The Idolatry of Position and Power | 02.26.23 | Spring Cleaning Pt. 2
Pastor Drew Williams
Did you know what the worst thing is that you can give to two brothers?
A single candy bar. Let me tell you why.
I have one brother who is younger than me by 3.5 years. Now, it doesn’t seem like a big difference, but when we were much younger? It was a huge difference!
I was bigger than him, stronger than him, more outspoken than him, just as stubborn as him, and would usually step in to take charge. Sometimes, he would listen to me or follow me, and sometimes he’d disagree and go his own way or do his own thing.
But when my mom would give us a candy bar and tell us to share? Oh man, talk about instigating a high stakes conflict! Because how can you make sure to share it FAIRLY?
How can you make sure to break it perfectly evenly? If I was left to my own devices, of COURSE I was going to give myself the bigger piece! I’m the bigger brother, after all. I deserve it, maybe.
Then my parents got wise and instituted the rule that one person cut it, and the OTHER person picked which piece they wanted. So now, I knew that if I cut it in half unevenly, my brother would just pick the bigger piece. And how was THAT fair?!
He, of course, would be all happy because he WON. He got the bigger piece, more chocolate, bragging rights, and an excuse to give me sideways glances with a smug look on his face all day.
I couldn’t stand that! I would much prefer to be the one who got to give HIM smug looks all day!
And that’s the way our world handles power, isn’t it? We view power and influence as a zero-sum game. If someone has power, that means someone else DOESN’T. If you want more influence, you will end up lessening the influence of someone else. If you want more authority, or more stuff, that means you probably need to get it from someone else, leaving them with less.
And so, from schoolyard disagreements to office politics, from back room contracts to the IOUs that we remember from that neighbor we helped out a few months ago, much of our world jockeys for position.
We try and get ahead of our competitors. We try and keep up with the Joneses. We try and lobby for more input, more influence, more responsibility so that we can prove ourselves, so that we can improve our position, so that we can experience a better life.
**And there ARE instances when we are taking on more responsibility or authority so that we can help more people, or so that we can secure a better future for our family.**
And THEN there are other instances where people are clearly trying to gain power for themselves and are going about it in shady ways.
But as followers of Jesus, how are we supposed to view power? Are there ways to use power for good? Or is power and position an idol that takes our focus and worship away from God and the life of apprenticeship to Jesus?
To answer those questions, we’re going to read a story from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, which is on page 17 of the NT in your black, seat-back Bibles.
For context, this comes right after Jesus has taught using the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, where different guys worked different amounts of time, but the master chose to generously pay them all the same pay for a full day’s work. Jesus was teaching that the Kingdom of God is all about generosity and it doesn’t concern itself with hierarchy or prestige based on the work that people do.
Then, Jesus foretells his own arrest, mockery, torture, death, and resurrection, painting a clear picture of what his journey to the capital city of Jerusalem is going to look like.
And then we get to our passage, which I hope you’ve had time to find. Matthew, chapter 20, starting in verse 20. Let’s read together…
A request from a mother starts off this whole scene. Some of you who are mothers empathize with the impulse to be Mama Bears, to look out for your kids, to advocate for them, to make sure they have the best opportunities they can get.
And others of us might have had the experience with our own moms, looking out for us, stepping in when they thought we needed the extra support.
As a proud Mama’s Boy, I love my mom, I’m grateful for her strength and how she always has shown that she is proud of me and excited about the things I’m involved in…but if this was me in the story and this was my mom? I would’ve been dying inside.
Because I like to do my own thing. I don’t want someone else to have to advocate for me. I don’t want someone else to step in for me. But, again, I’m reading myself into this story too much, and I’m looking at it from a Western, 21st century, individualist perspective and probably making too many assumptions of the text.
Because if we look closely at our passage, we can understand from the context clues that James and John weren’t being unwilling accomplices to this request. They were fully part of the process of bringing forward the request.
Even though their mom did the talking at first, when Jesus responds in verse 22, he says “You do not know what you’re asking…” He’s speaking in the second person plural form of the word, “you.” So he’s not saying, “you, the mom.” He’s saying, “you, the two sons” or “you, the group of the three of you.”
And he asks them if they are able to “drink the cup” of suffering that he will endure, and our passage tells us that “they” responded to him, “we are able.”
So this is NOT just the hairbrained idea of a mom who is trying to get something for her kids. This is fully the idea of the two brothers, and probably the mom as well, going to the leader in a culturally appropriate way for the 1st century, letting the older people talk and work out the details.
But when the rest of the disciples hear about the conversation, verse 24 tells us that they were angry with the TWO BROTHERS. They weren’t angry with the mom! They knew exactly where the request was coming from.
James and John, some of the earliest disciples to be called by Jesus to follow him, were going to Jesus to try and secure positions of honor for themselves. They had been with Jesus through all the miracles. They had seen the crowds of people following him. They now believed that he was the Messiah, and he had even used the term “the Son of Man” to refer to himself many times, pulling from OT prophecies about the coming king who would rule on the throne of David.
So when they see Jesus, they see the soon-to-be king of Israel. Like most Jews of their day, they assume that means images of VICTORY and SOVEREIGNTY.
They are currently approaching the city of Jerusalem, and just a few verses before our passage in Matthew 19, Jesus had told his disciples that they would sit on thrones with him, judging the 12 tribes of Israel at the renewal of all things.
But they haven’t figured out yet how all that connects to what Jesus has been saying about his suffering and death. Or maybe they just have selective hearing, and are only focusing on the parts that sound good to them.
In any case, they are clearing jockeying for a position of authority. They know that all 12 of the disciples are intended to rule alongside Jesus. All 12 have authority as his followers to carry out his words and declare the kingdom of God and bring hope and healing to the world.
But…obviously there’s gotta be a few disciples who are in charge of the others, right? Or at least, there’s a few that are closer in rank to Jesus himself, right?
Peter has been a clear leader of the group the whole time. He’s a bit older than the rest, he has a family back at home, he’s a naturally take-charge kind of guy. But recently, Peter has had a few strikeouts. Jesus rebuked him in front of everyone else when he was trying to push Jesus towards taking power too soon, and he hasn’t been the only one that Jesus has been using to do ministry.
So maybe James and John see this as their opportunity to vie for a leadership position. “Hey Jesus, when you’re fully in charge, and you’ve got the big throne and the courtyard where your supplicants come to meet with you and make requests to you…can…can we be the ones who are right next to you? You know, just on your right and left, right beside you, so that we are visually more prominent than the rest of the group?”
Because usually we view power and position as a zero-sum game, right? Everyone can’t have first place. The rest are 2nd place or lower. Everyone can’t be the most important in a room.
If YOU have power or authority, I DON’T. And in order to GET power or authority, in order to GET a better position, I must remove it from YOU.
And so we see why the other disciples were so mad. James and John were trying to elbow their way above the others. And they were angry because they ALL would like the places of honor on either side of Jesus. They RESENT being elbowed out of the way.
And so Jesus has to address it with all of them, because they don’t understand how the desire for position and power is actually pulling them away from the kingdom of God.
“You all know how the world works. Rome is in power right now, and we see how they handle positions of authority and power. The rulers LORD it over those under them. The ones at the top, the “Great Ones,” they act like awful tyrants, USING the people beneath them for their own glory.”
Jesus uses two verbs here. Both the phrase for “lord it over” and “act like a tyrant” both start with the Greek prefix “kata-”, which means “down.”
Jesus is pointing out that those types of leaders use their position of authority to “bear down” on those that are “below” them.
But it’s not supposed to be like that with YOU! You want to be a “Great One”? Then be a servant, the type of person that is focused not on only doing stuff for themselves, but someone who does things for other people for the good of the whole group.
You want to be “first”? Then be a slave, the bottom of the pecking order, no authority at all, not vying for position, just serving.
In other words, if you have ambition in the Kingdom of God, then let it be the ambition to SERVE others.
Because Jesus is teaching his followers, and us, that Power that pushes others down is anti-Christ. Power that oppresses others so that you can be held up is anti- the Kingdom of God.
“Want to know what to do with position? Follow my example. For the Son of Man came not to be SERVED, but to serve, and to GIVE HIS LIFE as a ransom for many.”
Jesus didn’t come to get lots of people under him to prop up his power and authority. Jesus came to give up his power and authority, to give up his very life, to lift up lots of people.
The normal pyramid of power that we usually see, where there is a leader on top, with a small group of co-leaders beneath them, with everyone else being pushed to the bottom to support the weight of the top is NOT the way of Jesus.
But Jesus isn’t trying to upend properly structured authority. He’s not advocating for no leaders. He’s not suggesting that there should just be a free-for-all without positions of authority.
He’s saying that the WAY authority is exercised shouldn’t be at the expense of others.
Power that pushes others down is anti-Christ.
We’re discussing this today because we are now in the season of Lent. It’s a church season that happens every year in the run-up to Easter where followers of Jesus take special time and special focus to repent from things that pull them away from the way of Jesus so that they can be more intentional with following Jesus in every area of their lives.
For many people, the spiritual habit of fasting or abstinence is one way to help do that. The theologian and author Scot McKnight says that “fasting is a response to a grievous sacred moment.” When something happens that strikes us, moves us to take notice, or moves us to repentance, fasting is a natural response as a way to connect with God. When the people of God in the OT experienced fear, or death, or sickness, or the threat of war, they realized their own lack of power and their need for God, and they turned away from food for a period of time so that they could fully focus only on connecting with God.
There might be times in our own lives when something happens that is both grieving as well as sacred. The loss of a life. The loss of a job. Anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the future for our family. And if we are paying attention, we’ll know that the Lord is pressing in close in those instances. In those situations, fasting is an appropriate spiritual habit and response to how the Lord is pressing in so that we can connect with him instead of being pulled away by fear to other distractions or refuges we think can save us.
But, related to fasting is the spiritual habit of abstinence. Abstaining from something in order to more fully focus on something else is something we all do already. When it’s time to go to bed, we abstain from the activities that keep us awake so that we can begin to relax and fall asleep. When our kids need our help, we turn away from what we were focusing on in order to focus on them.
As a spiritual habit, we can choose to abstain from something in order to more fully focus on God for a period of time. That’s actually what many Christians will do during Lent. We’ll “give up” something for the weeks of Lent as a way to focus on God, or as a way to limit the effect of those other activities on our lives.
But giving up something for Lent isn’t supposed to just be about losing weight, or getting healthier, though those are good reasons. In the season of Lent, we’re encouraged and invited to turn away from the things that steal our focus and steal our worship from God.
Scripture calls those things idols. Idols are anything that we put too much hope in or too much trust in apart from Jesus himself. And today’s passage shows us the idol of Position and Power.
James and John were putting their hope in the idol of position to be the thing that secured for them the life they wanted. They were assuming that better position would give them more power and therefore help them experience the better life they hoped for.
But the WAY they sought out position and power was by trying to take some from others in order to get more for themselves. They thought the only way “up” was to push others down.
But Jesus makes it clear that power that pushes others down is anti-Christ. The way of the kingdom of God is downward so that you can lift others up.
Even Jesus didn’t take power and authority, but received his authority from the Father. When he was speaking with James and John about the cup of suffering that he was going to go through, he affirms that, yes, they will actually endure some of the same suffering that he will by being his followers, but, in verse 23, points out that the positions at his right and left are “not his to grant, but are prepared for others by the Father.”
Even Jesus knew his authority wasn’t something to TAKE. His authority was DERIVED from the Father. “I do what the Father tells me to do” he told his disciples. The apostle Paul reflects on Jesus’ way of exercising his position and power in the letter to the Ephesians when he says that Jesus “didn’t consider equality with God as something to be exploited or grasped, but he emptied himself…he humbled himself…he headed downward, even to the point of willingly accepting death.”
The world tells us that in order to get power, in order to get authority, in order to get WORTH, you need to fight for it. You need to work hard for it. You need to work your way up the company. You need to secure the deal to expand your reach. You need to network with the right people so that you can grow your influence, your bank account, your value.
But Jesus showed us our worth when he lived a life that lifted up the lowly. Jesus showed us our worth when he willingly went to the cross to take the weight of our sin and the sin of the world upon himself. Jesus showed you your worth when he died so that you might have life.
We don’t need to prove ourselves by jockeying for position and power. The idol of Position and Power can’t prove our worth. The idol of Position and Power can’t give us full and abundant life. The only thing that the idol of Position and Power can do is cause us to live a life of looking over our shoulder, wondering when someone is going to try and elbow us out.
And whether you are in a position of authority, or whether you are a respected person in your circles, or whether you have power over others in some capacity, we ALL have given our focus and our efforts to pursuing the idol of Position and Authority in some way.
Whether you’ve fought for a pay raise or a promotion, or whether you’ve tried to get a better spot in the line at the grocery store, or whether you’ve tried to make friends with more influential people, or whether you’ve put your foot down with your family…ALL of us know what it’s like to pursue the idol of Position and Power.
And any power that pushes others down is anti-Christ. But the good news is that Jesus shows us the way to turn from the idol of Position and Power and to turn back to him, to learn the way of life that flourishes in the kingdom of God.
The way is servanthood.
Our position in the eyes of God is not something that we have to fight for. It’s not something we have to elbow our way into. Our position in the eyes of God is SECURE. It’s been established by Christ’s ransom.
We are a freed child of God, called into HIS service in his kingdom.
We don’t have to try and push others down in order to get ahead in the eyes of God, so therefore we can actually spend our energy HELPING OTHERS, instead of having to help ourselves.
Since we can trust that God will provide, we can give freely to others from the resources we have. Since we can trust that Jesus has invited us to share his easy yoke, we can give our energy to serving others.
The idol of Position and Power is about being self-serving. But Jesus shows us that he has already SERVED US, so we GET to serve others.
By choosing to engage in the spiritual habit of fasting or abstaining from power or position, not only does it get us to turn away from that idol in our lives, but serving others also helps free THEM from the cycle of oppressive power and getting ahead and pushing others down in order to seek more authority.
By serving others, we show a different way, the Way of Jesus, that calls people to repentance and invites them to belief, to taking their next steps in following Jesus as their Lord, the one who gave up his life to rescue them.
So here’s what I’d like to suggest this week in response to this message. I’d like to suggest that you serve someone “beneath” you.
Find a chance this week to use your position or your power to serve someone who you would normally see as below your station in life. Maybe it’s someone you live next to. Maybe it’s someone you work with. Maybe it’s a child.
And I don’t know how God might be prompting you to serve them. It might be in a tangible, acts-of-love sort of way. Or maybe it’s just in the act of using your position or authority for the benefit of someone else.
In order to turn away from the idol of position and power, so that we can more fully turn our hearts and our worship to God, Jesus shows us the way of servanthearted love.
Maybe one way that you can “fast” from power or authority this week is to try and release control over something a little. Or release the position you are holding in some way to allow others to rise up in some way.
Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, we GET to follow in his Way of life by serving others, and small intentional actions in the spiritual habit of fasting from position and power are part of joining Jesus on mission and partnering with the transformative work God is doing in our hearts and in our community.
Because Jesus gave his life as a ransom, we are able to be rescued from the grip of the idol of position and power. We don’t have to elbow our way to the top, because in the kingdom of God, the paradigm of power is turned upside down. In Jesus, we see that the apparent “weakness” of a human on a cross is actually the greatest display of power that the world has ever known. And our powerful and risen savior has sent his Spirit to live and work in us so that we may learn how to worship God the Father with lives that beckon and welcome everyone in to the kingdom of healing and wholeness and abundant life.
Isn’t that good news?