Changing Power Dynamics -- Lectionary Reflections for Pentecost 4C
Changing Power Dynamics
At least since the time of Constantine, the church has been, more often than not, standing on the side of those in power. At the very least the church hasn’t stood in opposition to power. Those in power have often turned to religious leaders to help pacify restive populations. We see this happening in the Gospels, where the religious authorities are appointed by the Romans, or at least must have imperial approval. In many places in the world the church is an agency of the state – its clergy supported with government salaries. There’s not much likelihood of clergy stepping out in such a situation and opposing the ones who pay the salary. Even in a place where the church is disestablished, like the United States, the church has quite often remained on the sidelines, giving support to the status quo, and staying silent in the face of injustice. That was, after all, the point of Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. In the US the state doesn’t pay the salary, but most congregations prefer their clergy to stay out of politics and attend to the needs of the flock. Thus, there’s little incentive to challenge those in power. No Moses, no Elijah, no Jeremiah, no John the Baptist. Indeed, there’s little room even for Jesus.
Like many clergy I wrestle with my responsibilities to church and to family (paycheck), even as I’ve continually found myself stepping out into the fray. I do this, often with timidity, because of my interpretation of the biblical imperative to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I’m no raving radical, but can I stand by quietly when my neighbor, whom I’m called to love, is suffering injustice. Unlike Elijah and John the Baptist, I’ve gone out in public in the company of others (including church members), which is why I’ve gotten involved in efforts like the Metro Coalition of Congregations. While it may look to some as if it’s a political venture (of course, as Liberation Theologians have long pointed out, faith has political implications), it is rather a coalition of people who care about their community, and do so out of a love for God and neighbor.
In a gathering this week of clergy related to the MCC, we talked about some of this, including the image of Moses standing up to Pharaoh. The biblical prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, from Elijah to Jeremiah, continually found themselves standing up against those in power and seeking to change the dynamics of power. Nathan challenged David after he had Uriah killed to cover for his own dalliance with Bathsheba (was that a rape?). And in 1 Kings 21, Elijah takes on Ahab over an ill-gotten piece of land. As for Jesus, he wasn’t afraid to stand up to those in power – whether political, cultural, economic, or religious. And Paul may have counseled submission to authority (Rom. 13), but when pushed he could respond strongly in support of justice.
Three texts lay before us. The reading from 1 Kings focuses on Ahab’s coveting of Naboth’s vineyard, and the steps he took (or his Queen took) to gain that property. In Galatians, Paul speaks of hypocrisy and mixed messages, but in his call to live faithfully in Jesus, there are social implications. And then there’s the story of the woman who shows Jesus the hospitality that the wealthy religious leader failed to show him.
It is said that the love of money is the root of all evil, but in reality it is coveting that is the root of all evil. In many ways it is the tenth commandment, the one that speaks of coveting what belongs to another (Deut. 5:21), that is the root of all evil. There is no better example of this truth than the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab was king. He was rich and powerful. Whatever he desired became his. Monarchs are like this. David wanted Bathsheba, and he got her. He wanted Abigail and he got her. Ahab wanted land, and it was Naboth’s land in particular that he wanted. I’m not sure why this piece of property was so important to him, except it lay adjacent to his palace. He was willing to buy it. He was willing to trade for it. Whatever it took, he was willing to do it. Naboth, however, wouldn’t sell or trade, because this land belonged to him as an inheritance. It belonged in the family. He couldn’t let it go without dishonoring their memory. So frustrated was Ahab that he couldn’t sleep or eat. He was consumed by this piece of land. But how to get it? Jezebel figured away to do it, without even getting Ahab’s hands dirty. Just get some of h is henchmen to accuse Naboth of cursing God and king. And such occurred. Ahab got his land. But even though he thought his hands were clean, God was aware of the plot. And Elijah came to him and confronted him. The message Elijah delivered was simple: “I found you . . . because you’ve enslaved yourself by doing evil in the lord’s eyes. So I am now bringing evil on you!” There is something of the “reap what you sow” in this message, but more importantly by engaging in injustice, we enslave ourselves to evil. So, where do we fit in this story? In our modern economic system, it’s hard for us not to be implicated in unjust actions. Homes get foreclosed upon and we boo, but the same banks and lenders that we boo are likely contributors to our pensions and our mutual funds. We want for the better life, but what does that mean for the way we shop. We go to a Walmart or similar store because the prices are good. Why are they good, because the wages are low, the benefits few, and the products are made overseas by workers who often live and work in deplorable conditions. So, are we as implicated in evil as Ahab? Are we willing to upset the power dynamics so that God’s justice can be achieved?
In the Gospel reading we find Jesus at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Apparently Simon has invited Jesus to dinner and so Jesus finds his seat. As soon as he does so a woman enters the room, carrying an alabaster jar full of perfumed oil. The woman kneels at Jesus’ feet, and begins to wash them with her tears and hair and anoints his feet with the precious oil. Simon and his friends are offended that Jesus would let this sinful woman touch him like this. He says he’s a prophet of God, surely he knows what kind of woman this is. Jesus responds to Simon’s disgust but telling a parable. It’s the parable of two debtors. One owes a rather insignificant debt and the other one that is impossible to pay back. Which one, Jesus asks, when forgiven, will love the lender more? Simon answers – why the person who owes the most. He is correct. But is the greater sinner?
We don’t know exactly what the woman had done, though the imagination has filled in the gaps over time. She’s let down her hair. She has this costly perfume. She must be a prostitute. Yes, she must be a sinner who has sold her body. But why? Having attended a Human Trafficking Awareness event this week, I’m reminded that few people choose prostitution. It is either something they’ve been coerced into or it is the last resort. Is she the one who has been forgiven much? Or, is it Simon who has failed the basic principles of hospitality. He invited Jesus in, but failed to show him respect by washing his feet or offering him the normal kiss of welcome. He didn’t anoint Jesus’ head with oil. And yet the woman did all of this. Who is the greater sinner? Jesus forgives the woman, but is Simon ready to receive forgiveness? Is he ready to allow Jesus the opportunity to change the dynamics of power so that the woman might be lifted up to his level? Jesus says to the woman – your faith has saved you. It has restored you to wholeness. Go in peace! Simon, for his part offers no response. Does he remain in his sins? We don’t know. But from there Luke shares that as Jesus went out proclaiming the Gospel with his disciples, numbered among them were women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna – among others – who provided for the needs of the disciples. Forgiveness can change the dynamics of power!
In Galatians Paul addresses a perceived issue of power. At issue is the role of “law” and “grace.” The lectionary allows one to begin in verse 15 of Galatians 2, but one would be wise to begin in verse 11, where Paul tells the Galatians that he had opposed Cephas (Peter) because he had given the Gentiles in Antioch mixed signals. He had been willing to dine with them, without concern for kosher laws, until a group came from Jerusalem, and he stepped back from this practice. We’re not told here that the group from Jerusalem had criticized him for this, only that Peter decided to hold back. In doing this Peter confused the Gentile Christians. He had shown himself to be a hypocrite. He doesn’t criticize Peter for keeping kosher, only that he did so in a less than honorable way. How true is that of us? How often do we offer mixed signals. Yes, we welcome all, but not really.
So what is at issue here? It would seem that there is a debate going on in the Galatian churches about whether Gentile Christians needed to keep certain Jewish practices to be considered Christian. We don’t know if the ones who are pushing this idea are Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians who have decided that one must first be Jewish and then add on a Christian overcoat. But as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, they had ended up forcing Gentiles to live like Jews without conviction of heart (Preaching the Letters Without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 217). It is a bit like what the Jews and Muslims of Spain experienced during the 15th century, as Muslim Spain gave way to Catholic Spain. Those who remained, often “converted” to save their lives, but didn’t give up their original faith. Paul says this isn’t right. He is a Jew, but righteousness doesn’t come by way of keeping the Law – for Jews or Gentiles. Instead, it comes by way of the faithfulness of Jesus. Now, many translations suggest that it comes by way of our faith in Jesus, but perhaps a better translation focuses on Jesus’ faithfulness – to the point of death. Keeping the Law – that is rigidly conforming to rules and regulations doesn’t draw one into relationship with God. When we focus on the rules – don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t go with girls who do – then we take our eyes off of God. We put the emphasis on ourselves. For the Jews, keeping the Law wasn’t intended as the means of salvation, but rather a way of living in relationship to God. These are expressions of the covenant that God made with the people.
Paul shows us a different way. It is the way of the cross, which upsets the world’s power dynamics. He dies to the Law through the Law – that is, by getting to the heart of Torah he is freed from legalism, which is such a constant temptation to all religious people. Instead, he is “crucified with Christ.” Therefore, he no longer lives – the old person – but instead Christ lives in him. As Allen and Williamson suggest, for Paul, who lives with an eschatological vision of God’s reign, this is reference “to the risen Christ manifesting qualities of the eschatological world through Christ” (p. 218). As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, the old is passed away, the new has come. This isn’t an anti-Jewish diatribe, but a call for reconciliation so that Jew and Gentile might live together as one body, both reconciled through Christ. Ultimately, this is a call to participate in Christ’s own faithfulness, by allowing him to live in and through us. Then we can participate in God’s work of justice in the world, changing the dynamics of power. As Carolynne Hitter Brown puts it:
All work toward social justice, then, is based on the principle that Christ lives in us. As we strive for reform, we do so in a manner that loves and respects others, believing all people are called to covenant with God through God’s grace. (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 281).
How then shall we live in Christ, so that his righteousness can be displayed and the world transformed – made knew and just?