drawn to? What is it like if you try engaging with God in a new way – as a friend, if his glory and mystery have been more comfortable in the past; and vice versa?

Psalm 99

This psalm is a song of praise to God, part of the group of royal psalms that celebrate different aspects of the sovereignty of God. The emphasis in Psalm 99 is on God’s justice and faithfulness throughout history. The psalm recites the Lord’s works throughout history, the Lord’s justice revealed to Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Samuel.

One surprising element in the psalm is a celebration of God’s punishment in verse 8. We may not normally think of punishment as something praiseworthy, yet when paired with forgiveness as it is in the psalm, it is a component of a properly working system of justice. However, as Christians, a discussion of punishment transitions very quickly to one of mercy and grace. We do not experience God’s punishment for our evil deeds, even when punishment would be a just response, because the punishment was already meted out when Christ died on the cross. Our obedience and faithfulness to God is no longer offered out of fear of punishment, but is a response in deep gratitude for God’s grace.

Are there times when you find yourself living in fear of God’s punishment instead of acting in response to God’s grace?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This passage is the beginning of the letter to the Thessalonians, bearing greetings from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, all of whom founded the church in this place. These verses praise the faith of the Thessalonian Christians and the example they have set for those around them. The Spirit is present and active among the church in Thessalonica despite the persecution they have endured. Paul writes, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you,” and this is not just a function of preaching, but due to the example they have set in their lives.

The form of Christian witness that the Thessalonians are embodying reminds me of the quote commonly attributed (though not actually traceable) to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always! When necessary, use words.” This quote and the text from Thessalonians speak to the message of the gospel as revealed in the lives of the faithful. This is not just about being well behaved, but embodying the hope, peace and joy of the truth of the resurrected Christ. People aren’t affected or persuaded just because they see someone who follows rules really well. But an encounter with someone who has been radically transformed by the saving love of Christ – that’s something people notice and want to know more about!

What will people notice about their faith when they meet you? Will they see the gospel in your life?

Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Pharisees are plotting, hoping for an excuse to have him arrested. In this particular plot, they are hoping to trap him by asking him a question they think has only two answers: one that will upset religious leaders, and one that will upset the Roman political authority. Jesus uses the example of the coin to make his point to the Pharisees, showing that the coin bears the image of the Emperor and thus should be given up to the Emperor. He provides an unexpected answer that escapes the Pharisees machinations by failing to offend either party.

The fact that this reading has to do with money and appears in the lectionary in October (stewardship season for many parishes) means that it has frequently served as a quick segue into a discussion about financial giving to the church. But instead of looking to the timing of the lectionary, if we look to the timing of the story itself, it takes on an entirely different meaning. This exchange takes place during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. With this in mind, Jesus’s point that the coin with the visible image of the Emperor should be offered back to the Emperor takes on additional meaning. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (cf. Colossians 1:15), then this passage also serves to foreshadow Jesus’ offering himself as a sacrifice to God, an event that would take place just a few days later.

Jesus was willing to offer everything to God, including his very life, for the benefit of others. Of the gifts God has given you, which are you willing to offer to God for the benefit of God’s people?

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