The readings are for Year A Proper 24
Does your phone know your face? I find it really freaky when Facebook looks at photos I’ve taken and tells me who is in them. It’s a little worse when it gets it wrong. Recently, Apple brought out an iPhone that uses facial recognition technology to unlock the home screen, as an alternative to the thumbprint technology we’ve only just got used to. But when the phone was launched, at the public demonstration, it failed to recognize its owner and open up. It turned out that so many people had been playing with it behind the scenes, trying to get it to open up for them, that it went into lockdown and refused to play when its actual owner showed his face.
To whom do we belong? To whose face do we respond, and open up? How easily or otherwise are we misled, or overwhelmed, by distractions that do not belong in the place of that face?
The question that the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus is not really about the Roman taxes themselves, and the answer he gives them has very little to do with them. It’s really a question, both sides recognize, about authority, allegiance, and idolatry.
To give some context to this exchange, Jesus is telling parables in the Temple at Jerusalem. Only yesterday, just the day before, he had caused a commotion by turning over tables and spilling the small change of the men turning secular money into currency free from graven images and other signs of corruption; currency more acceptable for the purchase of sacrificial animals, and donations to the upkeep of the Temple.
Coins that celebrated Caesar, with his graven image and the inscription that named him, the emperor god of the Romans, had no place in the house of worship for the one and almighty God. That’s why there were moneychangers.
But when Jesus asked his religious inquirers to pass him a coin of the realm, inside the precincts of the Temple, they had no hesitation. They were carrying.
Jesus’ response to their trick question is to confront them with the reality that they have introduced the image and title of a false god into the house of God. They are asking the wrong question, he implies, asking what it is that is owed to Caesar, and what (remembering where you stand) belongs to God? Here’s a hint: everything. Everything belongs to God; even Caesar himself.
In essence, instead of answering their question he was inviting them to take a good look at themselves, and the compromises they had made in their lives that nibbled away at the “all” with which they meant to love God. It is his old theme, the one with which he began his mission and ministry among them: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
We all make compromises in order to get along in this life. We all have competing demands on our time, our attention, our loyalty and our love. But we have been charged first to love God, with all of our heart, and mind, and strength, and soul; and then to love our neighbours as ourselves. These are the faces that should open us up, unlock our compassion and our humanity. Repentance involves taking stock of the distractions that keep us from true love, and the compromises that diminish our ability to respond to the face of God when it is right in front of us.
Repentance means doing the hard work of recognizing when graven images, which have no place before the throne of God, have been allowed to undermine the work of love.
I can’t help but think of the stories that have come out in the past weeks and months about widespread sexual harassment, abuse, and worse at the hands of powerful men whose faces were recognized everywhere; whose images commanded plenty of currency; who came to believe, one can only imagine, that they were owed whatever they could lay their hands on. Whomever they could lay their hands on. Their crimes are easy enough to recognize, once the story is told; but what about the silence and the whispers that helped to keep their currency flowing? I am not talking about their victims; no one except the one who has endured it knows how hard it is to talk about sexual violence, and no one should undergo the violence of being forced to tell her or his story. But there were others. There were those who were in a position to see the writing on the wall and the hands where they shouldn’t be and who failed to turn the tables, who turned their faces away for the sake of keeping the money moving, or for the sake of their own stock.
[I said a moment ago that no victim of sexual harassment or abuse has to tell her or his story; but I would add that I am available, if you have found the past few weeks triggering. I am not a licensed counsellor, but I am available to listen, and to pray, and to seek alongside you healing grace in the face of God.]
We all make compromises to get by, and we all have competing demands on our loyalty, our time, but we have committed first to love God, with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul; and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Part of our repentance has to be an examination of our complicity in situations, relationships, systems that permit the sacrifice of individuals, even entire groups of people, for the sake of the status quo; for the sake of keeping the money moving; for the sake of our own social currency.
When we see corruption entering the realm that should belong to God – remembering that everything belongs to God – then I pray that we have the courage to turn the tables, to respect and to protect the dignity of every human being, as we have promised in our baptismal covenant; to convert our culture to one that can stand without shame before the throne of God.
If we are not in a position to turn over tables, we can still follow Jesus’ example here, use his questioning technique. It can be as simple as interrupting an off-colour, sexist, racist, homophobic, or demeaning remark with a question: “Excuse me? What did you just say?” Inviting the Pharisees, the Herodians, the hypocrites to own up to the currency they are using; idolatrous coinage that does not belong before the face of God. Of course, first, we had better clean out our own pockets and purses, make sure that the currency we carry is clean.
There is an irony to be admitted in talking about the face of God, when we have just read from Exodus the story in which God refuses to show God’s face to Moses, but only the divine backside. It is a strange enough story to break the tension and restore us to the remembrance that God’s love is not only serious, but that God delights to play with us, in the most divine way; truly to love us. I don’t know how Apple technology would deal with recognizing the back end of God, but it is God’s love that is designed to open us up, to invite us into love, into grace, into mercy. It is the economy of grace that comes to us with Christ’s face, asking nothing in return but that we recognize him, follow him, turn our faces toward him, unfurling our hearts like flowers that open to the sun.