Last Sunday’s gospel reading about power and how it does and doesn’t operate in the kingdom of God was an interesting (and indicting!) one to preach on. Our cultural moment is saturated with talk of power dynamics and all the myriad ways that race, gender, and sexuality intersect with this. Jesus’ teaching represents a rebuke and a reminder to us in all kinds of ways (and across ideological persuasions). Jesus’ words also speak to us personally. As human beings, we generally like to think that we’re right and we like making other people do what we want. Jesus will have none of it.
A very quick summary. James and John want the seats of honour when Jesus comes in glory. The other ten get mad at them. And Jesus sighs and decides it’s time for a lesson:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you.
Have you ever had the experience of someone lording power over you? Maybe you’ve worked for a dictator, someone who constantly played the power card to get you to do what they wanted. The power dynamics in many workplaces can be pretty straightforward. The boss has the power (and enjoys the power) and everyone else must do what they say.
Maybe it was a co-worker or someone on a committee or community group you served on. Maybe it was a coach who liked to yell and scream and belittle to “motivate” his team. Maybe it was a “friend” or acquaintance who could never really pass up an opportunity to let you know that they had more education or a larger salary or a more prestigious position than you. I suspect many of us have people in our social circles who always need to be seen as the smartest and most competent person in the room.
Maybe—and it pains me to say this because I know it happens far too often—it was a pastor. Maybe you were a part of a church where the pastor abused his or her position, where it was their way or the highway, where if you didn’t believe rightly enough, give generously enough, serve selflessly enough, or buy into their vision enthusiastically enough, you were put in your place.
Maybe—and now we are wandering into really painful terrain—it was in the more intimate domains of family and marriage. Maybe you had a tyrant for a father or mother. Maybe it was a spouse. Maybe you suffered emotional, physical, even sexual abuse. Maybe someone “lorded it over you” in some of the deepest and most painful ways possible.
When we feel that someone is lording it over us, we feel small, unimportant, ignored, powerless. We feel like we don’t really matter, like our humanity, our unique individuality is overlooked or deliberately disregarded. We feel disposable, like we are only there to be used for someone else’s ends. And we probably feel angry. We know that power should not be used in this way, that this should not be the way human beings relate to one another.
As I’ve said, our cultural moment is currently dominated by talk of power and privilege and the various dynamics that play into this. This is a good, important, and overdue conversation. But on the most basic and human level, the “lording over” of power is a violation of Jesus’ most basic commandment from Matthew 7:12, the one that he said sums up all the Law and the Prophets (i.e., pretty much the whole package):
So, in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.
When someone is lording it over us, the question that most naturally and obviously (and often painfully) occurs to us is, “Would you like to be treated like this?” The answer is so obvious that it does not require stating.
The other day, someone sent one of those Pinterest-y images with an inspirational quote on it. My social media presence is pretty light these days, so I don’t come across this kind of stuff as much as I used to. And, truth be told, I’ve never really liked the whole “bite-sized pop psychology/theology” meme machine. But this one actually grabbed my attention and made think for a bit. I think the quote was attributed to Bob Goff:
Most people need love and acceptance more than they need advice.
My first instinct, unsurprisingly, was to be critical. I thought that the words “more than” could easily be replaced by “before.” If the chronology is right, I instinctively mused—if the loving and accepting precedes the advice—then it should all be fine. Advice isn’t bad by definition, surely! People do need good advice occasionally. I’ve received a fair bit of it over the years, and I like to imagine I’ve profited from it. The giving and receiving of advice is one of the ways in which we learn from one another and grow together into maturity, in faith and life. Right? My first instinct was to see the quote as a bit simplistic, a bit of a false dichotomy.
But then I thought about my experience parenting teenagers. And about life in the church. And about marriage. And about my social circles and friendships. And about pretty much every other domain of life. And I thought about how profoundly true it is that all people are desperately seeking love and acceptance. We are almost constantly wondering if we measure up, if we’re doing this thing called life right, if we’re passing the test. This need bleeds through so many ordinary daily interactions in more ways than we can probably even enumerate. There is no deeper need that we have than to be loved and to be accepted.
And this is probably at the heart of Jesus’ command in last Sunday’s gospel reading. We so easily and naturally assume a posture of “over” in our relationships. This is what we see out there in the world and this is what we come to crave. But Jesus offers four very strong words to these tendencies: Not so among you. For you, Jesus says, greatness comes through servanthood. First place comes from willing to be last. Instead of lording it over one another, we are called to serve from below. And—I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not—you can’t actually serve someone very authentically or non-instrumentally if you don’t actually believe that all people really are worthy of love and acceptance. That it is indeed, the deepest and most vital human need.
To love and accept someone—even before our no doubt brilliant advice sorts them all out—is to fulfill the law of Christ. It is to treat someone precisely the way that we would like to be treated. It is to embody the servant posture that Jesus says is to characterize his followers. It is to refuse the attractive posture of “over” and to choose “under.” It it to say, in word and deed, “not so among us.”
Parts of this post were taken from a sermon preached at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, October 17, 2021. The featured image above is called “Washing of the Feet” and was created by John August Swanson.