- Exodus 33: 12-23
Moses continues to press the Lord, who has given him the responsibility for leading the Lord’s people, to reveal the Lord’s-Self: “let me know Your ways, that I may know You….” The Lord promises that “my presence” will go with Moses and the Lord’s people. Moses wants something more specific: “how, then, will it be known [to Your people and other peoples] that I have found favor in Your eyes…?” Even after the Lord responds, yet again, with assurance of the Lord’s “favor,” Moses persists: “Show me, pray, Your glory.” Instead of direct revelation, which no one could possibly survive, the Lord promises to reveal the Lord’s “goodness-grace-compassion,” but as an alternative experience to direct revelation. Moses should hide in a “crag,” so that when the Lord “passes over” the Lord will “shield” Moses with “My palm until I have passed over.” Then, the Lord will take away the shielding “palm” and Moses will see the Lord’s “back, but My face you will not see.”
- Psalm 99
In vv 1-6, the psalmist calls upon the whole earth to give due regard to God’s Name, which is great, fearful, holy. God’s justice is like an ideal monarch’s. Having painted a picture of the monarch/God enthroned, the psalmist now summons all to bow down to God’s footstool, (which is as close as anyone dare come). In vv 7-9, the psalmist asserts that this God of all people is the same who entered into the history of the chosen in specific, saving ways.
- Isaiah 45: 1-7
God has just ordained Cyrus, King of Persia, as “shepherd,” (44:28). Now Cyrus is called “my anointed” (a “messiah”) as was David. Cyrus is given this sacred role to play by God although “you do not know me.” God is the God of all creation, of “weal and woe,” as well as the God of the chosen. There is no god comparable.
- Psalm 96: 1-9, (10-13)
Patching together well-known fragments from other psalms, the psalmist offers what he calls a “new song” that praises the God who is distinct from all other gods. This God “rescues” all people daily (whether they know it or not), and gives fair justice. This God reigns throughout all nations and throughout all creation.
- Thessalonians 1: 1-10
In the salutation of his letter to the community of believers in Thessaloniki, Paul quickly reviews crucial points in his letter: faith, love and hope are verbs, not just nouns; God has chosen you; we have already proven to you the kind of people we are; your example of turning from idols “to serve a living and true God” inspires others wherever it is told; with us, you wait for the return of God’s son.
- Matthew 22: 15-22
Matthew’s narrative ratchets up the tension between Jesus and the religious establishment by saying they are out to entrap him in public. The highly controversial religious and political topic they raise is whether to pay taxes to the occupying foreign power, the Roman Empire. The Pharisees argue for not paying the tax as an act of resistance, while the Herodians support paying the tax. (King Herod’s tact was to cooperate with the occupiers, to whom he owes his position. This arrangement allowed him to complete rebuilding of the Temple, as well as a few palaces for himself!) Jesus responds with an answer that seems obvious: pay to Caesar what you owe to Caesar and pay to God what you owe God. His would-be entrappers are “amazed” and move away from the crowd around Jesus.
A contrarian streak runs throughout the scriptures. It eludes some of the questions and issues that seem most important to us and, instead, answers questions we had not thought of asking. It uses unorthodox ways to get the results God wants.
When Moses pesters the Lord for some direct revelation, the Lord instead devises a plan that allows Moses only to see God’s “back.” Yet, on this same occasion, the Lord reveals simply, directly and clearly the ways God always reveals God’s-Self: goodness-grace-compassion. The psalmist (99) confirms that what makes God fearfully holy is God’s ideal justice, which extends to all people. Although the dominant theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures is the ways God calls and nurtures God’s chosen, there is this unexpected and disruptive story of God ordaining a pagan king, Cyrus, who does not even know this God or God’s ways, to rescue and restore the chosen people. The psalmist (96) repeats this odd notion that God “rescues” all nations and races and dispenses incomparable “justice” whether they are aware of it or not. Although Jesus has reiterated and intensified the traditional emphasis on justice in the Law and the prophets throughout his public ministry, on an occasion when he could have taken a position on the hottest political question of the day, he instead offered a response that at first seems simplistic, but on reflection seems to open up a much more profound and consequential question: what exactly does it mean to give God what God is due?
Robert Alter, in his splendid translation and commentary on The Five Books of Moses, captures the paradox that God does not reveal God’s-Self to our satisfaction, but does reveal clearly and precisely what we actually need to know and understand succinctly: “God’s intrinsic nature is inaccessible, and perhaps intolerable, to the finite mind of man (sic), but that something of His (sic) attributes– His (sic) ‘goodness’, the directional pitch of His (sic) ethical intentions, the afterglow of the effulgence of His (sic) presence– can be glimpsed by humankind.” (p. 506)
When we ask for direct revelation, we ask the wrong questions. God would singe our physical, emotional and psychological capacities if God were to reveal God’s-Self to humankind. Yet, God is totally transparent about God’s true nature and God’s design for all creation: compassion-grace-justice.
Responding to the latest work of Jean-Luc Marion, Kathryn Tanner distills in a few sentences this story of God’s relentless giving of Self to us over and over despite the rocky relationship and the duty it establishes between human beings. She writes:
“God wants the return of our own love and gratitude to God’s own mission of giving to others; that is the soteriological point of God’s giving to us. Benefiting others is the end and whether God too might be benefited in some attenuated sense of ‘benefit’– our weak chorus of praise drowned in the already fulsome radiance of God’s glory–does nothing to corrupt the motive since God gives regardless. The unconditionality of God’s giving simply means that God gives before any such return on our part, and that God continues to give even when that return fails to be made, for the sake of enabling it.” (Counter-Expereince: On Reading Jean-Luc Marion, p.p 221-222)
Something more must be said about the peculiar incident in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus seems to answer the urgent question of the day, but, on deeper reflection, actually opens a much broader and more profound question which still resonates. Biblical texts are replete with contradictions, reversals and blanks which serve the subversive task of not answering the questions that seem most important to us and in ways we have come to expect. We are told enough to engage our curiosity, but not enough to eliminate doing our own work. Here is a clear example of this heuristic tactic in the scriptures. Biblical texts do not provide facile answers to our topical questions, they provide enough to goad us to work out our own answers, which are under constant critique by the scriptures through our own review and the broader community of believers, who have some stake in our decisions. We will make wrong choices. God tolerates wrong choices, even expects them. But the scriptures always bring us back to the traits God clearly revealed about God’s-Self and are God’s persistent priority for humankind: compassion-grace-justice. That much has been clearly revealed. The rest is up to us.