“You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” With these words, Jesus concisely analyzes and critiques all of Roman and Greek culture. From his perspective, it is about power. Now there is good power and bad power. Good power is the power that comes from working cooperatively toward the common good. One of my favorite thinkers, Ernesto Cortez, is also a faith-based community activist, and Ernie calls the power of working together “the power of love.”
In contrast is dominating power—power over others. Dominating power enforces its will with strength, often at other people’s expense. What the Gentiles practice, Jesus says, is dominating power, the power to bend the world to your will. That is the power of the emperors and of kings and queens, Jesus tells his disciples. That is the power of their magistrates, armies, and tax collectors—dominating power, power over others.
But the way Jesus words it is interesting. “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them.” Those whom they recognize. It sounds as if Jesus is saying that these tyrannical rulers in some way rule over us with our permission. And I think that’s exactly Jesus’ point. We the people sometimes admire the power-hungry, the domineering, the strongman. We think of them as real leaders. Of course such people rise to the top. Of course those kind of people get power. And we admire them because of it. Why after all have we seen this wave of strongman authoritarian political leaders rise to power throughout the world, not by seizing power, but actually by being elected to power in democratic countries? Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey—and of course Putin in Russia. Just to name a handful. I repeat, these leaders are elected. A majority of the population wants them in power. And if they’re authoritarian, if they trample on civil rights, if they persecute minorities or give their police permission to shoot certain people on sight, if they invade other countries, all that is fine. Because they are doing it for us. We convince ourselves that their excesses do not actually hurt us, and though sometimes we act outraged, secretly we admire their brazenness.
But Jesus tells us, it is not to be so among us. The context is that two disciples have brazenly asked Jesus to appoint them his second-in-commands when he returns in glory as the ruler of the world. After this incident we are told that the other apostles are angry with James and John for making such a request, but I guarantee you a lot of their anger is kicking themselves because they didn’t think of it first.
Jesus contrasts the Gentiles’ obsession with dominating power as against, basically, his power. Everything about Jesus is antithetical to dominating power. Jesus doesn’t compel people to follow him—he attracts them. Jesus doesn’t exclude people, Jesus invites them. Jesus has come as the Messiah, but he doesn’t approach things the way people think a messiah would, by raising an army and riding into battle against Rome. No, he organizes a movement, a large group of people who understand that it is their job to save the world not by the power of their arms but by the power of their good words and good works. He doesn’t want us to destroy our enemies: he teaches us instead to love them.
In the end, Jesus will allow himself to be arrested and executed, for the salvation of humanity, these submissive acts set up as a deliberate, blatant contrast to the way the world does things.
And throughout his ministry, Jesus serves. He serves the sick by healing them, the troubled by comforting them, the doubtful by giving them faith, the hungry by feeding them. He reaches out to the people who were considered untouchable and outcasts. He challenges the powerful not by force of arms but by his ideas, bravely speaking out against their fallacies. He challenges the powerful because they exploit or disregard the poor and the needy, and because they do it in the name of God, and Jesus knows that that is a lie—because he is God.
The great irony of human history, from a Christian perspective, is this: humans admire and often aspire to have power—to be like God. Whereas God emptied God’s self of all power, and became a servant, even to death, the death of a criminal on a cross. Humans want to be God—but God chose to be Jesus Christ. What does that tell us about our mistaken goals, our misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of life? In Christ God enshrines as at the center of the universe, at its very core, as the central ethic of the cosmos, the principle of serving others—the core value of loving others—the ethic of self-sacrifice.
All this is opposite of the way we humans often think. And it’s vital that we teach this to our children. They are watching the news and living in a world where the ethic of dominating power is heralded as the most important principle of life. Success and winning are heralded as the goal and purpose of life, and the people who don’t succeed or win by the world’s standards we brand as losers. But Jesus wore the “Loser” with honor. He taught that the true way to lead was to understand that we are not to be served, but to serve. He demonstrated that in no uncertain terms by dying on the cross.
For our kids who one day hope to become leaders, please let this sink in. Don’t allow yourselves to be seduced by power. For the Christian, it’s far better to be a good person than to be a great person. It’s far better to live in humility rather than seeking glory. And most of all, it’s far more important to live for the sake of others, to treat people with honor and respect, to defeat an enemy by making that enemy your friend, to strive to make other peoples’ lives better. There are political leaders and Chief Executive officers and directors of agencies and bosses in the world who actually have acquired their worldly authority not by running other people down or stepping on them on the way up the ladder, but by building friendships and relationships, by seeking advice from others rather than pretending they know it all, and by taking care of people who are poor and hungry and desperate rather than only catering to the whims of the wealthy and powerful. They often don’t get a lot of glory. Often these are the folks who are working behind the scenes, but that’s okay. Those are the people who are making the world a better place. They are having real, concrete, positive impact on the lives of the people they serve. Other people may be viewed as the people who are shaping history; other people may be the ones about whom books are written and legacies are debated. But those quiet servant leaders, who use their personal power and authority for the good of the world and to help the least of these, they make the real difference. They may not be remembered in history—but when history is forgotten, God remembers them in eternity. Because they followed the example of Jesus Christ.
— Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
November 10, 2019
Philippians 2: 1-10
Mark 10: 35-45