Power Grab or Gift of Power?

 

 

Power Grab or Gift of Power?

Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.

 

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church

Baltimore MD

September 27, 2020

 

Philippians 2:1-13

 

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6   who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8        he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.

9   Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10  so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11  and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

 

Gospel of Matthew 21:23-32

 

23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

 

Jesus’ occupation of the temple almost feels like a crime, like Jesus was suspected of unauthorized entry into the temple, criminal trespass at a theological scale. Maybe it felt like criminal trespass at an urban scale, like Portland . . . or like Baltimore. I’m a recent user of the Citizen App, a device that reports crime incidents in the neighborhood. But I was a little curious when, the day following the Breonna Taylor ruling in Louisville, I saw an “incident” report for a protest, involving about 200 people marching down St. Paul. There was drone footage. The right to assembly is part of our constitution, yet this event was being elevated (or lowered) to an alert, on par with shootings, car-jackings, and so on. That seems odd to me. But maybe that’s how the religious establishment viewed Jesus’ occupation, as potentially an illegal and disruptive assembly.

Maybe that’s why the image of the interrogation works for this text. To this point, Matthew’s report of Jesus’ occupation of the temple had focused on what Jesus said and did. Now, on day two of Jesus’ occupation of the temple, the authorities move in and they think they’ve got their perp, the perpetrator. As in an interrogation, authorities will out the truth through a series of questions. Hence their question: “By what authority do you do these things and who authorized you to do them?”

First, what were these things? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But readers of Matthew know that Jesus’ deeds of power are not grabs for power but gifts of power. Those gifts of power include teaching, healing, forgiveness, and the gift of the power to forgive. The crime here is, if anything, that Jesus has committed felony acts of resurrection in a death-dealing world. In Matthew 21, maybe it was the way Jesus took the “dis” out of people who live with disabilities, sending people into the world with a renewed sense of their ability as children of God. Jesus didn’t take power, much less grab power. He gave power. It’s like Jesus sets people loose. If we look at the things Jesus did, it’s almost as if Jesus were engaged in a massive act of human enfranchisement, giving power to those who had been denied power. The dictionary defines enfranchisement as:

  • The act of setting free; release from slavery or from custody; enlargement.
  • The admission of a person or person to the freedom of a state or corporation; investiture with the privileges of free citizens; the incorporating of a person into any society or body politic; now, specifically, the bestowment of the electoral franchise or the right of voting;
  • Releasing from slavery or custody.

Jesus does this on a massive scale . . . why? Because the system of disenfranchisement, of exclusion, was systemic, it was everywhere. When disenfranchisement becomes the new normal, when some lives matter and other lives don’t, when shooting into a wall is of more consequence than shooting an innocent black woman to death in her own home, it seems like anything that extends the circle of inclusion is dangerously illegitimate. It has to be justified not because it’s wrong but because it’s right; it gives power to those who were previously denied power. And that’s the kind of thing that frightens temple authorities and the national security.

Now, relative to the second question, who authorized your occupation of the temple, Jesus could have said, “I’ve been Messiahed by God!” (Matthew 3:17); Jesus could have pointed to the testimony of others who acknowledged his authority (Matthew 8:9); Jesus could have said, and he will say at the end of Matthew, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me by God” (Matthew 28:18).  Instead, Jesus asks a question of his questioners . . . the interrogated becomes the interrogator: “I will also ask you a question . . . if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did John the Baptists power to move people, to shape their imagination, to organize them, was he just a professional activist — or was he moved by something higher, something of God?”

Matthew says they “they argued among themselves” — as in, they walked out of the interrogation room and went into the observation room, the room hidden with a one-way mirror: “If we say John was someone called by a higher power, then he’ll say, ‘Then why didn’t you listen to him?’ But if we say he was a professional activist, the crowds who admired John and followed him will become angry with us.”

They’re trapped. They return to the interrogation room. And they say to The Occupier, “We don’t know.” In Greek, it’s just two words. One commentator calls it strategic silence. It doesn’t grow out of an honest confession of not knowing. Not knowing can be, and often is, a deeply Christian statement. There is much that we don’t know. Human experience is so fragmentary and partial, life so short and unpredictable, we don’t know. But this isn’t about a journey to self-discovery, at least not yet. Jesus’ confrontation with the temple authorities serves a revelatory rather than pastoral function. On one level, Jesus’ future judges pronounce judgment upon themselves (Eugene Boring, “Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 409). So there’s a kind of irony. Those who sought to out Jesus are outed, their claim of “we don’t know” nothing more than a mask for political expedience. It was never about the truth but controlling the freedom that truth gives.

The current occupant of the center of the most powerful democracy on earth often says, “We don’t know. We’ll see.” He says this of fair and free elections. Of a transition of power. Of virtually anything that would commit his administration to a constitutional democracy. “We’ll see what happens,” he says. “We don’t know,” they said. And yet despite their supposed agnosticism, they pulled out all the stops. Those who did not know would, in a few chapters, claim to know Jesus as a fraud and a liar. Those who feigned ignorance of Jesus’ story and the fruits of his life would line up to accuse him before the powers. They would act as aggressive prosecutors, asking for the ultimate penalty, crucifixion. Jesus exposes that kind of rhetoric for what it is — a power grab. While we entertain a reasonable doubt about the motives of those in power (after all, they say, We don’t know) those who want to keep and hold power are acting with brazen purpose.

Carol Anderson, a scholar in African American studies, writes in her important 2018 book, One Person, No Vote, that suppressing the vote seldom sounds like a partisan attack, or somehow singling any one group out. About civil rights and the franchise, you never hear them say that MLK Jr. was a professional activist. Why? Because that would anger us. Instead, those who grab for power speak in race-neutral, bipartisan accents. Strategies of silence operate to undermine the gospel of enfranchisement. What does strategic silence look like in real-time? According to Anderson, those who want to suppress the vote don’t say that they’re out to suppress the vote. No. Instead, “they target the socioeconomic characteristics of a people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc) and then soak the new laws in ‘racially neutral’ justifications — such as administrative efficiency’ or ‘fiscal responsibility’ — to cover the discriminatory intent” (Carol Anderson, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing 2018, 2).

It’s the equivalent of saying, “We don’t know how it impacts Black people, brown people, or anyone down. We weren’t excluding workers who have to take public transportation to and from the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Those workers get back to their homes in the 21217 area code long after the polls have closed. We didn’t say anything about lousy public transportation or excluding those who live in distressed communities when we closed the polls early.” And then, to add insult to injury, “[Lawmmakers] . . . act aggrieved, shocked, and wounded that anyone would question their stated purpose for excluding millions of American citizens from the ballot box” (Anderson, One Person, No Vote, 2).

So, with Matthew’s inner audience, we see the power grab for what it is . . . gotcha! The would-be interrogators are interrogated, the judges are judged. The truth is outed. But just as we were getting comfortable in our righteous indignation, Jesus opens his mouth again, and asks, “What do you think?” That’s a gift of power question, not in, Let me tell you what to think, but, What do you think and what will you do with your own thoughts? Jesus’ teaching now switches gear, from exposure to recognition and reflection.

And so Jesus parables. There was a human who had two children. He went to his first child and says, “Johnny, I want you to go out to the vineyard and work in it today.” The first child turns and says, “Who are you? I’m not working in any field.” And he slumps off with his Xbox. But a little while later, Johnny changes his mind, and he goes to work in the field. The parent goes to his second child and says the same. And that child, “Sure, Dad. Anything for you!” And that child does not go. Which of the children did the will of God? The first child. He may have said “no” at the beginning, but his mind was changed and he went. But the other said yes, and never went.

Who do you identify with? We want to identify with the child who initially says no and eventually gets it right. That’s good. But we can also identify with the second child. That child says, “Oh, yes . . . I know what’s right, and I’ll preach it” but never did anything about it. Was that strategic silence? Maybe, maybe not. Jesus doesn’t assign malevolent character traits. Just this idea that somehow by saying I’ll do it, that somehow I’ve done it, doesn’t quite cut it.

Maybe it would be equivalent to virtue signaling. It’s when we post on Facebook or share with our Twitter followers, or wave a flag, or show up to church but with no substantial vocation in the name of the one who gives power. In Matthew, it’s the people who say (or sing), Lord, Lord. But, on the final day, God says, who are you? And we say, What do you mean Lord? Your name was always on our lips. And God says, But where were you when I was hungry? When did you visit me when I was in prison? When I was naked, did you give me clothing? Where is the evidence of the power that you were prepared to give? If we say, Lord, and we ought, do we also give?

I am a fan of Rachel Maddow. But I’m bugged with her right now. Something she said on Thursday. With her usual brilliance, she painted a picture of what is happening behind the scenes of the presidential election, as one party prepares not to win the election but for the aftermath of the election they fully expect to lose; so they’re preparing not for a win by strategizing about how to throw into doubt their election loss. About free and fair elections, the occupant says, “We’ll see.” Looking directly at me, Maddow asks, “What is democracy worth to you? Because it’s late. And what you’re doing right now, what you do in the next several weeks, that’s exactly what democracy is worth to you.”

What does that sound like to you? Does it sound like a call to work in the vineyard? What kind of work? For whom? What are we prepared to give for democracy?

May God add wisdom and understanding to the hearing of this word. Amen.