Stuck in the Middle with Jesus

Would it surprise you to know that there are UCC folks with different political opinions than most of us hold? And what about those members of our families we dread seeing because we know what they think about politics? I have some of those and my response it to be pretty careful, rather nuanced.  It’s a suffocating feeling sometimes.


And so I feel very safe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  In my 25 years in this city, I have never lived any place else.  This enclave of liberalism suits me. It’s nice to know that most everyone I pass on the street is as appalled about the current state of affairs as I am.  It’s nice, but it’s rather provincial.  Another New Yorker once said to me that New York is one of the most provincial places in the world. New Yorkers are firmly convinced that there is no better place than this, and some of our fellow New Yorkers find little reason to ever leave this island city. 


But for those of us who do leave it from time to time, we know that New York is in no way indicative of the rest of the United States.  There is great diversity of opinion and a great deal of anger.  We seem stuck in the middle of a national debate that has no easy ending.  There are “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am stuck in the middle with you.”[1]


Americans are people on the go, so being stuck anywhere is not our favorite thing.  We disparage the middle places, yet it is those middle places of life where we actually live most of the time.  We dwell between the past and the future; between hope and reality; between already and not yet.


Today’s Gospel lesson is about being stuck in the middle.  The setting is the Temple in Jerusalem, on the Tuesday before Jesus’s crucifixion.  Jesus had been protesting the disparity between rich and poor, saint and sinner.  And this had greatly upset the establishment, as it always does.  And so the Pharisees - experts in the law and religion - had ganged up with the Herodians who were experts in collusion with the Romans.  These two groups usually hated one another, but politics makes for strange bedfellows.  And Jesus’ populist message was a threat to both groups.  And so they got together and laid a plot.  In front of a crowd they said: “Rabbi, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one… Tell us then… is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” 


It was a brilliant question with no easy answer – a perfect trap, and here is the reason why.  In 6 AD, when Jesus was still a boy, a rabble-rouser by the name of Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome over a tax census.  Judas the Galilean lost, but that anger about unjust taxes never died.  That collective memory was still alive when the Pharisees and the Herodians asked the Lord this question.  And so Jesus was stuck in the middle.  If he said that you should pay your taxes, then he would have been accused of siding with the Roman oppressors. But if he said that you should not pay taxes to Rome, then he would be guilty of treason against the Empire.  And we all know how Rome treated traitors. 


So Jesus asked to see a coin, a denarius.  “Whose head is this, and whose title?” he asked.  “The Emperor’s,” they answered.  “Then give to the Emperor those things that are the Emperor’s and give to God those things that are God’s.” 


This was a slam-dunk for Jesus.  In the simple act of asking to see a coin that one of them was carrying, Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of pretending that life is not lived in the middle.  You see, on the denarius was an image of the Emperor, and inscribed on one side of the coin was “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” and on the other side it read “Pontifex Maximus” which means high priest.  This coin broke two of the Ten Commandments: no graven images and no other gods. So then the question that hung in the air that day was this: just what are you self-righteous purists doing with an idol in your pockets?  And furthermore, why would you take it out of your pocket and expose it in the very house of God?


Pretty good, right?  But it still didn’t answer the question.  Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?  And Jesus replied, “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what belongs to God.”  It sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  But what does it mean and how do you live it?


Rome minted the money.  If you wanted to buy food or pay your taxes or make a donation to the Temple, you had to do it with this idolatrous coin.  To give to the Emperor what belonged to the Emperor was, by default, to participate in an unjust culture; not unlike what our tax dollars do when drones kill the innocent or bail out banks while foreclosing on the poor. 


And what does Jesus mean about giving to God what is God’s? Doesn’t everything already belong to God?  And how on earth do you pay your bills with piety?


So this oft quoted saying of the Lord, when you pull it apart seems to leave us without any clear answer about the way forward. And that can be terribly unsatisfying in a world in which so much is wrong and so much demands that we take a firm stand. We Westerners, and Americans in particular, are like a clear way forward.  Make it plain: light and dark, truth and lies, good and evil.  And that is not just something conservatives want.  Progressive people want it too.  So we bless our opinions and make communities of people who think alike, who vote alike, who argue alike.  It’s very comfortable, but it’s artificial. 


The truth is that we spend most of our lives in the shadow lands of moral ambiguities.  The truth is that people we love sometimes hold odious opinions.  The truth is that since the Reformation the church split thousands of times.  We’re stuck in the middle.  And when we come face to face with that uncomfortable reality, we have a choice.  We can, like Pharisees and Herodians, pretend that there is always a clear and easy answer: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”  Yes or no?  True or false?  --Or we can see the grace of a middle place: “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s AND give God what is God’s.”  


Since we live so much of our lives in these middle places, I sometimes I wonder if that is not the way God intends it.  I often don’t much like it, but the truth is that I am not stretched and I do not grow in the firm soil of absolute conviction.  I might rest there.  But I do not grow there.  My growth and change and glory happen in the mucky middle.


But from that muck, “more light and (more) truth”[2] are bound to break forth.  It’s the place where we are saved from the smugness of assurance. And being unsure saves us from easy judgments and anger and the blasphemy of human certitude.  And perhaps best of all, the middle place is fertile ground for the grace of God to take hold and grow into all the spaces between the clowns and the jokers and you and me.



[1]From the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan.


[2] John’s Robinson’s farewell to sermon to the Mayflower Pilgrims, 1620.