An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The Power of Love versus the Love of Power

A sermon on 1 Kings 21:1-21a & Luke 7: 36 – 8:3 by Nathan Nettleton

Last night, Acacia (my 12 y.o. daughter) and I were watching a reply of the opening of the World Cup in South Africa when I spotted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now 78 years old, dancing enthusiastically, if a little gingerly, in the crowd. When I tried to explain who he was, I discovered that Acacia had not yet heard about the apartheid era in South Africa. She had heard the name Nelson Mandela, but she hadn’t yet learned why he was important. As I tried to explain what apartheid was, she commented that she had only recently realised that there were significant populations of white people who called themselves Africans, so that led on to talking about how they came to be there, how they came to hold power and often abuse it, and how their power eventually came to an end. In the course of trying to explain all that, I had an insight about it all that was new for me. I’m sure plenty of you have spotted it before, but it was new for me, and it connected with my reflections on the readings we have heard tonight. I’ll come back to the insight in minute.

The first reading we heard tonight contains a classic abuse-of-power story. In the time of Elijah the prophet, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel conspire to have an innocent man framed and summarily executed so that they can get their hands on the rather desirable bit of land that he owned which they want for a vegetable garden. Murder for the sake of a veggie garden seems to be an outrageous abuse of power, even by the standards of despotic dictators, but these things are never really just about the presenting issue — the veggie garden. They are about power — the love of power and the need to prove and display one’s power. This is quite clear in the story. Queen Jezebel is not particularly interested in the veggie garden, but she clearly regards Naboth as deserving death for having refused a request of the king, and she is none to impressed with King Ahab for having taken no for an answer. “Are you the king or not?” she sneers at him. “I’ll show you how kings are supposed to get their way.” And so the wheels are set in motion for the murder and land grab.

A similar assumed right to power over people and land is also apparent in the stories of European colonisation of Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. In the unquestioned racism of those times, it was simply taken for granted that the people of Britain and Western Europe were naturally superior and ordained by God to conquer and rule over the rest of the world. Christianity and western civilisation were understood to be pretty much one and the same, and so conquering and subduing pagan lands could be construed as Christian mission. Gaining control over profitable farmlands and other natural resources was a nice side benefit.

Now, one path we could take from within this reading is to unpack the theological critique of that colonialist attitude to the land. I’m only going to comment on it though, because although it is important, I’m wanting to focus on something else. A comment though. Alison contacted me during the week with a good critique of my paraphrase of this passage, which was duly amended before you heard it tonight. She rightly pointed out that within the story it is implicit that the land belongs to God and has been distributed to its custodians by God, and that no one, neither king nor colonial power, has the right to take it for themselves. This is indeed true, and there in the passage, and so this kind of land-grabbing abuse of power is shown to put the perpetrators in opposition to God. But I want to look at something else that emerges from the story tonight. This passage is not just warning us not to abuse power like Ahab and Jezebel. It also presents us with an example to follow; the example of Elijah. What does it mean to stand up and confront powerful abusive vested interests? How are we to do that? Now we won’t find much answer within this story itself, because Elijah is just given a message to deliver from God, and he delivers it, and we don’t have much more to go on than that. But I want to put that image in conversation with the depiction of Jesus in tonight’s gospel reading, and with the stories of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

In the gospel we have two contrasting depictions of power. Jesus is depicted as a very powerful person, as a person who possesses a power that would be very easy to exploit. I have not often heard anyone discuss Jesus as a sex symbol. I’ve certainly heard Nelson Mandela described that way, but not Jesus. And yet in this story and some others like it, we have women literally falling at Jesus’ feet and behaving in very intimate ways. Only a foot massage, you say? Do you remember that scene in the movie Pulp Fiction where one character is trying to defend massaging a woman’s feet as not being sexual at all, until his male friends asks whether he’d be happy to give him a foot massage? One of the reasons that sexual scandals are so prevalent among us pastors is that pastoral ministry often puts us in a position where someone is opening up emotionally to us and where they may be experiencing us as the first person they have been able to be so open with and feel affirmed and accepted instead of judged and condemned. That creates a highly exploitable dynamic, and pastors who are not prepared for it and can’t handle their own sexuality are seriously at risk of abusing it. Ahab murdering Naboth to steal his land is little different from David murdering Uriah to steal his wife. Clearly Jesus had that kind of power in spadefuls, but he doesn’t abuse it.

But in this story we also see Jesus in the Elijah role, confronting the abuse of power. Jesus’s pattern of confronting the religious leaders over their abuse of power, and particularly their power to declare who was in and who was out, is a very large part of what turns them against him and eventually has them doing an Ahab and Jezebel and having him framed and executed. Just like Naboth, Jesus is eventually accused of blasphemy by false witnesses and is executed for it.

But here in this story, and on through the story of Jesus, we see a consistent pattern in the way Jesus confronts injustice and abuse of power. What we see is that his confrontation does not see him treating the perpetrators with hostility and rejection. He does not shun or disparage or belittle them. There is no trace of vengefulness or retaliation. He is welcoming and respectful, but he is firm in his critique of abusive and exploitative behaviours. Instead of condemning the perpetrators and seeking their downfall and punishment, he calls on them to rise above their history and embrace a new way of love and justice.

Which brings me back to my new insight about Africa. I know that Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela had been excellent modern examples of this Jesus model of opposing injustice, but in my conversation with Acacia, I mentioned Zimbabwe as well, and I hadn’t thought about post-colonial South Africa and Zimbabwe in relationship to one another before. But as I tried to explain them to Acacia, it dawned on me that they were great examples of the Jesus approach and its opposite, and of the differing consequences of each. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, and harshly mistreated by his prison guards for much of that, but he didn’t fall into the usual path of responding in kind and hating those who were hating him. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe went the other way. Both began as freedom fighters, opposing monstrous injustices and leading the struggle for freedom and self-determination for their people. But Mugabe gave in to the temptation to respond in kind, to seek vengeance and retaliation, to return hatred for hatred, violence for violence, and ultimately injustice for injustice. And so Mugabe became the very monster he had fought against. The monster now had a black face instead of a white face, but in all other respects it was the same monster.

And so, tragically, Mugabe will be remembered not as a freedom fighter but as a despot and a perpetrator of great injustices. Nelson Mandela will be held up as a saint by people around the world, both black and white. For he sought reconciliation instead of revenge. He sought to set free both the victims and those imprisoned in their perpetration of injustice.

It would be hard to find a clearer contemporary depiction of the contrast between the way that Elijah and Jesus call us to oppose injustice, and the destructive alternative. The call of Christ is clear. We seek freedom and forgiveness for all. Those who are forgiven much are freed to love much. Ultimately, it is only the power of love that can overcome the love of power.


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