The Impotence of Power

Today’s readings:
Psalms 20; 147:1-1, Exodus 3:1-5, Hebrews 11:23-31, John 14:6-14


“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

– Hebrews 11:24-25

Injustice demands reaction.

Do we pray about it? Discuss it with friends? Ignore it?

Or like Jesus and Moses, do we actively confront it?

Most approaches fall into one of two camps: working within the system, or working outside it. Depending upon the unjust “system” – which may be a government, church, business, or culture – our circumstances may determine which path is available to us. However, as a Hebrew adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter into the Egyptian ruling class, Moses had choices. He could have lamented but otherwise ignored injustice that didn’t affect him directly. He could have lived a comfortable “insider” life and used his influence with Pharaoh’s family to incrementally ease the injustice suffered by his people. Wisely, he chose to act as an outsider.

People in positions of power – boards, elected offices, etc. – often seek that power to change unjust systems. However, insiders can influence change only to the extent that those controlling the system will tolerate it. The more one works to change the system, the greater the risk of being ejected from it.

Even those uncorrupted by power frequently find themselves maneuvered into working to retain that power more than actually using it. The more they hold, the more reluctant they are to lose it. Can the rich and powerful promote justice? Only if it is more important to them than the wealth and power the possess. To truly use power to fight injustice, one must be willing to lose it completely.

What if we are on the outside? If we feel helpless because we lack institutional power, let’s look to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets as inspiration for the ability of outsiders to effect change. Having nothing freed them to say everything. Because they didn’t dedicate their resources to maintaining wealth and power, they could dedicate them to justice. Do our own attachments hinder our willingness to do justice?

Let’s remember, Moses had to descend from the mountain of power before he climbed the mountain of the Lord.

Comfort: You don’t have to be powerful to be full of power.

Challenge: List three ways you can influence the world around you.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to exercise power mercifully and for justice. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever solved a problem by giving up control?

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Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 2:1-4, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20, Luke 20:19-26


“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and unto God what is God’s.”

This well-known saying was Christ’s answer to some people who asked him whether it was lawful for Jewish people to pay taxes to the emperor – a controversial subject because rendering taxes implied the emperor was divine and therefore an idol. While this reply has spawned many deep theological discussions, there are some more mundane but important lessons to be learned.

In Luke’s version of the story, the people who asked the question were spies pretending to be friendly, but secretly intending to trap Jesus into saying something their masters could use against him. A straight up “yes” would have angered many Jews, and a “no” would have been treasonous. Did Jesus realize their intent? Whether he did or not, Jesus skillfully sidestepped the whole predicament by giving what was essentially a non-answer.

In our dealings, we should be alert to those who say seemingly innocent things to conceal sinister intent. During the Jim Crow era of American history, many states introduced literacy requirements for voting. They argued someone who could not read could not properly use a ballot. Absent other circumstances, it makes a kind of sense, right? Then they introduced a grandfather clause exempting people who were allowed to vote before 1866, because if you’d been a voter it didn’t seem right to take that away. Except, though not named specifically, only white people could possibly qualify for the exemption. The new black vote was effectively eliminated for a generation under “race neutral” legislation.

This phenomenon is not limited to race. Even in church, groups in power may create rules to ensure they stay in power. Instead of Caesar’s coin, the currency of acceptance may be based on gender, politics, income, etc. The more sophisticated the powerful, the more subtle their discriminations, so we must remain vigilant on behalf of our sisters and brothers in Christ. The message of the Gospel expanded from Jews to Gentiles to all the corners of the earth. It expands still. When we see it start to contract, it’s time to start asking our own bold and honest questions.

Comfort: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Challenge: Jesus advises us to “be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” Know when to be loving and when to be skeptical.

Prayer: Lord of Love, use me toward the justice of all your people. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been subject to unjust discrimination?

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Word Power

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Zechariah 4:1-14, Ephesians 4:17-32, Matthew 9:1-8


Speech has the power to build up or to tear down. We might claim words are only words, but they impact the world around us and inside us in real ways. The words our parents speak to us in childhood can enhance or undermine confidence throughout our lives. Gossip can destroy reputations. Journalists can topple empires and poets can terrify dictators. As people following Christ, we are called to use our words constructively.

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Gossip may be the low-hanging fruit of evil talk, but it is a bumper crop. Not every truth needs to be spoken to every person, especially uninvolved parties. On the occasions we find it necessary to share a harsh truth, our words can be direct without being vindictive. A message that shames or belittles for our momentary satisfaction is not necessary to offer correction or guidance. As rhetoric grows more divisive in this age of anonymous internet comments and confrontational “reality” television, we are encouraged to have an opinion about everything. In matters where we lack knowledge or have no stake, it’s perfectly acceptable to have no opinion at all and stick with it. When we “tell it like it is,” consequences be damned, we reveal more ignorance than wisdom. Bernard Meltzer advises us to ask ourselves if what we are about to say is true, necessary, or kind; if it’s none of these, perhaps we should practice silence.

Yes we must speak up to confront injustice. To share the gospel. To teach each other. But always – always – we are speaking to other children of God.

Words matter because they are manifestation of thoughts, and therefore ignite action. Let silence be a dam between your thoughts and your lips. Release their power in a controlled fashion so as not to leave chaos in your wake. What you hold back represents potential; what you spill can not be reclaimed.

Comfort: Your words have the ability to give grace to those who hear.

Challenge: This week, be especially mindful of when you are silent and when you speak.

Prayer: Loving God, be present in my thoughts, on my lips, and in my heart. Amen.

Discussion: How many of your unnecessary, unhelpful, or unkind words could be replaced with better words or silence?

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Power Play

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, 1 Samuel 11:1-15, Acts 8:1b-13, Luke 22:63-71


After Saul was appointed by God through Samuel to be king, one of his first acts was to end the oppression of Nahash the Ammonite who had been terrorizing Israel by gouging out the right eyes of everyone who did not escape. After Saul defeated and scattered the Ammonites, the people called for the deaths of those who had initially opposed his reign. Saul declined, demonstrating he could be merciful in his power. Many years later, taking power for granted, Saul would become petty enough to maneuver David (of “versus Goliath” fame) into life-threatening situations for becoming too popular. Yet in the moment, and for many years afterward, he was a benevolent ruler who ruled wisely.

Centuries later another Saul, who would become the apostle Paul, used his power to persecute Christians because they represented a threat to the stability of the Jewish people under Roman occupation. This Saul’s power was fueled largely by a sense of righteousness, but somehow his dedication to serving his God did not translate into mercy until he was suddenly brought low.

After Jesus was arrested and brought before the council, they asked him if he was the Messiah. He replied “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer.” When pressed further he said, “You say that I am.” They took that as a confession of heresy. The council used their power to twist perceptions and definitions so the outcome – regardless of the facts – was to their liking.

Power, seen through the eyes of Christ, is more responsibility than privilege. Using power (no matter how limited) in petty and cruel ways, even against our opponents, does not reflect the message of the Gospel. Retaliation is both a poor substitute for justice and difficult to reconcile with turning the other cheek. When we find ourselves in positions of power –elected office, social status,  work hierarchy, family dynamics, etc. – let us pray for strength to show mercy and restraint.

How blessed we are to have a savior who shows us the true meaning and best use of power.


Additional Reading:
For more about today’s passage from Acts, see Written Off?.
For another take on today’s passage from Luke, see No-Win Scenario.

Comfort: Being merciful is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

Challenge: In ways large and small, we can have the upper hand in many relationships. Reflect on whether how you wield power, when you have it, spreads the Gospel.

Prayer: God of power and mercy, give me a heart like Christ.

Discussion: Have you ever been surprised to find out you had more power than you expected?

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Lion’s Den

Briton_Riviere_-_Daniel's_Answer_to_the_King_(Manchester_Art_Gallery)

Daniel’s Answer to the King, Briton Rivière, 1890

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Daniel 6:16-28, 3 John 1-15, Luke 5:27-39


What is power?

Emperors and kings, queens and prime ministers, presidents and dictators – we associate these people with power. Some – like emperors – seem to have nearly unlimited power, while others – such as presidents – have clearly defined powers. Yet even the power of an emperor is insignificant before the power of faith.

King Darius was heartbroken after his advisers exploited his ego and Daniel’s faith to tricked Darius into condemning Daniel to the lion’s den. Darius tried desperately to find another course of action, but was trapped by his own decree. It seems even an emperor is not more powerful than his own word. He prayed that Daniel’s God might save him, then retreated to his castle for a sleepless night of fasting. In the morning, Daniel emerged unharmed. Darius decreed that all should tremble before the Living God of Daniel. He had the advisers and their families thrown into the den, where they had the same chance as Daniel, but their faith in deception and idols did not serve them as well.

Every ruler (or ruling body) is limited to actions that they believe will allow them to retain power. Sometimes that means observing the law, and sometimes that means creating fear. But in some circumstances they still have to watch the consequences of their actions unfold well beyond the reach of their control. While Darius could do nothing, Daniel’s faith in God saved both of them.

No matter who is technically in control, the moral health of a nation, religious body, corporation, or other entity depends on the faith and basic decency of ordinary people. Regardless of whether the powers-that-be are rooting for us or against us, how we enter the lion’s den matters. The resistance of persistent faith in the face of what seems like certain defeat or destruction changes us, the world, and the powerful.

Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” For citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven that commitment is to Christ.

Power is faith.

Comfort: Your faith matters, even when you don’t feel like it does.

Challenge: When you feel like your actions and faith don’t matter, pray for understanding of why they do.

Prayer: Mighty God, teach me to find the strength in faith. Amen.

Discussion: What do you feel powerless against? Now what would you tell someone who felt the same way?

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Losing Power

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Job 11:1-9, 13-20, Revelation 5:1-14, Matthew 5:1-12


In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, etc. He concludes them by saying: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” When this happens do we feel blessed? Do we act blessed? Or do we want to dispose of our persecutors – and therefore our blessings – by legislating them away?

To follow Christ is to set oneself apart from the world in significant ways. When refer to the United States – or any country – as a “Christian nation,” we seriously dilute the meaning of what it means to be a Christian. A Christianity wielding secular power is no longer the persecuted – it becomes the persecutor. Forcing a society to conform to our beliefs is not spreading the gospel. Rather it turns a message of hope and salvation into a system of threats and artificial piety. Jesus asked God to forgive his persecutors, “for they know not what they do.” Saint Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, cried out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” If headlines of the twenty-first century are any indication, Christians seem less interested in forgiving our enemies than in forcing creationism into science textbooks and Merry Christmas into commercial transactions. So many people understandably believe we are about forcing others to be like us, and it’s our own fault.

But the Beatitudes are still waiting for us.

We can be meek without compromising how we live our own lives. We can be peacemakers without being appeasers. We can be merciful to those who don’t seek our mercy. We can accept that being persecuted is part of the being the last, and stop worrying about making Christians the first in everything. But we can only do these things when we are less interested in maintaining power and more interesting in sharing Christ’s love.

The Sermon on the Mount ends with instructions about loving our enemies. We can’t offer them a hand while our boot is on their neck.

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for the behavior of other people.

Challenge: Over the coming week, keep a journal of opportunities you had to share the gospel, and how you chose to do so.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, help me to live the Beatitudes. May my life be an example of Christ in the world.Amen.

Discussion: In many place in the world, Christians really are persecuted for their faith. What should be our response?

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