Easter: Power and Money, Judgment and Destiny
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
At the beginning of this week I carefully read through Luke’s version of the last few days of Jesus’ life, expecting to find heartwarming devotional material centred on Christ’s atoning death for my sins. Instead I found something else: a series of stories illustrating how human beings abuse money and power. This is not ‘sin’ in the abstract, perhaps crystallizing around my own sense of unease about barriers in my own relationship with God. This account is about the raw badness of people turning away from the weak while selfishly feathering their own nests, and rejecting the rightful authority of their maker with murderous fury often masked as civilized sophistication.
The attitudes and actions which kill Christ are based on a complete failure to understand the true nature of wealth, of the power of God and the identity of his Son. In Luke’s second book Peter says it straight – “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The Easter story was not meant to be an aid to private piety. It’s not ‘religious studies’, but politics and economics; the ugly spiritual powers behind them; their exposure and judgement, and then redemption – itself an economic term. All this set against what we as readers are privileged to see as the backdrop of the true realities of the universe.
Attitudes to wealth: wrong and right
Lent is often used as a time when Christian reflect on their use of money and consumption of resources. Luke’s Passion narrative gives us several examples of wrong attitudes to wealth. The story of Zacchaeus (19:1-9) shows a man who as a tax collector would have been a by-word for greed and selfish hoarding. By his own admission he cheated others and took more than they owed. Those running the stalls for changing money and selling of items for presentation in the temple (19:45-48) are taken to task by Jesus for focussing on profit instead of prayer and mission. Teachers of the Law are accused of “devouring widows’ houses” (20:47) – one of the many ways in which those with influence can exploit the poor and vulnerable for financial gain. The rich, says Jesus, often give to God for show, and they, we?, give out of our excess rather than sacrificially (21:4). Constantly worrying about money, or using it to lead a life of indolence, are signs that we haven’t got the right perspective on God’s Kingdom and his coming judgement (21:34). Most tragically, Judas, betrayed Jesus to his enemies for money (22:5), perhaps history’s worst example of ‘selling out’.
But wrong use of money isn’t just about selfishness and greed. In the parable of the Ten Minas (19:11-27), to which we will return later, Jesus tells of a servant who avoided any risk with his resources out of fear (v20-21). By contrast the other servants are commended for investing and gaining a return (spiritually, by seeing what we have as belonging to God and investing for the benefit of his agenda), just as the ruler in the story has taken a risk by investing in them.
There are other examples of right use of money in these passages. Zacchaeus’s moral and spiritual transformation results in generous giving to the needy, and voluntary restitution for past wrongdoing. We should pay our taxes, giving to the government what is due, says Jesus (20:25), contradicting the zealots of his day. Finally before taking his disciples out to Gethsemane after the Last Supper, Jesus reminds them of God’s provision, and they agree that they have lacked nothing while being dependent on him (22:35).
Wrong use of money includes lack of generous sharing with neighbour, fear that God might not provide, selfish pursuit of comfort and pleasure. All derive from a faulty worldview . All of these sins were endemic among God’s people and especially their leaders, and they continue to be so among us today. The solution is the same: the cross, which exposes and judges our greed and focus on self preservation, and atones for it.
Game of Thrones?
Concern for power is closely linked to love of money, more corrupting and more devastating when wrongly oriented. At the centre of this compelling drama about power and who is really in charge, is Jesus’ teaching, and the refusal to accept it by those with power in the religious and political structures.
As Jesus and the growing crowd move towards Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, the followers try to silence a blind beggar. For them, Jesus is one with power, to be used for his own and their advantage. But the powerless man links Jesus as ‘Son of David’ with one who has mercy on the poor. Jesus publicly heals him: he sees spiritually and receives physical sight; the people remain blind. Then, on the Sunday, Jesus is again hailed with words of Old Testament hope telling of the King who comes in the name of the Lord, and he deliberately re-creates the prophetic image as he rides on a young donkey. Five days later this King is humiliated, crucified between two criminals. The contrast between visual images of power: healer and triumphant King on one hand, and tortured outcast on the other, is striking, and explained further in Jesus’ teaching.
Luke records two similar parables from Jesus, the ‘Minas’ (19:11-27), and the ‘Vineyard’ (20:9-19), which frame the Palm Sunday triumphal procession and cleansing of the temple. Both stories tell of a wealthy and powerful man who is absent from the scene. In both cases his authority is resented, and rebellion is planned. Both have the same conclusion: the one with authority punishes the rebels. Both contain the implicit question to the hearers: are you giving the one with rightful authority over your life the honour and the tribute, or rent, that is due to him? The parable of the vineyard carries an extra detail: the Son, the heir, who is sent as a personal representative of the owner. This story is told in response to the question about power: “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?” the religious leaders ask Jesus, not understanding his identity or his power, being in rebellion against their own God.
The ruler in the parable of the Minas, like many oriental potentates of the time, or indeed like the Roman emperor, has complete authority over politics and economics, life and death in his jurisdiction. Trying to declare oneself independent of him because he appears to have ‘gone away’ is futile and will just result in punishment and death because he has so much more power.
But then, what is Jesus saying? Is God like that ruler? Should we regard him like a brutal autocrat? In terms of character, clearly not, as the stories of the healing of the blind man, the restoration of Zacchaeus and the choice of the donkey’s colt clearly demonstrate. Luke’s portrayal of the last supper ends with Jesus correcting the disciples’ understanding of power as domination, and says that in the Kingdom of God it is about humble service, following his own example (22:24-27). But in terms of authority and power, God is like that ruler – in fact far more powerful that any human ruler we can imagine. Everything we have in terms of ‘talents’ or ‘minas’ (Luke’s term) comes from God and we are accountable to him for how we use it. But while rebellion and declaration of independence might be justifiable in relation to a cruel human ruler, in relation to God it’s not just ungrateful, it shows we simply have not understood the reality of who he is.
This stubborn and destructive blindness is illustrated by a number of hostile exchanges between Jesus and those who are trying to play the power game. Some Sadducees engage him in a theological debate about life after death (20:27-38), presenting him with an attempt to ridicule the idea of resurrection based on Mosaic laws about marriage. Jesus’ response is to teach about the nature of the spiritual realm, heaven, and the sovereignty and power of God in raising the elect from death. The Sadducees are religious leaders, with a ‘liberal’ attitude to their own Scriptures and traditions, trying to gain advantage by making alliances with secular human government. In their mind, Jesus is an irritating but powerless religious conservative. The implications of Jesus’ reply to them show the reality of the power differential. For all their humanist sophistication, they are unknowingly dealing with the One who controls not just death and life, but time itself: “he is the God …of the living, for to him all are alive”.
Similarly, as the drama reaches its climax, we’re presented with scenes of a trial. In the dock is an apparently powerless itinerant religious teacher. His accusers and judges are those with the power – aren’t they? The priests and Pilate ask Jesus: who do you think you are? They are not interested in the truth of his answer; they just want him out of the way, as his influence over the crowd potentially threatens their carefully crafted positions of status. But as Jesus has made clear in his teachings about the future destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem, we know that he is not really sitting under their judgement. Rather it’s the other way round.
God’s plan for power
The Gospel does not teach, as some claim, that for authority to be concentrated in any one place is inherently oppressive; that even for God, having too much power is always bad, while powerlessness and/or democratic diffusion of power is always better. The answer to the corrupting of power is not ‘equality’ and the abolition of hierarchy, but God’s perfect and righteous rule. The accounts leading up to Jesus’ death show the voluntary submission of the ‘Son of Man’ to petty human power plays. Afterwards, his true position as Lord, delegated by the One with absolute authority, is confirmed by his resurrection and ascension.
But it doesn’t end there. He has a plan for his faithful followers too. At the Last Supper Jesus promises his friends:
I confer on you a Kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
The attitude and behaviour of the religious leaders of Jerusalem shows how the desire for power and authority is easily corruptible, like our attitude to money. In itself it is not wrong. It is the destiny of God’s children to rule in humble service, in right relationship with God and others, in fulfilment of the mandate given to Adam. The transformation of human attitudes that makes this vision possible begins with the cross and resurrection.