Blessing of Power
1 Kings 21:1-21a
We all have power. God has blessed us with power. It is through power that we stand up for ourselves – and for others. It is through power that we manage our job: with discipline, integrity and reliability. God has given us power with an orderly world. We can count on the sun rising and the days passing and our mortality. All of these give us power to plan and create.
Power is also a significant dynamic in our relationships with each other. We form communities and we order them so that they can function to improve our well-being. And in community we give additional power to those on whom we rely for guidance.
But power is a kind of energy. Some people have more power than others as we well know. And the power can be used for good or for ill. It can benefit another or abuse another.
Our Hebrew scripture today is an example of the abuse of power, whereas; our Gospel reading is just the opposite showing how great power does not have to dominate another, but can be nurturing.
In our Hebrew scripture, Ahab is a powerful ruler. He wants what he wants. And today he wants Naboth’s farm. Now he tries to be “fair”. He offers to buy the farm or give Naboth another farm. But Naboth’s farm isn’t up for sale. Its not a product. It’s his home – not just his house, but his family’s home. It’s the family farm with all of its memories and hard work. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else. He’s not interested in riches. He just wants to keep his home.
But Ahab goes away probably mystified that money can’t buy it. So Jezebel, his wife gives him the excuse he needs and they plot to accuse and execute Naboth. Now he can claim Naborth’s land by confiscation. He didn’t even wait for a descent moujrning period…
… And he is cursed.
But Jesus by far stood over and against this abuse of power. Unlike Ahab he was not an earthly ruler but a peaseant. But just as we have seen in our day how powerful ideas and acts can be, so people in his day responded to the power of his words and deeds and gave him mighty power.
Indeed his renown was of such power that a Pharisee, Simon, a member of the ruling class, invited him to dinner. No doubt Simon wanted to check him out. He didn’t treat Jesus well. He was of a higher class than this peasant and supposedly more powerful. He neglected – probably intentionally – the social graces of a host to a gust: foot washing, anointing and greeting. Even though Jesus was the guest and thereby was the premier of the dinner, Simon needed to make sure he knew his place.
But then this street woman crashes the party – an enormous breach of custom. In the traditions of the day, it is the guest who has power at the party. It is his job to accept her or send her away. Given her audacity, Jesus would be expected to send her packing. Any decent man would do just that. But Jesus given temporary power as a guest and permanent power by God, accepts her offerings – as inappropriate as they were.
It was unacceptable for unmarried men and women to touch and further this woman was unclean sacredly. By her touching Jesus, she made him unclean. Here, Jesus broke many barriers. Yet Jesus accepted her.
We don’t know anything more about this woman, but its probably safe to assume that she’s been following Jesus and listening – maybe it started as a way to ply her trade in the crowds. But then she heard Jesus words of forgiveness and empowerment. For Jesus did not hoard his power, but passed it on to others.
And now she crashes Simon’s party – maybe it was her only chance to get close to Jesus. But maybe also she was ready to exercise here empowerment – and break earthly barriers to offer God her blessings.
But Simon didn’t see it that way. He saw Jesus as some sort of fraud who didn’t know what he was doing. Jesus sensed this and pushed back on him. He told a parable of two debtors, one with a large debt and the other with a smaller one. Both were forgiven their debts by their creditor. Which would love the creditor the most? The one with the larger debt, says Simon.
Jesus then turns to the woman and forgives her her sins. But which was the greater sinner? The woman? Or Simon? The woman repented. Simon was too sure of himself to do so. She saw God in Jesus. Simon only saw a street preacher of questionable credentials.
Jesus turned his power to help the woman – even if Simon would not respect it. The woman knew she was a child of God and not some surplus to be cast away. His power went to her. But Simon’s power was diminished – he could not see God in this exchange, as religious as he probably was.
Ahab and Simon used their power as expected: to serve their wants and needs irrespective of anyone else. This is a human failing that we all fall into – at least from time to time. The more power we have over someone, the more hurt can be done to another even unintentionally.
Maybe Ahab just wanted a piece of land and was willing to provide a fair trade… what’s so wrong with that? But he was a captive of his desire and was swallowed up by it. And Simon sat on the edge of doing just that … indeed Jesus with his parable offered Simon a chance to reflect on how he was using his power … Jesus in fact passed power to Simon – the power of self-reflection.
And likewise Jesus passes the power of self-reflection to us. Each one of us has power and there is someone over which we have power: a child, a co-worker, a friend who respects us dearly and so forth. And Jesus holds us accountable as to how we use that power. Do we use it to fulfill our desires no matter the harm or do we step back, take a deep breath, and look to ourselves as an interrelated soul among many souls. Anything we do affects someone else. That’s a responsibility we all bear.
This is something I had to learn as studying for ministry and later for the chaplaincy. I remember those many years ago when I was in seminary when a professor said to us that whether we like or not we our holy men and women. People when they know you are clergy are going to expect that. They – you – give us power and we need to understand that.
Since becoming a chaplain I’ve had to reflect on this almost constantly. I minister to a very vulnerable group of people … typically elderly people who are dying. I cannot impose my beliefs on them … that would be an abuse of power. I need to work within their traditions and thereby pass power to them.
But interestingly it can go further than that seemingly simple rule. We have veterans on our service. It is traditional for hospice to provide a measure of honor to these men and women. We are small and new and so have just begun to sort out the best way to do that.
I am a pacifist. I used to be uncomfortable around soldiers and therefore vets. As a clergy person that belief can be quite inappropriate and even damaging to a vulnerable person. I learned early on to separate a social-political position from caring of an individual.
So ironically I have become to staff person who is organizing what we will be doing for vets. I have to set aside any qualms I have about this or that war and its execution and care for the needs of a certain group of patients. It’s an interesting power dynamic … I have discovered not to expect to find any comfort in it.
But somehow it fits with my pacifist beliefs … I just haven’t figured it out yet.
But think about it. Where might you have a clash of belief or feeling or sense of right with how you should care or treat another? Where might you have to find a deeper well of belief in order to do justice to another by passing power to them? Where might you need to step aside and not use your power, so another can be free and independent?
And I think this is true for everyone who dares call themselves a Christian, whether governor or CEO, citizen or doctor, parent or teacher. Each one must stop, take a deep breath each and every day and ask, what is right and righteous in this moment?
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you …