It Shall Not Be So Among You | The Voice 12.10: March 06, 2022

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The Voice

It Shall Not Be So Among You

There were many things Jesus taught that the disciples did not fully understand until all things had been accomplished. Most of the time Jesus humored them; He understood from whence they had come, what they were expecting, and how things were not going to work out as they were expecting, and knew they would come to a better understanding when they would see everything play out and the Spirit came upon them. But when it came to their jockeying for position in His Kingdom, He refused to humor them.

The Evangelists narrate the event in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45; Luke records a similar conversation in Luke 22:24-30. In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, James and John–or their mother on their behalf–asked Jesus to stand at His left and right hand when He entered into His Kingdom; the other ten were indignant at them for making such a request (Matthew 20:20-24, Mark 10:35-41). According to Luke, at Jesus’ final supper before He was betrayed, the disciples again disputed among themselves regarding who was the greatest (Luke 22:24).

Jesus rebuked them very sharply: they knew that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded their power over others. He definitively affirmed that it shall not be so among them (Matthew 20:25-26, Mark 10:42-43, Luke 22:25-26). Instead, the one who would be great among them must be their servant; the one who would be first among them must become their slave (Matthew 20:26-27, Mark 10:43-44, Luke 22:26). He appealed to His own example: He, the Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, Luke 22:27).

Jesus presented us with a paradox, not a quest. He powerfully rebuked the very impulse which drove the disciples, and by extension, all sorts of people in their lives and efforts: the desire to be first and greatest, or at least among the great. In the Western world we delude ourselves into thinking that we do not make as much about social hierarchies and standing, and pretend we believe that everyone is equal; to this end, some might want to suggest something less: did not Jesus say that we must serve or become a slave to become great or the first? All of those who have ever lived under clear social hierarchies know better. What does it mean to serve? What does it demand to become a slave? Slaves cannot be the “greatest” by definition; to serve is to take on what is generally deemed a socially inferior position for the benefit of one who generally has a socially superior position. Such is why the disciples found Jesus washing their feet so scandalous: they confessed Him as Lord and Christ, and yet He was “denigrating” Himself by providing the service which should be done by the most socially inferior person present (John 13:1-15). Sociologically, to become as a servant or slave is to abandon all pretense of social uplift and increase; it represents a voluntary humiliation and debasement in terms of social standing and structure.

Therefore Christians do well to sit in the paradox of “servant leadership,” which has become the great fad in the cult of leadership which pervades the Western world but rarely produces the fruit Jesus would have it bear. Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Master, and yet He lived as a Servant to all. The New Testament does not make much of “leadership,” and for good reason: not that there should not be forms of leadership maintained among the people of God, but because any focus on leadership will invariably lead to the kind of power games and manipulation which abounds in the world. Elders are exhorted to live as shepherds, always remembering how they serve the Good Shepherd, not lording their power over others, and demonstrating the life in faith by example (1 Peter 5:1-5). Consider how Paul, in his work of ministry, would exhort and declare all forms of persuasive rhetoric in attempts to encourage Christians to live faithfully according to the Gospel; and yet when he would speak of himself he would boast in his weakness and in the power of Christ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:1-11). Those who would be considered “great” among God’s people, Paul, Peter, and James, wrote letters in which they identified themselves as slaves of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1): in a world saturated with slavery, in which no one wanted to become a slave and all who were slaves greatly desired to be free, who would say such a thing?

We do well to return to Jesus’ temptation of the devil in the wilderness. The devil offered Him dominion over all the nations of the earth if He would bow down and worship him (Luke 4:5-7). Jesus never suggested he did not have the power to do so; instead He declared that only God should be worshipped (Luke 4:8). John vividly described the power of the Roman emperors and Roman religion as coming from Satan (Revelation 13:1-15); thus it was then, so it is to this day. We do not glorify God in Christ if we slide into Satan’s direct messages and ask if his offer is still on the table; we cannot imagine that we can serve Jesus according to the power dynamics which advance Satan’s purposes.

Jesus did not deny the existence of power dynamics among people; in truth, wherever there are people, there are power dynamics, however consciously or unconsciously maintained. All authority comes from God, and God gives authority to the powers and principalities, the rulers of this world, elders over churches, husbands and fathers in the home, parents over children, and each individual person in terms of their autonomy and individual choices (cf. Romans 13:1).

The question, in the end, is whether we will exercise the authority God has given us according to the ways of the world by lording it over people, manipulating them into doing what we desire, rooted in our anxieties and fears, in ways that lead to the self-aggrandizement of some and the suffering and deprivation of many; or whether we in humility will seek to serve others as Jesus has served us, and leverage our power to the advantage of others. Will the rulers of the world use their power to benefit themselves or to establish justice and righteousness in the land? Will elders lord their power over the flock in order to protect the institution and their power base, or will they uphold what is right and good, serving others, and seeking to protect the weak and afflicted? Will husbands and fathers love as Jesus loves the church, proving willing to humble themselves and subject themselves to the needs of their families, sacrificing as Jesus sacrificed, or will they seek to dominate their families and coerce and compel obedience in their anxieties and fear? Will parents seek to raise their children in Jesus’ love and discipline and prove willing to cultivate the people their children are, or will they demand compliance to the form of child the parent expects to have? Will we choose to use whatever authority, influence, and power we have to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, to maintain or obtain lest we find ourselves diminished, or will we use the authority, influence, and power we have to benefit others and to share in the blessings of life God has given to all of us?

Do we, as Christians, truly recognize how radical, countercultural, and definitive Jesus’ instruction regarding power dynamics among His people proves to be? Or would we rather maintain the warped, perverted power dynamics of the world in a futile attempt to wield power and control in ways which do not honor and glorify God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ? The way power is used in the world must not be so among the people of God. Let us confess and lament where we have fallen short, and may we exercise the authority given us in humble service as the Lord has commanded us to His honor and glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

It Shall Not Be So Among You | The Voice 12.10: March 06, 2022

Power in the World | The Voice 12.06: February 06, 2022

posted in: The Voice | 0

The Voice

Power in the World

[Jesus] said to [His disciples], “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘benefactors’ (Luke 22:25).

There were many aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry which the disciples did not fully understand while He remained with them. Jesus proved patient with them, recognizing how all things would be fully revealed in time and through the Spirit. But when the disciples sought to jockey among themselves for position, Jesus worked immediately to nip their attitudes in the bud.

We can easily understand why the disciples were acting the way they were. They had come to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God: and to them, that meant Jesus was going to inaugurate a great Kingdom, one that would overcome the might of Rome. As Jesus’ closest associates they stood to gain positions of great influence, prominence, and above all, power. But who would stand to gain the most and have the greatest power among them? Even though James and John already enjoyed great intimacy in their standing before Jesus, they did not want to risk anything. They asked their mother to speak to Jesus and to ask for them to stand at His right and left hand, to have the two highest positions of power beneath Jesus, when He entered into His Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23, Mark 10:35-40). Jesus knew they did not really understand what they were asking to receive; He humored them, yet let them know that it was for the Father to decide who would stand at Jesus’ right and left hand. The other ten disciples proved indignant at James and John: not because in their greater piety or spirituality they understood how foolish the request was, but more likely because they themselves had not made the request first, and were concerned that they would have inferior positions of power when Jesus entered His Kingdom (Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41, Luke 22:24)!

Jesus was well aware of what His disciples had assumed regarding how His Kingdom would work: as if it was just another power in the world. The ruler had great power over others which he would use to aggrandize himself and his associates (Matthew 20:25). He would act as if his rule provided all kinds of benefits to his subjects (Luke 22:25). Competitors might try to unseat him so they could enjoy the resources that would come from maintaining such power.

Such is the way of power in the world. The means by which rulers obtain power may differ over time and place; some may be elected, while others inherit their position or overthrow previous rulers. Once in power, though, we tend to see a similar story play out: the ruler uses power to benefit himself and his associates, however broadly defined. Sure, the ruler will likely make grandiose proclamations about all the ways that his rule has benefitted all the people. There might be some infrastructure projects built, and you will definitely be able to tell who was responsible for building them. The world is littered with statues and other forms of art commissioned by said rulers to memorialize, glorify, and highlight all of their achievements; as propaganda they seek to justify the rule in the sight of those subjected to him.

For those who receive the benefits and advantages of that ruler’s power, everything seems well and good. They share, to some degree, in economic benefits. They have reasonable confidence they will be heard and their concerns taken seriously. They have reason to feel loyal to the ruler and to support and reinforce his regime.

Yet, almost invariably, there will be many other groups and people who will not share in such advantages. In fact, they will suffer disadvantage on account of the way the ruler exercises his power. They will be made to suffer in various ways. They may have to pay undue taxes and suffer the loss of property. They may even be harassed, persecuted, or even killed. Even in less severe circumstances they are made to understand that the rulers that be have no desire to support or benefit them in many meaningful ways. They have no confidence they will be heard or that their concerns would be taken seriously. They suffer under the oppression of the regime and feel no loyalty towards them.

What will the oppressed groups do? Sometimes oppressed groups rise up in revolt and overthrow the current regime. When this happens, a ruler comes out of the oppressed group, and very often will simply reverse the situation. Now those once oppressed become the oppressors and gain great advantage; those who once oppressed now suffer the disadvantages once experienced by others.

At other times oppressed groups find ways to make their voice heard, and their oppressors repent to some degree. We do not find that groups with power and privilege welcome others to share in that power or privilege without such provocation. Even so, those who had enjoyed the advantage and privilege of authority are always concerned that it will be done to them as they did, however consciously or unconsciously, to others. Truly indeed, to those used to inequality, greater equality feels like loss and oppression.

The Scriptures attest to such an understanding of power in the world from beginning to end. Pharaoh oppresses the Israelites; only after a series of plagues and the demonstration of the power of YHWH would he relent and let them go (cf. Exodus 1-15). In the days of the Judges we find local nation after local nation oppressing the Israelites, and God providing deliverance through the judges, who become continually more corrupt over time (cf. Judges, 1 Samuel 1-8). David and Solomon rule over all Israel and a large empire; the nations of the empire would have experienced this as oppression, and even the Israelites themselves found maintaining a king oppressive in and of itself (cf. 2 Samuel 1-1 Kings 11). Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedon, and Rome develop empires, oppress others, and are defeated and become part of the empires of others in turn.

For the two thousand years since Jesus lived, died, and was raised in power, this story of the use of power has continued unabated. Power provides advantages and benefits to some but not to all. The desire to exercise said power is always tied up with the desire to obtain and/or enjoy such benefits, even if it comes at the harm of others. And perhaps worse are those who have so much power and advantage that they cannot see it, for everything works for them the way they think things ought to work, and in their blissful ignorance they presume it should likewise work for others for whom the rulers and systems have not provided such advantages. Many times we do not recognize how much we have come to love and appreciate power until we are faced with the prospect of losing it.

Such is the way power works in the world; such is the way power will continue to work in the world until the Lord Jesus returns. Yet, as Jesus wanted to make abundantly clear to His disciples, it should not be so among the people of God (Matthew 20:26, Mark 10:43, Luke 22:26). The people of God instead consider Jesus their example of how power ought to be used: to serve and to suffer on behalf of others (Matthew 20:26-28, Mark 10:43-45, Luke 22:26-27). May we not prove blind or naïve regarding how power works in the world, and may we diligently strive instead to exercise power according to the way of Jesus the Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Power in the World | The Voice 12.06: February 06, 2022