Sunday, October 19, 2014


MATTHEW 22:15-22
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?“ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

So there’s this theory that suggests that animals are physiologically set up to react in basically one of two ways when they feel threatened. It’s call the “fight or flight” response. Scientists argue that there is a release of hormones that happens when we feel we are being backed into a corner. We’ll either fight back - we’ll snarl and bark and gnash our teeth and attack. Or we’ll run away.

But in my case, I do neither. When someone is attacking me or judging me or criticizing something that I’m doing or have done, I tend to just stay right where I am. And then I cry. I can’t help it. Tears. I will do everything I can to hold them in. I’ll pinch my arm. Hard. I’ll avoid eye contact. I’ll scrunch up my toes as tight as I can inside my shoes. I’ll get mad. But inevitably, the faucet turns on, and the tears start spewing out. And the madder I get, the more tears come. And then I get mad because I’ve let myself cry. I’ve let myself show my vulnerability in front of someone who is attacking me. 

When we feel stuck, we fight. Or we run away. Or, in my case, I cry.

That feeling of “stuckness” is so overwhelming. It’s when we feel like we’ve been forced into a corner, like there is no acceptable way out of the situation, that all roads lead to a dead end, and that whatever we choose is going to be a disaster. We feel stuck when we feel like we have no choices. When any choice we make will ruin us, one way or another.

I think we feel like this so often. As a mom, I feel this way when I’m at work, because I want to be at home with my kids. And then I feel this way at home, because I want to be and do “more” than wipe dirty bottoms and scrub peanut butter out of the couch cushions. Stuck. I feel this way about our work situation, where if Dan gets a job that will actually be able to support us, it will almost definitely take us out of Pittsburgh, where my heart is, where our support system is, where I have finally learned how to get to the Target without getting lost. But if we stay in Pittsburgh, where I long to stay, where I feel like home is, we’ll never get out of our tiny house, we’ll never pay back the in-laws, we’ll never be able to be all grown up and on our own. Stuck. 

I belong to this online mom’s group. Just the other day, a desperate mom expressed that she was in crisis. She just got a job that pays minimum wage, working four hours a week to try to ease up the financial strain on her family, and now she earns something like $10 over the minimum and her family has been kicked off food stamps. And yet she can’t afford food.  And then the page filled with echoes of her story. Story after story of being punished for trying to do the right thing. Story after story of folks who are trying to get back on their feet, but who actually end up getting punished for getting a job. They feel so stuck.

Or so many of my homeless neighbors who come to the Table. One woman doesn’t have her birth certificate because she was born in Chile, but has American parents. And because of this she can’t get any help, no aid, no social security benefits, no health care. She just told me that the cops have threatened to arrest her if she lies down in any of her usual places, so now she says, she just sleeps standing up, wherever she can. She has this crazed look in her eye, like a bird in a cage.  Stuck.

So often we can’t see a way out of our situation.
We feel alone.
We feel threatened. 
We feel stuck.

And so we fight.
Or we run away.
Or we just crumble into a pile and cry.

How do we choose what to do when we’re so stuck? When no option is a good option?

Will we pay for our prescriptions or for food?
Will we vote for that corrupt politician or the other one?
Will we enter in to yet another war in the Middle East even though we just got out of one that lasted ten years?
Will we ground all flights in Africa, paralyzing their economic and social systems, causing more Africa deaths in order to protect ourselves from Ebola? Or will we put our troops at risk by placing them in Africa in order to save lives and attempt to stop the virus in its tracks?
Will we respond to acts of violence with more violence? Or will we just stand there and let them take our girls or hurt our families and destroy our communities?
Will we take care of ourselves? Or will we sacrifice our health or our sanity for someone or something else?
Will we stay in this broken relationship for the sake of our kids, or for our financial stability? Or will we end it, giving up all that we have worked for?


When we are between a rock and a hard place, do we fight it out? Do we run away? Do we cry?

When we are stuck, we feel like we have no good choices.

We are Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the mountain for the rest of forever. Only to find that when we reach the top, the rock falls back down, and we have to start all over again.

And this is the situation that Jesus is in in our reading today.
And the Pharisees and Herodians have put him in that position.
They want to back Jesus into a corner. They want to make him feel stuck.

That way, if he fights, they can arrest him. If he runs away, they can discredit him. If he cries it out, they’ll mock him. Push this rock, Jesus, and see what happens.

Tell us, Jesus, should we pay taxes to the Emperor?

If Jesus says, “yes,” we should, then the Israelites will believe that he is pandering to the Romans, giving in to their Imperialistic claims over Judaism, and basically stating that Caesar is who he says he is, namely, the “Son of Augustus the Divine,” or basically, “the Son of God.” It legitimizes Caesar’s claims that there is no one on earth more important than Caesar. It was even written on the coins themselves, “Caesar, Son of God.”

If Jesus says, “no,” we shouldn’t pay taxes to the Emperor, then he will be arrested for sedition, accused of causing an uprising against the State, and will surely be put to death.

Jesus is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Either choice leads to his death.
Either choice leads to the unraveling of everything that Jesus has worked for. 

And the Herodians and the Pharisees know this. 


If Jesus turns right, then disaster. Left, more disaster.
There is no moving forward, no going back. 
And a choice has to be made.

So many folks interpret this passage to be a commentary about the relationship between church and state, to talk about whether or not we should pay taxes, or respect the government or not be critical of our president. 
It’s been used on both sides of the aisle, the left and the right.
It’s been used as an excuse to NOT get involved in issues of social justice, to NOT take a stand against corrupt governments and to not participate in acts of civil disobedience.

But can I be so arrogant, so bold to say that I think that this misses the point entirely?

This passage is about how Jesus makes a way out of no way.
Jesus is stuck, and he gets unstuck.
He slips through the rock and the hard place.
He neither fights, nor “flights.” And he doesn’t crumple into a ball and cry.

He finds a third way. He soars above it all.

This passage does more for us than reveal how God feels about our human social institutions. It goes beyond commentary about how God feels about taxes or laws or respect for our government, although I’m sure God has opinions about all of that.

This passage is about how in the mind and heart and very being of God, how the very essence of God is that of the third way, that of getting unstuck where we think there are no more choices, where we’ve run out of options, where we think that the only way forward is off a cliff, or to slog through the empty desert, or to go back down that mountain and to start pushing that rock back up again. 

Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. And give to God what is God’s.”

Do you see what he does here? Jesus looks past the trick. He looks past the rich Pharisees and the Herodians who have made a living compromising who they are to appease some power system. He looks past the test to the people around him, the real people who need him, whose very lives depend upon the answer to this question.

And he doesn’t say, “sure, pay the taxes” to those around him who are struggling to survive, struggling to make ends meet, struggling just to keep food on the table and who are completely oppressed and overwhelmed by this abusive system. 
And he doesn’t say, “no, don’t pay the taxes,” to those around him who, if they refused, are so weak and so vulnerable that they would surely be obliterated by the all-powerful Rome right on the spot.

And he doesn’t weasel his way out like some squeamish politician, giving us a pile of doublespeak to work through while he goes on to another photo shoot.

No. He says, “Give Caesar what’s Caesar’s.” 

Whatever it is that is oppressing you, weighing you down, stressing you out, what ever is making you feel stuck, give to it what belongs to it. Give that monkey or that demon or that oppressive system what it wants, because you don’t want that anyway. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and then you’ll be free. 

What is Caesar’s? 

Things that cause oppression and violence and poverty. 
Things that make you feel like you’re not worthy, like you don’t have enough, like you’ll never be good enough.
Give it all back.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. 
Give away your doubt and your fear and your anger and your insistence on perfection.
Give away your judgments and your insecurities and your insistence on fighting.
Give away your jealousy and your brokenness and your insistence on running away.
And when someone has backed you up against a wall, when you feel cornered and scared and stuck, keep your tears for someone who really deserves it.

Name whatever it is that has you stuck, and give it what belongs to it. Give it away. Let it go. 

Follow the third path. The direction that you couldn’t see until you saw the problem through the lens of the one who saw God’s path and God’s ways and God’s mind so closely that the division between him and God dissolved. Follow the third way of the one who slips through the cracks between the rock and the hard place to a place of hope and resurrection.

And yeah, sometimes the third way looks a lot like suffering. Sometimes it looks a lot like death. Sometimes is looks like you’ve been stuck to a cross and left out to die. 

But even then. Even then when we feel our most stuck, our most overwhelmed and despairing and hopeless, Jesus says, find the third way, find the way to give to God what belongs to God. 

This reminds me of a poem by Mary Oliver, called “Wild Geese.” 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Give to God your very self, and God will transform you. God will “unstick” you. You do not have to be “good.” You don’t have to crawl on your hands and knees through the desert, repenting. There is a third way. The way of Grace and love and hope and resurrection. 

God will free you like the wild geese, offer you the world, call out to you and announce your place in the family of things. 

Because even if you fight with God. Or run away from God. Or offer God your tears, God will transform it. God will destroy the rocks and the hard places and give you all kinds of room to stretch out and to think and to fly and to question and to hope. 

God will show you the third way. God will make you unstuck. God will teach you to fly like the wild geese who announce our place in the family of things. You’re not stuck. You belong. There is a third way. 

Jesus shows us how.

Thanks be to God.

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