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Lectionary Living

Trick Question

10/18: Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99  •  Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)  •  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  •  Matthew 22:15-22

    As this week's Matthew reading shows, little has changed – at least about political discourse – since the time of Jesus. When the story opens, the religious leaders were plotting to trap Jesus, looking for a way to get him into trouble with the Roman authorities. Jesus sees their game from the start, turning the whole discussion from a debate to a defining moment.

    I watched the vice-presidential debate this past week. Literally, with the sound on mute, I watched the two candidates. What I saw were two opposite - and equally ineffective - ways of managing self. One candidate, stony-faced, never allowed an emotion to flit across his countenance. The other, all-expressive, appeared alternately derisive, ridiculing, and incredulous. Perhaps, with the sound on, I could have heard a little more nuance! My intention here is not to dishonor anyone. I ask your indulgence as I use the debate example towards my purpose: understanding emotional self-regulation.

    When a person works at having a poker face, he is attempting to keep his emotions to himself. While not revealing oneself to the world may be useful sometimes, the problem is that he may be keeping the emotions from himself; he may be unaware of what he's feeling. Emotions, rumbling inside, may disorganize the intellect, forcing it to serve the feeling system. In this way, a person who is lying to the world may also be lying to himself – for his emotional system cannot tolerate any information inconsistent with its own narrative.

    On the other hand, when a person allows her reactions to another to show up – unmonitored – in her face, she may be attempting to be genuine. The result, though, is that she's put herself at the mercy of her emotional system. All feelings are not created equal. When a person fails to consider her feelings and simply expresses them, immaturity can take over. Without consulting her thinking system, her feeling system is running the show and keeping her from her own principles, such as respecting the dignity of every person. If reason could be harnessed with emotions, she might find herself with interest and curiosity in the diverse views of others.

    The story of Jesus in his response to the Pharisees and the Herodians is the story of someone who has mastered emotional self-regulation. He begins with the truth: the trap, the hypocrisy of asking about paying taxes. He moves on quickly, asking for one of the coins that would be used to pay such a tax. Paying taxes to the conquering emperor in far-away Rome was unpopular to say the least; the coin, with its stamp of Caesar's face (considered idolatry) and its inscription about Caesar's divinity, was a reminder of Roman power, as was the cross.  

    Maybe it took a minute for the questioners to come up with a coin and hand it to Jesus. And maybe this minute was useful to Jesus, giving him time to process his emotions. Perhaps fear was coming up in him, around his growing awareness that he might be crucified. Much contemplative thought centers on how he managed these emotions. My own guess is that he somehow used the energy from his fear to make the last choice available to him: making sure he stayed true to himself in the time he had left here on earth.

    By the time the coin was handed to him, he was ready for his audience. Over the course of his public ministry, he had developed a capacity to see what people were up against. He could see these religious leaders as human beings, trapped in their own way by complex factors over many years, rather than the direct cause of his problems. He begins asking questions – a trademark of his method – engaging the crowd in reflecting on the problem they have brought to him. Jesus was never interested in solving anything for people, but with them. They walk away, amazed.

    The ability of Jesus to engage his emotional system with his intellectual system is in clear, stunning contrast to our all-too-human leaders debating this week. Jesus did not suppress his feelings. Nor did he allow them free rein. But by an interplay between his emotional system and his intellectual system, he managed a principled response to the religious leaders.  


Morning: When might I try to avoid my emotions today?

Evening: When did I engage my thoughts around my feelings?

Psalm 99:4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.

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