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Jesus and Power

(Notes from last Sunday’s preaching at a Wesleyan Methodist Church).

Mark 10: 32-45

Four items from this week’s news:

1. Last week Italian police arrested Renato Cortese, the Sicilian mafia’s ‘boss of bosses’, after he had been at large for four decades. He was living in squalid conditions in a decrepit farmhouse. Why was he prepared to live like this? The Interior UnderSecretary said: ‘Because of his dedication to pure power’.

2. ‘Lucy’ left the Opus Dei community after 20 years of menial work, 12-hour days, 6-7 days each week, and being refused permission to attend her sister’s wedding because the ceremony would not be Catholic. (Time, April 24, 2006).

3. Radical commentator John Pilger said an ID card (in Britain) would not be a good idea. Private businesses will have full access to the national database if you apply for a job. ‘There will be a record of your movements, your phone calls and shopping habits, even the kind of medication you take… These databases will be sold to third parties without your knowing…’

4. Dawn Rowan won a defamation case against two governments and two TV media chains, but because the Australian Government won on appeal she now has to pay their costs – to the value of her home. Your taxes at work! (See http://jmm.org.au/articles/4728.htm )…


Where two or three or more humans are together, there is power… Power for good, or evil; the abuse of power or the non-use of ‘good power’ which can both be evil…

Power encounters are part of every human interaction. I am exercising power by speaking to you and noting that you’re listening. But you have power too: for example if most of you started talking to one another or dozing off while I’m preaching! Earlier our worship leader said ‘Let us pray’ and we all went quiet. Powerful! And how did you feel when our blind friend sang about Jesus making the blind to see? She’s been the only person so far in this service powerful. enough to make me feel emotional!

Power is not evil in itself. We use power over nature, physical objects, cooking ingredients, words etc. to live. But power is often abused when in the hands of selfish humans.

Earlier in Mark 10 Jesus suggested to a rich man that the factor inhibiting his entry into God’s kingdom was his wealth. The opposite of rich is not poor, but free.

Then Mark tells a story about another inhibitor – power. ‘What can I do for you?’ Jesus asks James and John (the same question he asks Bartimaeus later in the chapter). Earlier they’d been arguing about who would be greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. Now these two wanted the ‘seats of honour’ in the messianic banquet. Now what’s wrong with that? There are ‘high tables’ in many institutions: you could tell in the synagogues who had the most power/authority by noting who sat where.

But where they saw a throne, Jesus saw a cross. ‘Can you drink the cup, be baptized with the baptism…?’ ‘Yes,’ they said (and James was certainly executed for his faith; we don’t know about John). Jesus then goes on to say that the Son of Man would be mocked, spat upon and scourged… three forms of abuse not mentioned elsewhere in his predictions about his death. (How did he know? He’d read the prophets).

The next time Mark talks about ‘the right, the left’ he’s describing the two crosses either side of Jesus…

At least the disciples were ‘up front’ about their desire for power. And the others were angry (because they wanted power too). It all goes back to Eden: human beings don’t like being dependent upon God, but want to run the show their way. Pagan authorities exercise power-by-force, said Jesus. It’s not to be like that with you.

What kind of power does Jesus exhibit? Servant leadership: the badge of office for him is not a throne but a towel (John 13). So with Jesus’ church. For example, the pastor is a servant of the church (though the church is not his/her master).

Robert Greenleaf in his book Servant Leadership re-tells Herman Hesse’s story about a band of pilgrims en route to life in a contemplative order. Brother Leo is their servant, who with his happy demeanour cheers them up along the way. But then Leo disappears, and the group disintegrates. Later the narrator finds him – and he’s head of the Order.

Power for good or evil can be wielded by individuals or institutions. An institution is two or more people who combine to do something. A family is an institution. Have you noticed that in Matthew’s parallel account of this story it’s James and John’s mother who asks for seats of privilege for her sons! Happens all the time! (Another item from this week’s news: two football-fathers bashed a referee who they felt was biassed because his son was in the winning team, and he’d made a controversial decision which decided the outcome of the match).

Within families everyone – even little people – exercise power. When either of our granddaughters wants our attention, they yell, and they get it! In marriages she may use her tongue (or withholding sex) to exercise power; he may ‘give her the silent treatment’. I’ll let you into a secret about our marriage: my wife has absolute power in determining what I wear – especially to preaching occasions. Our choices are often in conflict: I wear what’s comfortable; she suggests I wear what looks nice, colours that match etc. But when she’s not there, the power belongs to me – so today (look!) I’m wearing sandals, although I know Jan would have preferred shoes. (I tell her the biblical people wore sandals too, but despite her being a pastor and Bible-lover, that doesn’t cut much ice!)

In creation power-displays happen everywhere all the time. The birds who visit our feeder have a fairly distinct pecking-order: the crows at the top, then the magpies, followed down the order by the rainbow lorikeets, the crimson rosellas, and then the doves (though so-called ‘peaceful doves’ can get stroppy with each other!)

According to the radical sociologist Robert Merton, the evil perpetrated by human institutions is greater than the sum of the evil of the individuals within them. Walter Wink writes about the ‘spirits’ of institutions (referring to Paul’s notion of ‘principalities and powers’). Walter Brueggeman’s classic The Prophetic Imagination says the key to understanding the biblical record of institutional behavior is to see a contrast between Solomonic institutions (whose aim is to accrue power) and the ‘prophetic’ approach which is not fooled by this.

Some institutional evil is in-your-face, overt: like the rape of about 1,000 women every day mostly by the military, in the Congo. Or the persecution waged against Christians in many Muslim-majority countries. The Archbishop of Nigeria, in this context, made an interesting comment that Christians should not expect to be passive in the face of such persecution (though he stopped short of encouraging counter-violence).

How are we to react to institutional evil? Moses confronted the Pharaoh. Paul shamed the authorities in Philippi. Peter and John flatly refused to obey the injunction of the Sanhedrin to be quiet and not preach about Jesus. Karl Barth has famously noted that the civil authority in Romans 13, when carrying out their order-mandate must be obeyed, but that same authority (Rome) in Revelation 13 is ‘the beast from the abyss’ which will be judged by the very Christians it is persecuting.

All political systems abuse power, even Western democracies. You know Churchill’s comment about Wesminster-style democracy being a terrible system, but it’s probably better than the alternatives! It’s just that ‘Yes Minister’ style politics is probably more subtle about power-abuse than other political institutions. In Nepal at the moment, for example, power is in the hands of the protesters on the street, and the Maoists, and the King, whose power is probably about to evaporate…

Nations play power-games with each other. Note what is happening between Australia and Indonesia at the moment. With Papuan asylum-seekers fleeing from alleged oppression in their country, we Australians have the power to humiliate/ shame the Indonesians. But with their greater population and because of economic considerations, we are somewhat cautious about alienating our powerful neighbour. (The Canadians used to tell me, vis-a-vis their relationship with the U.S.: ‘If you are going to sleep with an elephant, you’d better move when it turns over!’).

Back to confronting evil powers: Here’s a good quote: “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Who said that? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Here’s a summary of the classical Christian wisdom on power, and how to obey Jesus’ warnings about its abuse:

1. Be a servant to others, as Jesus demonstrated in the acted parable in John 13 and was exhibited in the life of the greatest Christian since Jesus (Brother Francis). Ask others ‘How are you traveling?’ with a genuine desire to know (and pray for them). Do some ‘secret kindnesses’ every day…

2. Be humble. That is, know who you are: don’t have too high or too low a view of yourself. Expect God to send you at least one ‘humiliation’ (‘loss of face’ for you Chinese) every day so you won’t experience too much hubris. And all the monastic orders encourage our doing some menial jobs regularly, wherever we are in the pecking-order.

3. Live gratefully. Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.

4. Be accountable to a mentor and to a group of peers, who will help do the necessary and regular reality-checking for you, and keep you faithful to your promises to live a life of faith, hope and love…

5. Empower others: give power away. See http://jmm.org.au/articles/8109.htm which describes how pastors and churches are supposed to do it…

6. In prayer, forgive your enemies, as the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to do…

7. Sometimes you simply submit to ‘the powers’ as Jesus and Nelson Mandela and Gandhi and Martin Luther King have taught us. In Jesus’ case there might seem to be nothing more powerless than a body on a cross; but in God’s purposes the Easter-event became the turning-point in human history. (Pilate said he had absolute power over Jesus, who responded ‘No you don’t unless God gives it to you.’)

8. Be committed to a life of justice, which is the right use of power. (Micah 6:8, Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42).

Finally let us hear our Scripture passage from Eugene Peterson’s excellent translation, The Message:

Back on the road, they set out for Jerusalem. Jesus had a head start on them, and they were following, puzzled and not just a little afraid. He took the Twelve and began again to go over what to expect next. “Listen to me carefully. We’re on our way up to Jerusalem. When we get there, the Son of Man will be betrayed to the religious leaders and scholars. They will sentence him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Romans, who will mock and spit on him, give him the third degree, and kill him. After three days he will rise alive.”

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.” “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.” “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory–one of us at your right, the other at your left.” Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” “Sure,” they said. “Why not?” Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.” When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served–and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”

Shalom! Rowland Croucher

April 2006


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