Lectionary Reflection for June 13, 2010, Third Sunday after Pentecost
Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” 2 Samuel 12:4-7
Once again the readings for this week offer a treasure trove of possibilities for the preacher and/or teacher. Several directions are possible, all of which will make for rich proclamation, including topics of mercy and love, Christ’s amazing grace that gives us our identity rather than our meager works, following God’s righteous leading, and the abuses of power that lead to injustice. I’m sure there are several other routes by which one might follow these lessons, but I would like to approach the Old Testament text and gospel text through the lenses of power and justice.
In both the Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament lesson (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 12:13-15) and the semi-continuous Old Testament lesson (1 Kings 21:1-10 [11-14] 15-21a) the reader hears two tales about abuse of power at the hands of rulers. Both stories involve the rich and powerful taking from those with less power and means. Not only do the powerful snatch what is not rightly theirs from the powerless who are also subject to them, David and Ahab also bring about the deaths of the ones from whom they take. One important point that both stories make is that God does not look kindly on this sort of activity and there will be consequences for the actions.
Luke’s gospel recounts another story of the abuse of power. Jesus is dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee when a woman of questionable repute comes in, falls at the feet of Jesus, and bathes his feet with precious ointment and tears. In his mind Simon questions Jesus’ authority and authenticity as a prophet based on the fact that he allows such a creature to anoint him. Does it make you wonder if Simon was only relying on idle gossip and reputation? Was he perhaps more intimately acquainted with the woman? Anyway, we also find out that Simon in his proper position of authority and respectability has failed to provide Jesus proper hospitality upon entering his house. Did Simon think Jesus was below him, or was he simply so entrenched in his position of power that he failed to see to the smaller details that might once have been very important to him? I don’t know that we can arrive at any clear answers, but the questions do open us to exploring these texts in a deeper way.
Another fact worth considering is that both Nathan and Jesus tell stories to make their points. Elijah doesn’t have to tell a story to Ahab because the king knows and isn’t trying to hide that what he and Jezebel have done is a vile thing. We know that David is a good but flawed ruler, a man after God’s own heart. He simply let his power go to his head and his desires take control of his mind. Simon was probably not a bad fellow either. He was likely one who tried to follow law and custom and to keep up proper appearances. To me this speaks worlds about the seductive danger of power.
Most of us have heard some version of the saying “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This statement was the opinion of Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. While I don’t necessarily agree with his wording about great men–I’d choose words like “flawed” or “sinful” over “bad”–I do think there is a lot of truth to his overall opinion and support for it in the annals of history. Another Englishman, William Pitt, the Elder, The Earl of Chatham, spoke similar words about a century earlier, saying before the House of Lords “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” Pitt also served as British Prime Minister from 1766-1778, so he probably encountered some examples of power and corruption in his life time.
Power is potent, power is dangerous, and power possesses equal possibilities for good or ill. Power is a neutral tool in the hands of human beings who are capable of great good or unconscionable evil, of walking in light or in shadow, of following God or following selfish desires. Not even the church is immune from the abuses of power. Look at history and you will find many examples where the church was party to horrible injustice.
- Surely no one would take and feast on a poor man’s pet lamb?
- Why would anyone who really understood our Lord rebuke a sinner for such a precious anointing?
- How could any Christian stand by and watch a dictator’s army take away innocent people and place them in concentration camps or gas them like vermin?
- Could anyone who calls himself a Christian beat and torture a young man simply because of his sexual orientation and leave him to die, choking on his own blood?
- How in the world could wise, committed early church fathers deliberately reduce the role and history of women in the faith to the smallest footnote possible?
- How can any government, especially one where many leaders tout Christianity as foundational to the intent of its governing documents, deny a sizable portion of its citizens the basic rights of good food, clean water, shelter, and care?
- How can Christian people squander more than their fair share of the world’s resources without consideration of their neighbor or their children’s children?
The list could continue, but you understand where I’m going with these texts. Even if you don’t think this will “preach” in your context, I do hope you will seriously consider these and other related questions of power and injustice that call to us loudly through the biblical witness.
Remember Jesus’ words to the woman in this story? “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50). Jesus works on the principle of inclusion, of making a place for everyone at the table, and of creating community. Jesus possesses the absolute power to forgive our sins and make us adopted children of God, and this he does graciously through no merit or works of our own. None of us is without sin, and we all have the potential to abuse whatever small measure of power we possess. Thanks be to God, in Christ Jesus we are shown a better way, a way of leveling the playing field, of allowing for more participatory power-sharing, and for making the world a better place for all of God’s created order. So yes, go in peace, but go and do something in the name of Christ.