Who’s Got the Power?

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

It is a season of power struggles in much of the world, it seems. Maybe that is a foolish statement: is there any season of human history that is not marked by gain and loss, quest and fight, the climb up or precipitous fall down the ladder?

For individuals and for social groups alike, a great deal of human blood, sweat, tears, and (in our information age) ink is spilled in that endless battle for power, more power, and yet more power.

Nonetheless, this does seem to be a bit of theme in the world today. Perhaps it is the COVID aftermath. So many people have experienced these past years as a time of radical disempowerment, of loss of control over even the most basic patterns of our lives.

Perhaps it is a broader sense of the instability of our world—there does seem to be no shortage of venues in which the joints and bearings of our techno-crafted and elaborately infrastructured society are creaking, groaning, and showing signs of imminent collapse.

In such times when (perhaps) the flood waters are lapping at our doors and (perhaps) we are looking around to see where the nearest ark may be, it is not too surprising that much social discourse revolves around power and who has it, power and how they got it, power and how to redistribute it.

Oppressed and oppressors, privileged and unprivileged, in groups and out groups, critical theory around all these matters and the debate around that, and of course the obsession with “following the money,” which in our capital-driven world is the primary marker of where you (and more importantly, those other people) stand in the power rankings of 2021.

Into our perennial human obsession with power and who’s got it and our contemporary discourse around same, comes the Gospel for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Mark 10:35-45:

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (vv 43-45).

The gentle voice of the Good Shepherd speaks a word of truth and life to us poor human beings, so fixated on the quest for status and dominance. This is of course in the context of James and John and their request to sit at his right and left hands in his glory, and the indignation of the other disciples at them.

It’s all so petty, all so tawdry. Jesus just before this incident has been laying out for them what will happen in Jerusalem in just a few days—all of this is immediately before the entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ glory will be to lay down his life on the cross. To his right and left will be condemned criminals. And yet there they are, those words barely out of his mouth, caught up in a squalid fight over which of them are Jesus’ favorites.

And so he tells them what is real power and what is not, what really matters and what really doesn’t. What it means to live a life that has genuine influence—what a life looks like that will truly exert some lasting mark on the world—and what doesn’t. And it doesn’t look anything like what we think it does.

The life of the servant, the slave, the one in the lowest place, who gives his or her life as a gift of love for the world, is the life that has genuine power, real import. The life spent in futilely scrambling up the ladder—one rung higher, and another, and another!—is a life that ultimately is meaningless and vain.

This is not to say that all conversations about oppression and privilege and so forth are ruled out. If there is injustice, let us talk of what it is and how to redress it; let us strive always to build a better world where the dignity of every person is honored and all forms of hate, discrimination, and exploitation are overcome by justice and truth.

But for us who are Christians, all questions about power and who has it, power and how it is to be distributed, all founder on the rock of this Gospel.

This Gospel is the Lord’s own doctrine which endures to the end of time to instruct us on how we are to think of these matters, how we are to understand where true power lies and what a truly powerful life looks like, how we ultimately contemplate the Lord who makes all this known to us in his own person.

Because, of course, that’s the Rock on which all human power struggles and the acrimonious discourse around them truly founder. Jesus, who is God on high, the Power of all powers, divests himself to take the stature of a slave, of a criminal, a condemned man, a corpse laid in a tomb.

Jesus, who within himself carries the Power to make and remake the entire cosmos an infinite number of times, chooses to be naked in a manger and on a cross, to be a man like us, puny and insignificant to all seeming appearances.

And this denuding of God of power, this deliberate choice not to be merely plucked from the ladder to descend in a precipitous fall (as so many have fallen over the ages, starting with Lucifer) but to willingly descend the ladder rung by rung to the very bottom, to death itself, and hell—this is the single greatest exercise of power in the history of the world that was and ever will be.

This is the re-creation of the cosmos, this the refashioning of humanity, this the salvation of the world.

And so as we look to our own lives and whatever power we do or do not have, whatever power we would or would not like to have, and as we engage in whatever social discourse about justice or any related matter, let us never forget what Jesus told us.

Never lose sight of what he showed us, and never, ever, ever, lose the grace he bestows on us to exercise this day that which is our true and only power, which is the power to love and lay down our lives through, with, and in him.