An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Delusions of Grandeur

A sermon on Matthew 23:1-12 by Nathan Nettleton
With just two days to go before the election for the most powerful political office in the world, the news is full of reports about those who would sell themselves as being best prepared to hold such an office. The writer Gore Vidal once said that “any American who is prepared to run for President should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.” On the basis of what we heard Jesus say in tonight’s gospel reading, one suspects he might agree with Vidal’s assessment. Given how clear and hard-hitting Jesus’ statements about power were, it is surprising how little analysis and critique of the ways power is exercised we hear. You will of course hear frequent suggestions that someone is abusing power, or that power has gone to their head, or things like that, but considerations of how power should be handled, and especially of how Jesus models the right use of power, are much rarer. I’m indebted for a fair bit of what I am about to say on the topic to some treatment of it by Richard Rohr in his recent book, Things Hidden.

Power, in itself, is not bad. Sometimes we unthinkingly assume it is; especially we Aussies, who have always had a strong anti-authoritarian streak in our collective psyche. In America I noticed a much greater reverence for power and for the symbols of power. The constitution, the flag, the office of President, regardless of who might be in it at any given time; all these things are regarded as unquestionably good in the USA. They are honoured and revered. You can get special Constitution and Declaration of Independence applications for the iPhone in America. I reckon you could get very long odds on anyone ever bothering to bring out the Australian Constitution for iPhone! And you won’t get lynched here for suggesting that our flag is rubbish and should be replaced by a new one. We Aussies tend to distance ourselves and disassociate ourselves from the political system and its power brokers. We tend to regard it as a necessary evil rather than as a God-given good, and yet we don’t seem to engage much in real attempts to understand or rethink or reform the way power is handled. In the end we take the status quo just as much for granted as any other nation, and this is, I think, just as true of our attitudes to how power is handled in the church.

From a Biblical point of view, it is clear that power cannot be intrinsically evil, because power is one of the attributes of God. In fact “power” is one of the most frequent words used to name the Holy Spirit: the power of God. We sometimes shy away from this, because the misuse of power has given it such a bad name that we are a bit embarrassed to attribute it to God. For example our congregation sings “Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of truth and light” instead of the traditional “God of power and might.” But maybe that shyness makes us even more vulnerable to the abuse of power because it means we think less about the good use of power and therefore less equipped to analyse and address the bad use of power. The fact that God is a God of power and might does not mean that God’s power and use of power look anything like what we are used to seeing in the world around us. What we are used to seeing, as Jesus is pointing out in this story, is the misuse and the flaunting of power.

Perhaps the simplest way to describe the problem of the way power is often used is that it is treated as an end in itself. Power is pursued for its own sake and exercised to maintain itself. This can be just as true in democratic systems as in more totalitarian systems. I don’t imagine I need to list examples to convince you that politicians often make their decisions based not on what is the best outcome for the world or for future generations, but on what will best contribute to their chances of being re-elected at the next election. The status and influence of being a power-holder become their own reward, and are clearly addictive intoxicants. John Howard stands as a recent example for us of how difficult it is for the powerful to relinquish positions of power, even when they know that holding on to them is no longer in the best interests of the groups or causes they have championed. 

And because we so rarely analyse and question the structures and symbols of power, the image and appearance of power become an essential part of maintaining it. This is something that Jesus had directly in his sights in the words we heard tonight. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; … They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people address them with impressive titles.” This is how bad power perpetuates itself. We are easily impressed by power, and we compliantly reward it with titles and honoured seats and publicity and deference. And come election day, we tend unconsciously to give our support to those who have done the best job of maintaining the appearance of power. We support those who seem strong, and so they have to display their strength. We support those who we see in the right positions, and so they have to position themselves. And so it goes on.

At the ordination service last week, I had a conversation with a pastor named Len Lewis who led the ordination prayer and was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his own ordination. He was talking about other people who had been ordained around the same time as him, and one of them was, many years later, disgraced for serial sexual abuse of people in his pastoral care. Len was the one who had had to confront this man with the allegations and evidence. He told me that afterwards, the then General Superintendent of the BUV had said to him, “I didn’t know you had the strength.” As I thought about that later, and especially as I began to reflect on these words from Jesus, I realised that it would be almost impossible in our culture to hear that as a compliment. Even though it is acknowledging strength now, our culture loves the appearance and image of strength, and so for a leader to be told that no one had previously noticed his strength would usually be a put down. And yet I’m guessing that Jesus would regard those words to Len as a huge compliment, even if they weren’t intended as such. Because good power and strength, the sort of power and strength that Jesus reveals, is not known in appearance and image, and is only seen when it is required. Len proved himself strong when it mattered, but he hadn’t been posturing and imposing his power when it didn’t. And I suspect that that is one of the reasons he is still in pastoral ministry fifty years later. He took his lessons in power from Jesus, and not from the norms of the world around him.

What Jesus reveals to us, is good power; power that is not exercised for its own sake and which does not need to be maintained by image and display. There is no question that Jesus was a powerful person. Even in political terms he was powerful, and the rulers of his day recognised that immediately. Even at his birth, King Herod saw him as a threat and sought to have him eliminated. And the eventual reasons for his crucifixion had to do with the power and influence he had over the hearts and minds of the people. Without any power, he would have been no threat and the authorities wouldn’t have wasted any effort in dealing with him.

What we see in Jesus is power that is not oriented to maintaining itself, but which is oriented towards empowering and advancing the cause of others who do not have power. The Bible usually gathers these under the heading of “the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the refugees.” They are those who have little power in the world and who are often therefore exploited by the greedy and the ruthless. Good power is power exercised for their protection and advancement, not simply for their votes. Self-serving power is not much interested in empowering anybody else, because it is inherently competitive and so it sees its own interests being undermined by the empowerment of others. But good power, the power demonstrated by Jesus, seeks to share itself, to give itself away, and to lift others up. It does not see itself as being threatened by lack of attention or by the growing confidence and independence of others.

What we also see in Jesus is a very different relationship between power and violence. I think it is the relationship between these two that leads to our reluctance to speak of a God of power and might. Power in the world is usually maintained by violence or the threat of violence. We don’t always name it as violence, but the power to arrest and imprison, or the power to terminate employment, or even the power to withhold love and care, are all expressions of violence, even though they may at times be used for good motives and towards good ends. But what Jesus demonstrates is a power whose only relationship to violence is in suffering it, never in inflicting it. Jesus does not set out to conquer violence by meeting it with even greater violence and thus vanquishing it. The Prince of Peace knows that peace can not be established through violence. Jesus conquers violence by stepping into its path, absorbing it in his own body, and refusing to perpetuate it by reciprocating it. He breaks the cycle by responding to it with love and forgiveness and never contributing to the cycle or the sum total of violence.

That was what was so disorienting about Jesus, both in his own day and in ours. When we look for a powerful messiah to save us from a world of violence and exploitation, we expect a figure of such obvious power that the current power-mongers will cower before him and surrender their hold. We expect that if the messiah does not wield violence it will be because he so obviously could, because his threat of potential violence is so explicit, that all will yield to him without a fight. And much of the Bible bought into that expectation which is why it was so hard for the religious people of his day to recognise him as the messiah. He confounds all expectations by refusing even to hold the threat of violence. He comes as one who is obviously unarmed and undefended, one who does not display symbols of potential violence, one who is vulnerable to the violence of others. But it is precisely in his unlimited capacity to absorb hostility and violence that he saves us. He sets us free from the cycle of violence by copping it for us and teaching us to do the same, to draw violence out of the system without being sucked down into it and being turned into perpetrators ourselves.

This is a radically different picture of power. This is the power of God. Jesus reveals that all pictures of God as the ultimate violent power ruling the cosmos with the threat of eternal damnation and perpetual torture are in fact wrong and do God a great injustice. Instead he reveals in his own life and death the true nature of God’s power: the power to give itself away and to lift up the downtrodden, the power to take the worst that the power-mongers can dish out and still rise to new life, the power to go on loving and forgiving and renewing even where death seems to reign. And in thus revealing the true nature of the power of God, Jesus reveals in his own life and ministry the true pattern for the right exercise of power in the world. And I know that in saying this, I stand as an example of what Jesus said, “Do what they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” I have a very long way to go in learning to exercise my personal power and pastoral authority in ways that reflect the vulnerable yet pure power of Jesus, and you all know that. I may be able to speak it, but before this Word I have to stand alongside you as one of those addressed by the Word and cry “Lord have mercy.” I ask for your prayers and I offer you mine as we continue on the journey together of learning what it means to live out the radical upside down power of Jesus the Christ.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.