Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 29 • 19 Oct 2014


Exodus 33:12-23
1Thess. 1: 1-10
Matthew 22:15-22


Rev. Chris Udy


Most of us have books
that have helped to re-frame our lives,
and for me, Henri Nouwen’s book
“The Return of the Prodigal Son” -
is one of those.
The book is Henri Nouwen’s exploration
of the parable of the Prodigal Son,
and in the book, when Nouwen is exploring
what might have driven the prodigal son
to hurt his father, waste his inheritance,
damage his health and destroy his future,
Henri Nouwen talks about addiction.
He says “Addiction might be the best word
to explain the lostness
that so deeply permeates contemporary society.
Our addictions make us cling
to what the world proclaims as self-fulfilment -
accumulation of wealth and power,
attainment of status and admiration,
lavish consumption of food and drink,
and sexual gratification
without distinguishing between lust and love.
These addictions create expectations
that cannot but fail to satisfy
our deepest needs.”
 
We could put it another way too -
we get addicted to things
that have the taste of eternity -
the flavour of truth -
but not the substance.
Alcohol and drugs have the taste of peace and joy,
but not the substance;
gambling promises freedom,
but it doesn’t deliver;
promiscuity looks like intimacy and love,
but leads to loneliness and disgust.
And addictions don’t stop there -
we also get addicted to control,
addicted to power,
to being busy,
to being strong;
and we can even get addicted
to being suspicious or angry or cynical.
 
We get addicted to things
that have the taste of eternity,
but not the substance -
we keep going back to them,
we indulge in them,
we use them compulsively,
even after we know they’re empty;
even when we realise they’re doing us harm.
And when we settle
for something less than eternity,
when we invest our trust in
and yearning for God
into something that isn’t God -
we’re involved in idolatry
and we need God’s healing and freedom.
 
Today’s reading from Matthew's gospel
describes a group of people with addictions. 
Matthew presents them as legalists,
so obsessed with the power the law gave them,
with the taste and flavour -
the detail and accidents of the law
that they had forgotten the law’s substance.
 
Earlier in Matthew Jesus had deeply offended them.
He’d suggested that the words of the law
are not as important as the intention of the law –
but it was the words of the law
that these experts in the law knew best.
They loved the words - they revelled in them,
they lived with them each day
and dreamed of them each night;
the words of the law
were their livelihood and pride
their highest value, their deepest loyalty:
those words were the source of their power. 
So when Jesus said, ‘the words are nothing,
they’re just servants, messengers -
what matters is the spirit’
they were deeply offended.
Their addiction had been exposed.
 
So the legalists,
intoxicated with their strength in words
used their skills with the words  of the law
to construct a trap
that seemed, to them, opaque and unavoidable.
To us, who are used to the grammar of spin,
it reads like a script for ‘Yes, Minister’.
They said, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere,"
which meant they didn't trust him,
"and you teach the way of God
in accordance with the truth",
which meant they thought he was a liar,
"and show deference for no one,
for you do not regard people with partiality"
which meant they thought he was biased,
but not toward them.
"tell us, then, what you think",
which meant let us tell you what we think. 
"Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
they asked smugly,
and they waited for Jesus to condemn himself.
 
They thought they’d framed a question
that had only two responses,
both of them explosive for Jesus. 
If Jesus said "no" -
it is not lawful to pay taxes
he could be arrested and tried for sedition.
If he said "yes",
it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,
then the people would reject him
because they believed
the messiah would deliver them
from Roman oppression.
 
But Jesus didn't choose
either of those "Yes" or the "No" answers
they had so cleverly designed for him. 
Instead he asked them to bring him
a coin used to pay the tax,
and when he had it,
he held it up so they could see the face on one side. 
He said, "Whose head is this, whose title?" 
They answered "The emperor's." 
And then Jesus said,
"So give the emperor back what is his,
and give back to God the things that are God's.”
 
The legalists and powerful people were addicted.
They were so obsessed
with their specialised skills,
their area of expertise,
and the power they had built up
through their narrow disciplines,
that they thought everyone saw the world
exactly as they did. 
They'd constructed their trap expertly,
so that no-one who went down their road
could escape it ,
but they didn't realise it was possible
to leave the road and walk around the trap -
to escape the addiction,
and choose eternity.
 
Many people believe it’s our weakness
that leads us into addiction - into idolatry -
but that’s rarely the truth.
Usually it’s our strength that betrays us.
When we find something we’re good at,
something that works - even a little -
we invest in it -
we do it again and again,
over and over -
pouring more and more
of our time and energy into it,
constructing our lives
so that it dominates everything we do,
until it becomes our world.
 
We focus our attention and our energy
more and more into the area that gives us results,
we spend time with the people who make us feel good,
we go to the places where we feel in control,
we stay with the ideas we understand and accept. 
And the greater our resources,
the stronger we become,
the greater the temptation to invest in it more. 
It doesn't much matter what it is,
work, sport, politics,
sex, music, theology,
just about anything has potential for obsession,
and in a world that’s lost its guiding visions,
where there’s no accepted standard
to measure truth, or value, or a good life,
obsession and addiction
have become usual, and normal -
and we all need freedom and healing.
 
When Jesus was speaking with the Pharisees
he wasn’t only exposing their addiction -
he was also offering freedom and healing.
His offer comes in two parts,
a value and a discipline.
 
The value comes first.
Addictions trap us
with the taste and flavour of eternity -
but they can’t provide the substance.
Addictions are like little Emperors -
they seem powerful and commanding,
but they’re ultimately empty -
and God is greater than any emperor.
Only God can give us the substance
our addictions falsely promise -
only God is ultimately faithful and effective.
So our greatest strength,
our highest value
is our healing, integrating relationship with God.
 
When Jesus says 
"Give the Emperor what belongs to him,
and give God what belongs to God"
we recognise that life itself
comes from God and belongs to God,
and everything else finds its place
within God’s purpose and economy -
so our relationship with God
becomes our highest value,
our deepest loyalty.
 
It is only when that value has priority
that other things fall into place -
money, work, leisure, sport, power -
they all have value,
they all have an appropriate place in life,
and God's priority
gives them their appropriate place.
 
That's the value,
and the discipline reinforces it. 
Addictions trap us because they’re compulsive -
they become all-consuming,
dragging us away from aspects of our life
that give us balance.
We find ourselves obsessing about our addictions,
making excuses to maintain them,
avoiding people who confront us about them,
needing more and more of our addiction to survive -
until ultimately there’s no room
for anything else:
everything we do, everything we are
is defined by our addiction.
But because addictions have no substance,
because they can’t lead us to life,
at some point we will realise -
we’ll suddenly become aware -
that if we keep going the way we are
then life is over -
and our future is death -
death of the body, death of the family,
death of the spirit, death of the community -
and it’s then we need a discipline:
the discipline of giving.
“Give to the Emperor what belongs to him -
give to God what belongs to God.”
 
The discipline that will lead us
to healing and integration
begins with giving -
with an investment in life beyond ourselves,
a generosity of resources and of spirit
that’s opposite to the addicted life.
As addicts we’re always looking
for what more we can get -
so Jesus begins with learning to give.
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” -he said.
We live in the world,
and the world places real and just demands on us -
but there are and should be
limits to what Caesar can demand.
Economic prosperity is not everything -
nor even the most important thing.
Coal is not good for humanity.
A company that offers to freeze a woman’s eggs
so she can put off making babies a few years more
is not being helpful or generous.
We need to give time and effort to work - that’s true -
but we also need to invest in our families,
we need to grow friendships with our neighbours,
and we need to protect and encourage
action for healing and peace
and justice in the world.
We need to pay our taxes,
we need to feed and exercise
our spirits and our minds
as well as our bodies,
and we need to invest in something
that will help us keep
all these good and necessary
elements of our lives in balance.
So “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,”
Jesus said,
and Give to God what belongs to God.”
 
To God we need to give times and spaces
in which we remember
that we are more than our addictions
and less than our obsessions.
We need a regular rhythm of worship
to give God what belongs to God:
praise and confession; attention to the Word;
times for giving and praying and blessing;
time for quietness and communion -
giving to God what belongs to God,
and finding in God all that we need
to be set free from our addiction,
and taste something that will remain for eternity.