How to Love Power (Matthew 28:16-20)
By Eric D. Barreto
American politics have always been a struggle among the powerful.
First, it was white male landowners who determined the way, their owning of lands and peoples not just symbols of their powers but validations of it too. But slowly-far too slowly-and unevenly-far too unevenly-the promise (if not the full realities) of democratic power has been shared and expanded first to white women and then to African Americans.
Yet that uneven sharing and expanding of power has not resolved what it means for us to wield power over our neighbors. What does it mean for some to have more power and others less? What does it mean to be a voter or a boss or a parent or a soldier or a teacher or even President of the United States?
Far too often and especially in our political discourses, power is seen as a zero-sum game. Someone wins; someone loses. Victory is absolute and so is defeat as one party is victorious over another. Power can even become an end in itself. Winning is all there is, which motivates us to bash our political opponents while we justify those we deem to be in step with our political convictions.
Power can be seductive. In our political landscape, raw power seems to be everything. What can the leader accomplish? What can the leader do to others? How can he manipulate and cajole and deal his way to the top?
Yes, power can be seductive. Power can also be transformative but only if power is suffused with love. As Andy Crouch has written, "Power at its worst is the unmaker of humanity-breeding inhumanity in the hearts of those who wield power, denying and denouncing the humanity of the ones who suffer under power.... Power, the truest servant of love, can also be its most implacable enemy."
Many churches this week will be hearing the closing passage of the Gospel of Matthew. A resurrected Jesus gathers his disciples one last time to give them final instructions for the road they will travel, a road he has already promised will be paved by God and littered with suffering (see Matthew 24:1-14).
Jesus tells his followers that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." For this reason, Jesus continues, you will scatter across the world making disciples, baptizing and teaching what I have taught you. In this going out, the disciples will not be alone, for Jesus accompanies them at every step.
In these verses, Jesus claims all authority to himself not because he is mighty and powerful but because God has given him this authority. This authority is a gift. And though we are called to be disciples in light of that authority, that authority never becomes ours. It always belongs to Jesus.
After all, what are we supposed to teach? As verse 20 notes, ".... everything that I have commanded you." That must mean at least what Jesus teaches in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." From this point onward, Jesus continues a radical litany of reversal. The powerful are not really the powerful. The weak are powerful in Christ. The comfortable are not blessed; such blessing belongs to the persecuted. Poverty in spirit is a prerequisite for the kingdom of heaven.
The authority Jesus inherits is not coercive or demanding or boisterous or loud. His power settles into the margins of our world and makes its home in those deserted places most of us choose to avoid. His authority empowers those who are seen as poor and broken and despised. It blesses the wretched. That is, Jesus's power is not at all what we seem to imagine power is.
There are two little details in this passage that help clarify the scope of such power.
Notice that there are only eleven disciples mentioned. That one among their retinue has betrayed Jesus hangs heavily over this passage. Our proximity to God's loving presence is no guarantee that we won't be drawn away by the draw of something else, something more.
And notice one last detail: "When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted." Some doubted. (Matthew 28:17)
The key ingredient of the right use of power is not being right. It is not being the smartest person in the room. It is not about charisma. It is not about being the best deal maker. It is not about self-aggrandizement.
Power, rightly used, is about trust. The trust others place in someone. The trust someone asks others to invest in her. The trust, most of all, that someone places in God to show her the way. For, if we are honest, the exercise of power is a humbling matter, one that pushes us more toward doubt that certainty.
Here, we are reminded anew by Anne Lamott that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the obverse of faith is prideful certainty. Faith leans on God; certainty says, "I know better." Faith trusts when we can't see the path before us; certainty steps forward no matter who might be trampled as we stomp our way through the world.
Nearly all of us hold great power in our hands. Whether in our professions or in our everyday lives or even in the ballot box, we hold the lives of our neighbors. That kind of power can misshape us, suggesting to us that such power is deserved, earned. We might even deceive ourselves to believe that such power grants us license to act as we please and for our own sake.
But what if Jesus has called us to a different exercise of power? An exercise of power that destabilizes what we think power is, who we think we are as children of God, and who we assume God to be.
Jesus's Great Commission in Matthew 28 is not a call to domination. Neither is it a summons to colonize everyone we meet under the demands of an ill-shaped "gospel." No, Jesus calls us here to lean into his power, a power that will never be our own. Jesus calls us to trust in God's power, to trust in God's creative bending of the world towards justice. Jesus calls us most of all to love, to the kind of love that sees the folly in mere victory, the kind of love that calls us to be seen as poor and meek for the sake of our neighbors.
In short, Jesus calls us to love power and to power love and thus invite God to undo all the damage we have done. When we love power in this way, God graciously unwinds a twisted world and sets right a world that has stopped making sense.
1. Name some ways you exercise power in your everyday life. In what ways do you see love and power intersecting in your life?
2. Tell a story about a time when your access to power tempted you to act without the guidance of love. What did you learn from this experience?
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