The Power of God

Week of Sunday 21 October - Pentecost 21:
Gospel: Mark 10:35-45 

32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid..... 35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ 39They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 

Power is at the root of everything. Power is what keeps us alive. The animal we are has evolved to stay alive at all costs. Being at the ‘top of the heap’ greatly increases our chance of survival. Not to mention our general comfort. We are conditioned from the depths of our being to seek power.

Even when we seek to do good, our lust for power compromises us. Federal parliament, full of people with ideals of service, frequently degenerates into vicious dogfights about power. Allies and friends plot to destroy each other.

The naked, embarrassingly crass bid by James and John for personal favour is daily mirrored in the highest institutions of the land.

Jesus turns it all on its head. Power does not come from being top of the heap. True power is in service. And whilst Tony Abbott will allegedly do anything but sell his a** to be Prime Minister, true power will cost everything; the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. (10:33)

The church is full of power. Wherever people congregate, life is like standing under a high tension power line. The air crackles with power and tension. In this story of power at the end of chapter 10, Mark has not chosen figures from the court of Herod. He has chosen leaders of the church; good men, too. Loader says

At least James and John are honest about their intentions. They want power and they assume that that is also what Jesus wants. Even more worrying are those who are unaware that this is what drives them and hide it from themselves and others by fine and seductive words.

We cannot ignore power. If we simply decide to ‘be nice,’ we will be power-illiterate, unable to recognise our own power and how we abuse it, and powerless when people decide to manipulate us. We are living in a power saturated ether, whether we like it or not.

I said to a friend at church, that she was a gate keeper. She was hurt; friends don’t call friends gatekeepers! I tried to explain what I saw. “You keep the gate open. You welcome people and ideas in— which is as it should be. But you also do what a gate keeper should do, which is keep the place safe. You do not let X come in.”   “X” is a nasty and dangerous individual who is beyond our ability to welcome while keeping other vulnerable people safe.

We generally think negatively of gate keepers; as people who keep the gate shut, and do not wish to use the term of those who serve us well at the gate. I think it illustrates our naivety and our discomfort about the power dynamics of our congregations. Jesus is not talking about giving up power when he talks about being servant of all. He is talking about being power-full, but being full of power in the right way.

James and John’s bid for power is the second repetition of Jesus’ message about greatness and service. In two intense chapters about what it means to be ‘on the way,’ or ‘on the road’ with Jesus, being great is clearly a key issue. (9:33) It is a revealing exercise to see how many of the other stories in these two chapters are about the giving of power, rather than the taking or keeping of power.

It is easy to repeat what Jesus says: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. But this is not about us— not yet. This is about the ‘Son of Man [who] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 

He sets himself totally at odds with the status quo, where the poor, the many, are there for the sake of the rulers and tyrants. In the way of the world, power is held for the purpose of upholding those who wish to be great. As in Federal Parliament at the moment, all thoughts of service or mercy (aka compassion) are buried and forgotten.

What Jesus is doing is not seeking to demean power, or to forbid it; power is. Instead, he is seeking to show us how to use power well, for the building up of the kingdom of God and the making of people. In fact, he seeks so radically to revise the purpose of power, that he demands of us that we redefine our understanding of God.

Loader says this far better than I am able.

Being a servant and a slave is not about subservience to Jesus, but about joining him. John’s gospel even has Jesus declare that the disciples (and we) are to be his friends not his servants (15:15). This is not just task-related, as if it pertains to a particular mission and a particular time or role. Jesus’ comments in 10:43-44, which almost mirror those in 9:35, declare that this is about what it means to be a person, what it means to be great. We have to add: great - in the eyes of Jesus and in the eyes of God. Jesus espouses these values for himself!

I have added the italics. We do not serve others to keep God happy. It is not some more or less arbitrary whim on the part of God. Becoming human, being a person, involves a conversion of our lust for power into a greater power which comes from service. Jesus is turning our wisdom and reality on its head. We are not here to have power over the poor and the many; we are here to build up the poor and the many. In this we will find the power to be human.

Loader then continues.

Something very odd happens if we stop there and exempt God, but it is the most common assumption. We are to be like this; Jesus is like this. Is God like this, too? Surely not the almighty father, the king of creation? There is much in the Bible with which to rescue God from that fate. Yet when we examine the teaching of Jesus and the wisdom of the Church’s reflection on who he was, we find that this is, indeed, what he meant. At its simplest we can say: Jesus is just like God and God is just like Jesus. His idea of God as father and as king matched his lifestyle and mission: in his hands these were images less of power and more of compassion and caring. Jesus is not an exception in the life of God, an interim stunt, a temporary abnormality which we call grace; Jesus is not the exception, but ‘the rule’. Such a theology is almost unbearable - it survives with great difficulty. Images of power, triumph, defeat of foes, flood back to rescue God from such vulnerability - and soon we see Jesus pictured in full battle dress at his right hand.

A book I am currently reading visualises God coming to us in Jesus and making himself (sic)  vulnerable. Loader is much closer to the mark. God does not come to be vulnerable; God inherently is vulnerable. The Trinity lives in vulnerable community. If we are to be healed, and truly become image of God, then we must live likewise. The reality of power is that we do not seize it. We do not win it. We serve.

When we serve truly, the power we are giving away makes us truly great. And so we become human.

There is some subtle word work in Jesus conversation with James and John. He does not ask, “Are you able to drink the cup that I will drink?” He asks, “Are you able to drink the cup I am drinking.” We are meant to think of the final cup and baptism of Jesus, and to understand that James and John are naive about what awaits them. But Jesus is already drinking the cup. In the same way, we are not waiting for our big act of discipleship; service is now, in the smaller faithfulness of each day.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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