Be Careful What You Ask For

Heritage Presbyterian Church

October 18, 2020
20th Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture readings: Exodus 33: 12-23 and Matthew 22: 15-22

In the short story “The Man Without a Country,” the author tells the fictional story of a soldier who was convicted of treason against the United States during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  According to the story, Philip Nolan was found guilty of participating in Aaron Burr’s famous plot to seize part of the North American Great Southwest for himself and set up an independent country with himself as Emperor.  Nolan was caught up in this plot and helped Burr in many ways.  When the plot was revealed, Burr escaped to Europe and lived as a free man; Nolan was tried in a military court and found guilty.  As he was about to be sentenced, he rashly blurted out, “Curse the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

His outburst shocked the military court to silence.  The judges then left the room to deliberate Nolan’s fate.  When they returned, the chief judge told Nolan that he was going to receive his wish: his order was for Nolan to be kept on-board a Navy ship for the rest of his life and that no one aboard the ship should ever mention the United States to him again.

The short story continues from there as Nolan is at first amused by his sentence, then accepts it, and finally realizes just how much he has lost.  Twice in his lifetime aboard Navy ships, Nolan joined the sailors in battle and defended the country he swore he never wanted to hear of again.  Even when various captains contacted the War Department and requested a pardon based on Nolan’s battle heroics, nothing came of it.

In the end, Nolan dies aboard a ship without ever stepping foot on his former country again.  But in those many years, he realizes how much he still loved the United States; on his deathbed, he was finally told of how the country had grown, who the President was at that time – Abraham Lincoln, and how many states had joined the Union.  

Nolan was not careful what he asked for – yet he got it.

It is a strong lesson, one repeated during our own lifetimes, I would suspect.  It is a lesson that is also reflected in the Bible in many stories.  Two of them appear in our readings for today.

First, in Exodus, God’s servant, Moses, has faithfully served not only the Israelites, but the Lord God as well.  When God’s anger burned against the Israelites for their idol worship of their golden calf, God wanted to wipe them all out.  Moses intervened on their behalf and talked God out of it.  God did not slaughter those still-necked Israelites on that terrible day, but he had Moses lead them in the desert until all the disobedient ones died out.  By the time they reached the Promised Land, Moses had led them faithfully for 40 years. 

In our Old Testament reading, Moses did three things that set up our message for today:

  • First, he asked God to “show me your ways.”  Moses was afraid he would do or say the wrong thing, and he didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize their situation.  God was pleased with this request because it revealed Moses’ heart toward the people of God.
  • Second, Moses asked God to “carry us from here.”  Moses had gone exactly where God had led them so far.  But Moses was not sure what would happen next.  He also didn’t trust the Israelites – don’t blame him for that! – and wanted to make sure they would follow.  God agreed and was pleased again. 
  • Then Moses went a step too far…he asked for more than he should have.  It is easy to suppose that Moses was two-out-of-two so far, and a third request would be no big deal.

Moses asked to see God’s “glory.”  In other words, Moses didn’t want to address a burning bush, a disembodied voice, or even a whisper in his soul.  Moses wanted to see God face-to-face.  Moses was not being careful about what he was asking for.

Moses never considered that to look upon the face of God was to die.  He may not have known that.  He also never gave any thought to this question: What if God’s face was too frightening to behold?  If this were true, then Moses would serve God out of fear – and not out of love and respect.  In the words from a book I consulted, what if Moses looked on the face of God and saw something terrible – not something lovable?  

Moses thought he knew God, his friend.  Perhaps he went too far in that “friendship thinking.”  It was much more important for Moses to fully understand what kind of God Yahweh was, rather than what Yahweh’s face looked like.

Yet God sort-of granted Moses’ request.  He had Moses hide himself in the cleft of a rock and hid Moses’ face with his hand.  Then as God passed by, Moses was allowed to see the back of God.  That was enough, especially following the conversation God and Moses had.

In the end, I think it’s fair to say Moses needed to be more careful what he asked for.

In the second reading, from Matthew’s Gospel, we have a completely different type of reading – but with the same lesson.

Here, the love and respect and trust is completely missing from the relationship between the two primary figures.  Whereas God and Moses worked together for God’s people, Jesus and the Pharisees were at odds from the beginning.

To set the stage again, it is necessary to remind you of what has preceded the conversation Jesus and the Pharisees had over paying taxes.

Jesus and his disciples had entered Jerusalem after three years of ministry, teaching, healings, and miracles throughout Judea and Samaria.  Now they were in Jerusalem and a climactic confrontation was bound to occur.

First, the chief priests and elders questioned Jesus’ authority to even be there, much less say all that he was saying.  

Then Jesus had attacked the money-changers who were set up outside the great Temple and who were making money off the people by charging for converting their foreign currency into “acceptable” coins for the Temple tax; they were also selling various animals to be used for ritual offerings and sacrifices inside the Temple.  Wonder how much they charged for that little “service”…

Jesus had told the crowd three parables that directly accused the religious leaders of failing to lead God’s people properly and respectfully.  There is no “Moses-and-God” relationship going on in the religious leaders…it was a simple matter of control and greed.

Finally, the Pharisees decided to entrap Jesus with his own words.  So they asked him a trick question about paying taxes, which everyone hated.  Our catch phrase “Be careful what you ask for!” should be loudly shouting in our heads at this point.  Even the simplest Christian knows this setting was not going to work out for the Pharisees.

To set up the point of the story even more firmly, Jesus called them “hypocrites” even before he answered their question!  Most of us, in anything similar, might prove the question ridiculous and stupid – and THEN call the questioners names.

But we are not Jesus.  

Jesus requested a coin that was used for the tax.  Let’s stop right here and examine something that might not be so obvious.  And again…let’s remember our catch phrase “be careful what you ask for” as we do this.

First of all, taxes were usually paid using a denarius.  This coin was the equivalent to a day’s wages.  Every common person understood this Roman coin all too well.  It took two denarii just to pay the Temple tax, which was paid to enter the Temple.  It was also used to enrich the religious leaders who were charged with keeping the Temple in good shape.

Next, Jesus had also entered the Temple courtyard and attacked the money-changers; you remember the money-changers, right?  These were the businessmen who would “helpfully” convert any foreign coin into a denarius so that the Temple tax could be properly paid…probably with a small profit in each exchange.  These same people also sold animals that were used in offerings and sacrifices inside the Temple; after all, you couldn’t very well lead your cow or your goat all the way from your home to the Temple so you could make a proper sacrifice to the Lord.  Again…a small profit was charged.  

All this made Jesus furious because it was taking advantage of the people’s faith and practices.

And all because of that little silver coin, a denarius…how appropriate Jesus asked the Pharisees for one to make a point.  And Jesus used a coin with the image of the Roman leader Caesar on it…the emperor of the hated Roman Empire… the powerful leader who’s army brutally controlled Judea and kept them from being an independent country – like they were back in the good old days…how inappropriately appropriate!

Then Jesus tied them all in knots with his answer: “Give to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and give to God those things that are God’s.”  

So much for entrapping Jesus with his own words;

So much for using a coin commonly used on their own behalf;

So much for being careful what you ask Jesus for.

So, our lesson has been reinforced for us in two very different ways.  Let me ask some questions and see if we learned anything:

  • Do we ever ask God for something without truly thinking it all the way through?
  • Do we DEMAND that God do something or give us something without even acknowledging that God has wisdom we can’t even begin to understand?
  • Do we ever go too far in our requests to God, especially when things are going great?!?!
  • Do we plow ahead without thinking about our actions?
  • Do we ever speak without thinking?  (That one really stings me…God, give me more self-control!  I think…)
  • Do we ever pray to the Lord for His guidance?  Do we ask this prayer daily…or only when we can’t think of anything else to try?  Or only when we have messed things up so badly that finally FINALLY we are humbled enough to look to the Lord for help?
  • Are we ever prayerfully careful about we ask for?  Or do we just ask and then wait to see what happens?

I say that following God is a difficult thing.  

Like Moses, we want a clear signal so we won’t mess up.  

Like Jesus, we want a cool answer to an unfair or uncomfortable question – so that we can control the conversation and maybe even look clever.

I am not afraid of questions, nor should you be.

I am sometimes afraid of the answers.  So should you be at times.

Let’s be prayerfully careful what we ask for, and in the mean time – let’s also make sure that our hearts are set on what is best for our families, our friends, our community, our church, and finally ourselves.