About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Luke 20 19-25
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

When we think of someone being “possessed,” we usually think of being possessed by demons. But today’s scripture is a possession story, too. It’s a different kind of possession story, though. And, in a way, it’s an even scarier possession story than the ones about demons. Today’s scripture asks us to take a close look at what we possess. And it asks us to think, hard, about who – or what – possesses us.

The story begins with the scribes and the chief priests. The Bible says the scribes and the chief priests watched Jesus and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. The common perception of the scribes and chief priests is that they were demonic, evil, grumpy old men who both resented and feared this young rabbi Jesus. And, knowing how professional clergy can sometimes be, there probably were some like that. But, perhaps because I am a professional clergyperson, I’m a little more forgiving of the scribes and chief priests. They had the awesome responsibility of keeping the faith pure in an age of governmental corruption and radical multiculturalism. Roman thought, Greek thought, Samaritan thought, Zealot thought – you name the thought, people were thinking it. From almost every direction, the good, traditional, orthodox faith of their fathers was under attack. What would we do, if we thought some wild young radical, like, I don’t know, Joel Hanisek, was dragging the church off its foundations and onto some tree-hugging tangent? Well, because it was Joel, we’d probably call his mama and let her take care of him. But what if it was some other, tattooed, nose-ringed, pony-tailed kid? Not that Jesus would be any of those things, but that’s probably not far from how the scribes and chief priests saw him. Trouble. Even if they secretly agreed with a little of what he was preaching (and it appears some of them did), the guy was trouble. He had to be dealt with.

The relationship between church and state – or in this case, synagogue and state – has always been tricky. There’s a fine line between government assistance and government interference. From a theological perspective, the scribes and chief priests didn’t have any use for the governor, Pontius Pilate. He was just Rome’s latest puppet dictator. But from a political perspective, from the perspective of helping them hold onto the purity of their faith, without dirtying their hands, Pilate and his minions might just prove useful.

Do you see the slippery slope the scribes and priests are sliding down? I honestly don’t think they all woke up one morning and thought, “We’ve got to get rid of someone this week – how about this Jesus fellow?” I’m guessing they felt pressured. Maybe some of the big tithers were asking questions. Maybe some of their members had gone off to follow Jesus. I’m also guessing they were scared. Their livelihoods were being challenged. Not just previous generations of faith, but their own, personal life’s work was being attacked from within. Fear plus pressure makes people do strange things.

What makes otherwise good people do evil, ugly things? The great theologian, Flip Wilson, (showing my age) used to say, “The devil made me do that!” More recently, Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would ponder, “Mmm, who could it be? Maybe… Satan?!?” Poor devil gets blamed for everything. Truthfully, though, I think the reason good people do evil, ugly things is a lot less cosmic. We laugh at these TV characters because they’re hitting close to home. All of us get pressured. And then it’s a short step to getting scared. And then it’s another short step to stressing out and withdrawing inward into our own, panicky little worlds. We convince ourselves that we’re right, and they’re wrong, and that we’ve got to stop the bad people before they hurt us any more. Before they damage our traditions. Before they ruin our lives’ work. We might blame the devil, but it’s not demon possession; it’s self-possession. Think of how it looks when you squeeze the air from one side of a balloon to the other. The pressure and fear squeezes the godly side of us smaller and smaller – while the sinful side of us gets more and more puffed up. If you squeeze hard enough, it’s as if the God side almost disappears altogether. Now, I’m not for a minute trying to justify the treachery and sin of the scribes and chief priests. What I’m trying to say is that any of us, even the best of us, can be pressured, squeezed and frightened into doing no less than they did. Did the scribes and priests believe they were doing the right thing? Doesn’t everyone? Don’t we all believe we’re doing the right thing, or the best thing, given the circumstances? When we’re possessed by our own interests, God is squeezed out. Think you can fool Jesus? The scribes and priests did. The pressures and fears of this world had hold of them. Simply put, they were possessed.

So Jesus looks at the coin. “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” he asks. “They say, “The emperor’s.” He says to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jews found the Roman money horribly offensive, because it had the emperor’s head and title on it. As if it belonged to him. Our money has, “In God we trust,” written on it. Does that mean our money belongs to God? If so, does it then mean the things we buy with our money also belong to God? W.W.J.B – What Would Jesus Buy? Did you ever stop to think how interesting it is that we call the things we buy with our money, “possessions”? When things are possessed, that’s OK. But when people are possessed, that’s bad. When our things get RE-possessed, that’s even worse.

The scribes and priests got into trouble when they let themselves become possessed. Possessed with pressure, possessed with fear, possessed with envy. Good people become bad people when they become possessed people. Your home, your car, your iPod are, hopefully, enjoyable things. Hopefully, you don’t use your things to inflict pressure, fear, or envy upon people who don’t have things as cool as yours. Hopefully, you aren’t possessed by pressure, fear, or envy to get things as cool as your more wealthy (or more indebted) neighbors. But, in the quiet moments of your late nights or early mornings, you get the nagging feeling that you’re becoming possessed – either by your possessions or by your obsessions – if you’re getting the feeling that you’re sliding down that slippery slope and squeezing God out of your life – what can you do? Is it possible to get yourself DE-possessed? Can you be RE-possessed by God?

The spies ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” And we all know how Jesus turns the argument around on them. But what we don’t often notice is that Jesus changes the wording. He doesn’t say anything about paying. He doesn’t say anything about buying. He doesn’t say anything about selling. In short, he doesn’t use the language of commerce. He doesn’t use the language of possession. He says to “give.” “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.” “Give,” he says, in both cases. The question, then, isn’t What Would Jesus Pay? Or, What Would Jesus Buy? Or even, What Would Jesus Do? Jesus turns the coin to its other side. What Would Jesus Give? What DID Jesus give? The long and short answer is, “everything.” He gave everything – for us. He gave everything – to God. Jesus was DE-possessed so we could be RE-possessed by the God whose possession we all are in the first place. Think about it – if the scribes had been willing to give a little – if the chief priests had been willing to share a little of their power and authority, they wouldn’t have needed to send spies to trap Jesus. Put simply, the only way to get yourself DE-possessed is to share, to give. If you have possessions, share them. If you have money, give it. When you exercise your generosity, you exorcize some of the possessive demons that threaten you with pressure, fear, and envy. What Jesus knew, and what the scribes and priests weren’t able to comprehend, is that everything belongs to God in the first place. Everything that is Caesar’s, everything that is the scribes’, everything that is the tricksters’, everything that’s yours, everything that’s mine – everything belongs to God in the first place. So giving and sharing isn’t so much paying up or giving away; it’s returning what we’ve been loaned to its true owner.

Who, or what, possesses you? Here in church, the right answer is always, “God.” But when you get home – when you look at all your stuff – when you examine the items in your checkbook or on your credit card statement – who, or what, really possesses you? The emperor? The bank? The good news is that even there, the right answer is always, “God.” In the Bible, the opposite of being possessed by demons is being healed, being set free. In a culture where too often our possessions possess us, in a world where it’s way too easy for good people to do evil, ugly things, healing and freedom come from the same place they did in the Bible – by sharing and giving. Even if it feels scary, give to God that which is God’s. Be possessed. Not by demons, but by God.