24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Do you ever find you have been paying attention to the wrong thing?  You know, you put a lot of energy and work and focus and worry and anxiety in to one particular issue, and something happens that broadens your vision or gives you a different understanding of the situation and you suddenly understand your focus was too narrow or possibly even misplaced.  A light example might be worrying about scratches on a car whose engine is about to seize up or whose brakes are failing or that won't even start.

We imagine that in the scene related to us by Matthew this week, Jesus is shaking his head in disbelief and frustration.  He has found himself in another debate with some fellow keepers / interpreters of the law, and they are actually trying to find a way to "trap" him in to saying something that will cause his downfall when he transgresses either the Mosaic law or the Roman law....they had gotten to the point where they did not care which system they tripped him up in, they were just focused on tripping Jesus up.  In this case they were attempting to get him on both accounts to a certain extent.  If he gave an enthusiastic "Yes" toward paying taxes to the emperor, that would raise eyebrows among the Jews because that would mean he was excited / affirming paying taxes to the people they felt were illegally ruling over them.  If he gave an emphatic "No" toward paying taxes to the emperor, that would raise Roman eyebrows because he would be encouraging disobedience to the civil authority (and we all know that it is always a small step from civil disobedience to toppeling a governing authority!).  But Jesus was not drawn in.  In fact, he attempts to show them what a misplaced focus they were bringing up...he reminds them to offer back to the emperor what the emperor gave them--that is such a small portion of life; and offer back to God what God gave them--life itself.  There is no comparison between the two.  Why try?

In Paul, Silvanus and Timothy's letter to the church in Thessalonica we see an example of how folks had changed their focus from things of less consequence to more consequence and this letter was a bit of encouragement and affirmation.  Evidently, when the message of Jesus first came to that area, they were putting all of their faith in, and worship toward, idols; and through the Good News that was shared they turned toward God.  And that Refocusing they went through (which we also read was inspired / sustained / supported by the Holy Spirit) had changed the way they welcomed and interacted with visitors from all over the region.  Because they were aimed in the appropriate direction and focused on the right thing, their whole personality and reputation seems to have changed.

There is an interesting dialogue between Moses and Yahweh, with Moses insisting on seeing God we see a mature, dependent Moses who understood the importance of being in relationship with God.  When we read the whole 33rd chapter of Exodus we see a beautiful example of Moses and God working out their relationship and both of them discerning / discovering what is important to them.  The Exodus passage contains three key words – see, face and know.  See and sight are repeated over and over...it seems that Moses is seeking proof.  And Yahweh isn't offering proof; I am who I am, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, you have found favor in my sight.  It's as if God has lost patience and is offended by Moses’ need for assurance, for proof.  And we also see that, in the end, God relents and (as best as we can interpret from the text) seems to soften and recognize Moses' need for himself and his people to have a more present, more visible, more tangible connection to being the people of God.  Again, from our interpretation, it seems both have recognized the need to not focus on what one thinks the other needs, but instead to listen to what the other actually needs.  It turns out both God and Moses needed to have some commitment shown by the other party involved.  This seems to be a much different relationship with God than we have today....what do you think has changed?

The Psalm is one of focus as well.  It is a praise psalm, honoring God’s mighty power and justice.  It acknowledges God’s faithfulness to Moses and Aaron and Jacob, and recognizes his corrective actions when followers go astray.  It is a psalm that seems to be written by the victor, and the words are ripe with praise for the authority of God’s “kingship,” which may or may not be something we recognize or celebrate today.  It repeatedly calls worshippers to praise a righteous and holy God.

It is hard, we think, to let go of things once they seize our imagination or understanding.  But we also recognize as we read these verses that we are awfully good at missing the point while diligently attending to the Wrong Thing.  Sometimes it is as simple for us as focusing on the low moments of the day instead of the gift of life and the beauty of creation.  Sometimes it is a deep focus on a dividing issue instead of a uniting bond.  If only we could always know when we were headed astray...

  • How do you check in with yourself about your relationship with God, with others, with society, with creation?
  • How are the “right things” revealed to you?
  • What is the focus of your relationship with God?  

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep 
Robert Frost

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be?
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far. 
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep? 

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