“The Use of Power”
June 12, 2016
By John Partridge*
Scripture: Luke 7:36 – 8:3 Galatians 2:15-21 1 Kings 21:1-21a
Have you ever seen your boss, or your mayor, any anyone with a little bit of power, use that power in inappropriate or even illegal ways? On the other hand, have you ever seen people with power, use that power in ways that made you want to cheer? Think about these examples:
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Sue Ellen Wooldridge bought a $980,000 vacation home with two other people, Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles, and Don R. Duncan. Mr. Duncan was, at that time, a lobbyist for oil giant ConocoPhillips. Nine months after buying this million dollar vacation home together, and just before stepping down from her position as Assistant Attorney General, Ms. Wooldridge approved consent decrees which gave ConocoPhillips three additional years to pay millions of dollars in fines for a Superfund toxic waste cleanup and install pollution controls (which are estimated to cost US$525 million) at nine of its refineries.”
Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline provides research funding to doctors who write favorable opinions of depression drugs for children. Presumably, they do so, so that doctors will prescribe depression drugs for children and GlaxoSmithKline will make money. Unfortunately, scientific evidence from clinical trials on these medicines shows that when these medications are used on children, they can cause anger and even suicide.
Of course, we get steamed when our Congress, which has done less real work than any congress in the history of our nation, votes to give themselves a raise. These things might be technically legal, but clearly can be seen as abuses of power.
On the other hand, this past Thursday (June 9, 2016), two armed robbers entered a McDonalds in Besancon, France intending to rob the restaurant. Unknown to them however, 11 of the 40 patrons in the restaurant belonged to the French Special Forces that had been formed as an anti-terrorism unit and who were simply there to grab lunch and take a break. The professionals allowed the robbery to continue so that no one would accidentally be hurt by weapons fire in a crowded restaurant, but when the robbers attempted to leave, one was quickly subdued and the other shot when he resisted arrest. Both will stand trial.
As I have often noted, over thousands of years of recorded history, people have not changed very much. And so, as we read through the Bible, we find examples, good and bad, that are very similar. We begin this morning in 1 Kings 21:1-21a where we find King Ahab, who has been, for good reason, described as one of Israel’s worst kings.
21:1 Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”
3 But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
5 His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
6 He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’”
7 Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. 9 In those letters she wrote:
“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
11 So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. 12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 13 Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. 14 Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned to death.”
15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.”16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’”
20 Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”
“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you.
Ahab and Jezebel are so corrupt, that neither of them thinks anything of framing an innocent man, Naboth, and having him executed, just so that they can buy a little piece of dirt that had been in his family for generations. But, the message for us is not just that government officials and other human beings can be corrupt and abuse their power, and even abuse the legal system, everyone already knows that. The message for us is that God was so angered by this sort of abuse, that he not only removed Ahab and Jezebel from power and gave the throne of Israel to someone else, but that in their deaths, they would meet the same fate that Naboth did.
And then, in a much more subtle form of abuse we meet a Pharisee in Luke 7:36 – 8:3, who has invited Jesus to dinner.
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping; she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
8:1 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
There are several things that I want to point out. First, as a person with power, the Pharisee has no problem classifying the woman as a lower class of people so that he can discriminate against her. But Jesus points out that because of her background, in fact because of the very thing that made the Pharisee think that she should be criticized, God’s forgiveness had become an even greater gift. Secondly, Jesus uses his understanding to recast the entire discussion so that everyone present can better see the woman’s point of view, as well as understand God’s system of justice.
And finally, at the end of the story, we meet a group of women who are something more than the followers of Jesus. From this short passage we realize that these women, Mary, Joanna, Suzanna, and several others, actually many others, are not just fans or “groupies” that follow Jesus from place to place, and not just helpers who have come along to do the “women’s work” of cooking and cleaning, but these women are, in fact, the benefactors, the sponsors, that are funding the day to day expenses of Jesus’ ministry. Think about that, because of their wealth and political access, these women have both monetary and political power but they have chosen to use it to fund the ministry of Jesus rather than to expand their own influence.
And then in Galatians 2:15-21, Paul says this:
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
We are not justified by the works of the law. That means that we cannot earn our way to God no matter what we do. Regardless of how powerful we are, and regardless of how rich we are, we are incapable of being good enough, or paying God enough money to earn our way, or buy our way, to heaven. In the end, all of us, the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, all find life at the feet of Jesus because of his mercy and grace. We are only righteous in the eyes of God because Jesus has made us righteous.
If we can get our minds around it, the implications are absolutely enormous.
What this means, is that every argument that we are having in the public square, and within the church, needs to be completely reframed. What this means is that we cannot look down on the poor because they are every bit as dependent on Jesus as we are. We cannot think less of people from another political party, or people who differ in their opinions on some key political argument, because they are just as much a child of God as we are. We cannot think of ourselves as superior in arguments about sexuality, or abortion, or rape, because, in the eyes of God, we are every bit as sinful and in need of Jesus as they are.
That doesn’t mean that we should ever compromise our values, but it does mean that when we disagree, and whenever we confront people who are different from us, we must see them first and foremost as children of God so that, regardless of any disagreements we might have, we treat them with respect, mercy, and grace.
If more of us can do that, it will not only change our use of power, but it will completely change the way that we see the world and the way that we do almost everything.
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