Matthew 20 21, 22
Well, this week in Lutheran churches,
Jesus gets into politics again.
Seems like Jesus was always breaking that social rule
about avoiding religion and politics in polite company.
Of course, the company was anything but polite
in the gospel story we will hear on Sunday—
it was polite to the point of saccharine,
as the religious and politic leaders of the day
try to trip Jesus up with a tough question:
Is it lawful to pay taxes to emperor, or not?
Of course, we’re in the season of trick questions, aren’t we,
with an election coming up?
So in the spirit of the season,
I’ll avoid that question,
and put to you a different one:
What do you think we mean when we call Jesus, Lord?
Lord, emperor, it’s all close enough;
the real question is power,
do you have it, or enough of it?
And if you have power—
enough power to be president,
or to influence the outcome of an election,
or remake the world in your own image;
or only enough power
to decide what you will do today,
what you will spend today,
what you will wear today;
if you have been given power,
any power at all,
what should you do with it?
You have the freedom to decide:
what is power for?
Because we all want it, don’t we?
Like wealth, like money, that kind of power:
we all want just a little bit more of it than we have.
Oh, we don’t want to be filthy rich, like those other people,
but think what we could do
if we just had a little bit more of it.
Show me the coin used for the tax.
Whose head is this, whose title?
Oh, that would be the emperor’s,
the most powerful person in the land.
What would you do, what should you do
if you had such power?
I think power has become our god these days,
our new idolatry.
If we can pack the court,
stuff the ballot box (or empty it),
if we can get our people in power
then we can get our way.
Is that what power is for—getting our way?
The ability to enforce our way on others?
Is that how God uses power?
Remember another gospel story:
In Mathew 20, James and John,
with a little parental assistance,
do some campaigning for positions of power
in Jesus’ kingdom.
And Jesus turns it into a lesson for every would-be disciple:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.
How does God use power?
Like a tyrant, enforcing God’s own way on others?
No, Jesus says, but like a servant,
forgetting self for the sake of others.
And remember this gospel story,
just one chapter earlier,
when a rich young man asks Jesus,
What good deed must I do to have eternal life?
I’ve got all this wealth, all this power—
Jesus, how should I use it?
And Jesus tells him,
Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.
You’ve got wealth, you’ve got power?
Give it away; use it for the sake of others.
And remember this gospel story,
just a few verses after the question about taxes,
when a lawyer asked him a question to test him:
Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?
And Jesus’ answer is,
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The enduring lesson of this pandemic is
—or should be, ought to be, let us hope to God will be—
that we are not our own.
“Individual liberty” is pointless without community,
without our neighbor.
“We are given power,” as former president George H.W. Bush said—
prayed, actually, in his inaugural speech:
“We are given power to serve others….
the only just use of power is to serve others.
Help us remember, O Lord.”
Jesus has always been clear that if we are to love God
—if we are to give to God the things that are God’s—
then the way to do that is to serve others,
to love our neighbor,
to put our neighbor’s safety and welfare and life
before our own,
demonstrating love for all without partiality.
And the irony of our times is
that the only way to save yourself,
the only way to be safe,
is make sure first of all that your neighbor is safe.
Love your neighbor as yourself
is, in the end, the only way to love yourself,
and the truest way to love God,
and the only just use of power.
We do not pray for the power to get our way,
or even the power to get what we think is God’s way.
We pray for our neighbor, not ourselves.
We pray for her safety and welfare and life before our own.
And we pray for ourselves:
that we may have the power,
not to be kings and rulers of the world,
not to be rich or wealthy or powerful—
but to be a rich blessing to the world.
You have been blessed to be a blessing;
you have been loved, so that
you might love one another
as God has loved you.
© Paul R. Olsen