Exodus 33:12-23 and Matthew 22:15-22
We are in the height of the political season with the election just two weeks away. It is appropriate that today’s readings are about the intersection of politics and religion because our American political system has involved from the very beginning an uneasy relationship between political and religious power. Our founding parents resisted any urge to have a state church, although for over 200 years Christianity has been privileged in the USA.
With the coming of religious pluralism, court cases putting belief and unbelief on equal footing, and changing demographics, many Christians are frightened about losing their special status in fact if not in law, and trying to exert undue political influence or connect God and country in ways that exclude persons based on color, sexuality, and gender. Even though the battle will ultimately be lost, they want a return to the old-time religion of white male leadership, putting faith ahead of science and looking for leaders who will promote a Christian exceptionalism.
Today’s readings are about the old-time religion but a very different kind of old-time religion. Moses is seeking, by God’s inspiration, to create a people out of scattered tribes. They are receiving divinely ordained laws around which to create a community, unique in God’s eyes. They have found God’s favor and have a unique calling. Moses desires to ground human law in divine law, and there is nothing inherently wrong with Moses’ desire to base law on human rights and responsibilities to the community, the dignity of humankind, and the value of God’s non-human world.
Yet, Moses comes up against a limit, and that limit is God. He wants God to show him God’s glory. God says “yes,” and gives him a mystical experience, but only a partial view of the Holy. God’s action reminds Moses and us that “you cannot see my face, only my back side. I will always be a mystery. You can’t claim to fully know me, nor can your nation contain or possess me. Your people will catch a glimpse, enough for the journey, but cannot claim full knowledge or act with full power.”
Humility must guide our way in religion and law. Our laws and our politics may lean toward justice and approximate God’s ways, but they always will be imperfect. The spiritual and moral arc of history always is beyond our current achievements.
Our imperfection is good: it reminds us that God is God and we are mortal and prone to ignorance, injustice, and error. No nation can fully achieve God’s will nor can we exclude God’s care from other nations. There is God and there is country, but God and country are never on equal footing.
Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees is about ultimate allegiance[KE1] , although taxes appear to be the issue. “Should we pay taxes to the emperor?” Jesus is asked. It’s a gotcha question because everyone hates the emperor. Romans ruled ruthlessly over occupied Judea. Jesus never lived a day freely nor did he ever vote. “Taxation without representation” applied to Jesus’ time, and his answer would either get him arrested by Rome or mobbed by an angry crowd of resisters.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus says, and the crowd goes away perplexed and amazed. Jesus is saying that beyond Caesar is God, and God not Caesar deserves our ultimate loyalty. We have to live within the laws of our land, but they are fallible, finite, and prone to error. Politicians are prone to think of themselves as godlike, and some even say “only I can solve this.” But they are mortal, limited, and often idolatrous.
There is God and there is country. No follower of Jesus can say “my country right or wrong” or identify their candidate as a savior and damn those who oppose them. No Christian can presume to say, “I love my country” and “they don’t.” Such attitudes endanger democracy, create civil division, and bound on idolatry by connecting our views with God’s.
That was at the heart of Lincoln’s wisdom – I do not pray that God be on our side but that we be on God’s side. That’s what God meant when God said you can only see my back side. Don’t claim to have the full truth, don’t assume you know my intentions, don’t identify your causes with mine, or say your leaders are chosen by me. Be humble, recognize you might be wrong, and look beyond petty and bloviating leaders to the horizons of justice and Shalom.
Let me clear – no one can claim that their candidate is the Christian candidate. But that doesn’t leave us awash. Because the faith of the Hebrews and Christians has biases, it has a moral arc – and from beginning to end, scripture says care for the weak, love and support children, treat strangers with respect, welcome the stranger, make sure everyone has the basics of survival, care for the earth, see the dangers of income inequality, see God’s face in everyone, and be willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
There is a biblical and spiritual moral arc of history, and we can see its backside, and follow along, letting justice roll down like waters, walking humbly, and loving mercy. Then our nation might catch a glimpse of God’s glory, we might see a glimpse of God’s justice and live it out so that our good might be crowned with brotherhood, sisterhood, and personhood from sea to shining sea.