Exodus 33:17-23, Psalm 99, Matthew 22:15-22

October 20, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

I am fascinated by the image of Moses seeing God only in retrospect. Moses had his face covered when God Passed in front of him. A full view of God may be frightening, but the idea has fascinated the human race ever since its appearance on earth. The people of Israel also demanded to see God, because they were tired of hearing God”s plans only through a mouthpiece – Moses. But when they actually were allowed to be in the presence of God, they were terrified of the sight and the sound and begged to be spared of any further frightening experiences. Moses did not see God either. He only heard him. When at last he saw God, it was from behind. It was a rather limited view, you must admit. But it was enough to affirm the direction in which God was going.

Our society operates on the basis of "hindsight". We make choices consistent with past experience, based on known and already visible. It is more comforting that way. We resist change. In physics, this is called inertia. What is stationary tends to remain so and what moves tends to keep moving without changing direction. As a society and individuals we tend towards inertia. This is why we often reject visionary views of the future. We would love to know what future God has laid out for us, but are also terrified to know the truth. As hindsighted creatures, we can only cope with knowing so much. God alone possesses a complete foresight. Yet despite our limits, God keeps us moving forward, nudges us towards a better world, towards the kingdom of God. Our fear of change – of what the future foreseen by God may demand of us – is why we have often disliked and persecuted persons who had some sense of where God was leading.

Jesus was one of those people. He lived in occupied Palestine. When the Pharisees asked Jesus if the Jews should pay taxes to the Roman emperor, they were trying to trap him with a loaded question. If Jesus said Jews should, he was encouraging people to compromise their religion. But if he said they should not, he was inciting tax evasion and inviting wrath of the Roman authorities. For the Jews, it was a problem to use money which had images of the Caesar, because Caesar Augustus had decreed that he was a god. Caesar had claimed divinity in order to make his power absolute. The Jews naturally rejected that, because for them there was only one God: the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. So they showed their rejection of the emperor”s claim for absolute authority by using traditional Jewish coins for their offering to the temple. But the fanatics argued that if they should remain good Jews, they must not use Roman coins even in business and commerce. So the answer Jesus gave was unexpected and ingenious. He told them to live like a good citizen while committing themselves to remain God”s people. This has been the norm of Christians in this world ever since.

To the extent that we are striving to be Christians by coming to church, we are distinctively the people of God, while living in this world just like any other people. We perform civic duties like any other citizens, but we keep our own unique values. We pay taxes and engage in business in the same way as any other persons do, using money with an image of secular authorities on it. But we do not worship that image. And this is the difference; state, business, and money are not absolute for us. In the mean time, we listen to the word of God, and try to live according to God”s merciful and just design. God”s ways are often different from the accepted norms of society. They are often inconvenient, and sometimes downright subversive to the existing customs and norms.

So people who follow the teaching of Jesus Christ seem a bit odd at times. Other times, they look outrageous or like fools. For example, why didn”t Jim Houden who willed so much money to our church, spend more money for his own pleasures before he died? We are surrounded by people, who did strange things like that, because they were Christians. No doubt, Jim Houden loved Howick United Church and its people. And I can understand why. But many ordinary people would not understand him unless they know what it means to follow God”s ways. Many prophets and saints not only were ridiculed by their contemporaries, but also were often badly persecuted. It was because they listened for the voice of God to tell them how things should be. They were ahead of their time; they knew things too early. They had strong sense of God”s foresight long before other people began to see the wisdom in divine visions.

Does this mean we can ignore the conventions and norms of this world in order to live according to God”s scheme? Jesus said, "No." He said that Caesar should receive what he deserved. Jesus said that because he believed that all authorities of this world should follow God”s path, even though they might be far behind God. Jesus did not believe in anarchy, though he believed that things must change according to God”s plans. We must live in this world as ones who know that things should change towards a better world. Yet we must not give up on this world. You must try hard to change it as a person who knows better, as someone who has glimpsed the direction in which God is headed. This is a tension we live with as ones who live in this world but know that there are problems that need solving.

As Christians, all of us live in this world with this tension. We are in the world but not of the world. We must pay taxes and give what is due to the state, but we do not completely belong to any country. Our real citizenship is of the kingdom of God. So we do not worship the image on the coin, even though we perform our civic duties by using that money. We do not believe that secular powers have absolute authority over us.

As people who have a sense of God”s plan for this world, we must constantly strive to move the world forward, towards God”s goals. Even if that glimpse of what lies ahead makes us uncomfortable sometimes. Seeing God only from behind seem like a limited view, but accepting that limit frees us from relying on "hindsight" alone to guide us. It is enough to give us an idea where God is headed – to turn our hindsight into foresight – and keep all the caesar of the world in perspective.

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