When the Powers are Wrong

Four photos - Upper left: boy in a black cap holding his dirty hand towards the camera lens; upper right: small toddler with dark eyes and curly dark hair staring at the camera with fingers in the mouth; lower left: bodies of Oscar and Angie Martinez ashore on the Rio Grande; lower right: hands reaching against barbed wire fence with sunset in behind

This week’s pericope is one that has troubled Christians for millennia. Jesus utters horrifying words like “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” For those of us raised in conservative traditions, flashbacks of discipleship Sundays, altar calls, and long sermons about unwavering loyalty to the King of Kings flood our brains. Anything less than total devotion is completely unacceptable.

Can I pass you a glass of wine?

Deep breath. Let’s take a different approach.

Jesus like riddles. He loves wordplay. He uses imagery and hyperbole and poetry all throughout his ministry and beyond. The writers of the gospels knew this intimately, as did the first century world their readers lived in.

We’re not as intimate with Jesus’ odd use of cliche and metaphor. More’s the pity.

The one aspect of the reading that grabbed me this week, especially in light of the horrible image of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his wee daughter, Angie Valeria, floating on the bank of the Rio Grande, was when James and John ask if they can call down fire on their enemies.

It’s so easy.

When we claim to have the God of gods on our side – a God who has power over creation, over life and death, and over who’s right and who’s wrong – it truly is so easy to simply declare: “My God will smite thee!”

Just like magic.

Fire rains down from the heavens and incinerates all who are God’s enemies. Poof!

Our Old Testament reading was from 1 Kings when Elijah did just that to fifty royal soldiers. James and John knew there was precedent for them to demand divine retribution. And so do we. We seek to crush the rule-breakers because we have the greater power.

What happens when the great power is wrong? What happens with American is wrong? When Canada is wrong? When the first century Jews were wrong? When Elijah was wrong?

What about when Jesus, instead of calling down fire, simply says: “No”?

What if we’re shown a different way of being in the world, of moving together in this space and time, that might see life thrive for everyone? What if we’re shown how we can diffuse our own power instead of using it to maintain ourselves over others?

Jesus’ example of non-violence here doesn’t make the reading any less hard. It’s still a thorny pericope filled with odd imagery and sayings. But I can look on it now with a sense of wonder at Jesus realising the extent of his own power. Jesus is self-emptying himself right before my eyes. Part of me wishes he wouldn’t. Part of me wishes for the strong man to get rid of anything that might hurt me.

But mostly, I’m relieved that this strange man breaks a centuries old tradition of triumphalism with one word: “No”.

That one word offers me a kind of hope a long litany of prayers never could.

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