Thursday, April 27, 2006


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

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 )...


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
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 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

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
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


Here's a Blog of articles and reviews.
For more, visit our website (with its 20,000 articles: so get comfortable!)


Rowland Croucher


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Melbourne, Australia
Husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, pastor, teacher, writer, used-to-be-academic... See here for more: