Reflection on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
It’s probably not news to anyone that I had many brothers and sisters and living and coping with that many siblings taught me some important life lessons. One of the most fascinating subjects I learned about was power — what it is, who has it, who doesn’t and how it works. Nobody disputed the power of my mother. She was a benevolent dictator, and she had a one-size fits-all solution to every question regarding power: “Because “I” said so, that’s why!” It was miraculous. Sometimes when she went away she would delegate her power to the oldest kid left behind and we got to experience other forms of power from the anarchy of no power to the tyranny of excessive controlling power. I was always glad when she came home. There was a lot more discipline, and there was a lot more peace.
The question of who has the power in our government is up for a decision once again, and the stakes could not be higher. The 18th century writer and statesman Goethe put out a blunt and strong statement about power. He said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Our founding fathers drafted a constitution which states that all people are created equal with certain rights endowed by the Creator — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They made it impossible for any one person or group to amass all of the power. This vision is still on paper and, although many years have passed, the fullest potential of its promise remains yet to be realized. Some believe that the very existence of the document is in peril.
Our first reading describes a time when the Jewish people were totally beaten down and without power. They had been defeated, the Temple had been destroyed, and they were living in exile in Babylon. Their sad communal lament and ardent yearning for their home in Jerusalem is celebrated in Psalm 137. Cyrus, the king of Persia, was anointed by God to
be their deliverer. He assisted them in returning home to Jerusalem. He restored the sacred vessels that had been confiscated and supplied them with funds and a decree which would allow them to rebuild the Temple. With a turn of events that was totally unexpected and unprecedented, God took care of them, and today’s Psalm is a joyous song of gratitude for their God, who governs with justice and equity. Let us always remember that we, too, as our second reading reminds us, have a God who cares for us and has chosen us and empowered us to live in the conviction of the Holy Spirit and continue to work in faith, labor in love and endure in hope!
This text from Isaiah, chapter 45, also has been cited as proof that God intervenes directly in American politics and uses American political figures as chosen vessels to effect the divine will. This idea is deeply rooted in centuries of Christian nationalism and today recognizes a modern-day Cyrus in our current leader. I’m going to leave this topic alone and invite you to check out the well-documented information on the internet if you are interested.
The subject of power also comes up in the Gospel. When the Pharisees are looking for a way to entrap Jesus they brought him a question on one of the most hotly debated of all questions: Does Caesar’s power allow him the right to demand that we pay taxes? Yes or no? They restrict him to two answers, either one of which would have gotten him into trouble. He gave them an amazing and ambiguous one liner for an answer. In her commentary of this passage, Jeannine Brown points out that when Jesus asks to see the coin of payment, he is able to acknowledge that some things do, as a matter of fact, fall under the jurisdiction of Caesar. The very minting of this coin that bears his image for the payment of taxes causes it to fall under things that are Caesar’s. She also points out that the Pharisees, who were well versed in Scripture, would know that there is really nothing else that can be thought of as not belonging to God. Psalm 24 said it clearly: The earth is God’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it. It turns out to be a rather foolish question to which they would already know the answer.
As time went on, Jesus eventually did decide to get caught in their trap. His preaching, teaching and actions left him no defense against the accusation that he was an enemy of the state and in the end, he had to be eliminated. At the Last Supper, he left us with one last clear picture of who has the power and what is to be done with power. He laid aside his garments and washed the feet of his disciples. They protested and he insisted. This is the way to be a powerful and effective leader — serve! It’s another one-size- fits-all answer to any question that might arise about authority and leadership. Authority and leadership are all about an opportunity to be of service — maximum service!