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Jesus, Risk and the Lure of Power: Reflections from Sunday

This Lenten season we are following the ministry of Jesus with an eye to the correlation between risk and faith. As the presidential race is ubiquitous I can’t help but have the notion of power on my mind as well. Like no election in my life that I remember, this race seems to be about who has power, who doesn’t, who should and who shouldn’t. What will happen if those in power lose it and what might happen if those who don’t gain it?

Starting with Jesus’ temptation in the desert I see the issue of power everywhere in his ministry. Richard Rohr points out rightly that “all three temptations in the desert are temptations to the misuse of power.” Jesus walks out of this time of testing having eschewed one way of accomplishing his mission for another, much harder, much riskier way; one that requires others to have faith in what he is saying and requires him to live out what he is preaching rather than relying on fancy tricks or imposed authority.

We are reading Luke in this Bible study series and our passage this last Sunday was chapter 6 verses 1-38. We find Jesus is engaging in seriously risky behavior by “misbehaving” in front of those with power to do him harm – “making food” and healing on the Sabbath. He shows just how free to do the work of God he is – so free that he can proclaim “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Not the other way around. Is part of the reason he is so free because he has already determined in the desert that he has nothing to gain by winning the favor of those who could give him recognition, power, resources, help? Is this part of a clue to what Jesus is saying in the next section of Luke 6 in the Sermon on the Mount?

In preparation for this week’s Creative Bible study I read a study called “The Role of Stress in the Interactive Effect of Power and Stability on Risk Taking” by Jennifer Jordan. One of the major conclusions of the study is that when the stability of one’s relationship to power is fixed and people are aware of their situation, “it has transformative effects on the behavior of the powerful and the powerless, propelling the powerful towards risk when they have something to lose and encouraging the powerless to take risks when they have nothing to gain.”

I’ve been chewing on the second part of that sentence all week: encouraging the powerless to take risks when they have nothing to gain. I’m used to thinking about having nothing to lose as a motivator for risk taking but this study suggests the exact opposite. It explains that people in a position without power who have no hope of gaining power are more likely to take risks than those without power who believe they have the possibility of gaining power.

My interpretation is that those who are in a fixed situation of “powerlessness” have nothing to gain by playing by the rules, doing what pleases those in authority, etc. so why not be free to risk? In a relational context it means removing any construct of having something gain from someone else (approval, “fixing” someone, security, etc.). Would that then free us to take bigger risks towards depth in relationship – towards knowing and being known?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says the poor, hungry, grieving and persecuted are blessed. He goes so far to say the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Our exercise Sunday was to chew on the idea of having nothing to gain in relation to Jesus’ statement. If this first section is then linked to the next section where Jesus gives instructions to his disciples – love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, etc.; maybe Jesus is suggesting that as difficult and unfortunate as one’s situation might be, being a position where we have no power over our circumstances leaves us blessed to have nothing to gain by not risking. We can engage in the risky behavior of going the extra mile, turning our cheek, going naked because we are in the very real position of knowing we have no control over circumstances anyway.

Last night the conversation among our group was rich and multi-faceted. We were reminded that we cannot romanticize poverty nor demonize people who happen to wealthy and certainly this is not meant to be a definitive lens through which to view the Sermon on the Mount. But, it did get us thinking, questioning, chewing about our own context– what do we each have to gain by holding on to (or desiring) the power (or supposed power) in our own lives? Is the security we think we have or could have really there at all? What if we didn’t need as much as we think we need and were free to live more simply? What would we risk? What would our faith look like?

Join us for part three of our conversation on Jesus, Risk and the Lure of Power on Sunday, March 6 at 5:00 PM in the Lab as we study Luke 7:18-48 (John the Baptist and the woman who washes Jesus’ feet).

Rev. Lisa Cole Smith, Pastor/Artistic Director




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