All of us live within in various “circles of influence.” That is, we live as part of at least one group of people. Of course, virtually all of us are also part of several groups. These groups, as a whole, as well as the groups individuals, have varying degrees of influence over us. In various ways, and to various degrees, the groups tell us what to do, or they try to get us to do something. We may, or may not, be favorably predisposed to do what they want. But, we know what they want of us.
As part of these circles of influence, such as a families, employment groups, churches, colleges cliques, or even a retirement community, we are expected to adjust to the way things are done in that circle. Making this observation is not to be interpreted as a making a value statement about what we are told to do. That is another issue. I am simply pointing out the pervasiveness of being with people who, in one fashion or another, let us know what they want us to do.
The orientation of the smaller circles – power or love
Some of these circles of influence are strongly characterized by the exercise of power. Other circles of influence are characterized by the exercise of love. (Please note that I am aware that many more descriptors are also appropriate, and that referring to love and power is not intended to be reductionist.) In any case, concerning love and power, the exercise of power is much more common, and more dangerous – dangerous to the one who exercises it, and the one over whom it is exercised.
The reality of these dangers just mentioned is behind my challenge and exhortations to the readers. At some point in our lives (the earlier the better), we need to become conscious of how pervasive the exercise of power is in our environment, and to consciously decide to live in the circle of love rather than the circle of power.
For some, this article will reinforce what you are already doing. For others, however, it might require some hard decisions. Each reader has to make that call. With this, let’s get into specifics.
Jesus and the power circle
The exercise of power has a long history among humans. This article, however, is not meant to give a synopsis of this history. Rather, it is meant to begin a look at Jesus and power while at the same time recognizing that we commonly associate Jesus with love.
The fact is that Jesus lived in an environment of a frequently extreme exercise of power. Jesus did not live on a cloud where ”good will toward all people” dominated the scene. He lived in an empire, ruled more by tyrants than by tender gentlemen. They viewed power as both a means to and a sign of success. Rome was far from being utopia. Love was not touted as the highway to successful advancement. Ruthlessness, deceit, treachery – these were deemed to be attributes to success in the public and political arena.
In this context, Jesus is depicted at the end of his life as describing himself in term of power. In the Gospel of Matthew (28.18-20), Jesus is quoted as saying that “all authority / power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, . . . make disciples of all nations . . .and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.“ The use of the imperative mode in this passage is striking. It is power language, the kind of language that permeated the environment in which Jesus lived. Let’s remember that Jesus said these to a “friendly audience”.
But, there were other audiences, such as the one that eventually put Jesus to death. And, even earlier than the week of Jesus’ state authorized murder, there were those who hated Jesus, that feared Jesus, and that considered Jesus a threat to society and to religion. They certainly did not consider Jesus to be a friendly “power” person. They saw Jesus as a power person to be destroyed so that they would be successful power people.
Jesus wasn’t murdered by people who wanted to do Jesus a favor. Rather, He was murdered by people who in their own minds, were proving that they had power over someone they hated – Jesus. Their approach could be summarized with, “Buck us long enough, and seriously enough, and we will get rid of you.”
Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4.16-30)
It is time to look at a specific episode that presents Jesus in a power episode, but one that doesn’t end with his death (much to the chagrin of other people who take part in the episode). It happens in the small town in which Jesus was raised, in the area of Galilee, which is about 65 miles north of the city where Jesus was eventually killed, Jerusalem. The narrative of the episode was recorded in the Gospel of Luke as follows:
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
So, what do we have in this narrative? Allow me to mention some what I think are front burner items.
- Luke tells us in vv. 16-17 about Jesus gaining popularity in Galilee. Many people were thrilled with Jesus and His teaching. When a speaker, teacher, politician, corporate leader, military commander, college president, etc., is described as being popular, we can be sure that the person is considered to have a following. There are people who are prepared to do, to some degree, what that person says. Jesus, to some degree, had a following. To quantify that following is impossible for us two thousand years later. It is safe to assume, nonetheless, that Jesus was aware of having some power over some people at that point in his life. Admittedly, this is not an earth shattering statement, but it can’t be swept under the rug either.
- In the synagogue meeting in Nazareth, Jesus, as the invited speaker, quoted Isaiah 60: 18-19, and provide some commentary on the those verses. The passage might have been selected by Jesus, or it might have been what the lectionary had designated for that particular Sabbath service. At this point, we simply don’t know.
- The folk in the synagogue were initially favorably impressed and appreciated what Jesus was saying (20-21). Jesus’ remarks resonated with their Messianic expectation. Who wouldn’t want their population to have blind people regaining their vision, crippled people regaining their ability to walk, and starving people regaining a food supply? What slaves wouldn’t want to be granted the freedom and resources to manage on their own? What oppressed people wouldn’t want the “chains” to be removed and their dignity restored?These were the hopes of those waiting for the promised Messiah. It appeared to the folk in the synagogue meeting that the Messianic Era has arrived. Freedom was ready to grasp. A new day has come.
- For some reason, or combination of reasons, those same folk began to have some uncertainty with what Jesus was saying. Perhaps they had entirely misunderstood what Jesus was saying. Perhaps they did understand Jesus, but only partially. But, it appears that they began to trace out some of the conclusions of what they thought Jesus was saying. They are described as referring to Jesus as Joseph’s son. We can’t be sure of all that was implied by that reference, but it appears safe to assume that being Joseph’s son wasn’t going to allay their apprehensions.
- Jesus addresses the people’s uncertainty in several ways. First, he likens their thinking to that of a person who would say to a doctor, “Don’t pretend to be able to heal a person of an illness if you yourself have that same illness. Doctor, heal yourself if you want us to have confidence in your ability to heal other people of the same malady.”Then Jesus moves from figurative expression to concrete speech. He says to them, “I know what you are thinking. You want me to do a miracle here in Nazareth like I did in Capernaum.” Capernaum was only about twenty miles from Nazareth, and the news of a miracle worker in Capernaum would get to Nazareth quickly. (The specific miracle to which Jesus refers is not mentioned in the text)
This is a critical moment in the conversation between Jesus and the people in the synagogue. The people are trying to take the reins, and tell Jesus what to do. This posture by the crowd deserves some explanation.
Part of the Messianic expectation was the idea that Messiah would need help – the people’s help. Even back in the Old Testament era, the God designated delivers (such as Moses, Joshua, the judges, King David and other kings, Nehemiah) didn’t take on the oppressing enemies single handed. They had armed troops at their disposal.
Consequently, at the time of Jesus, it was taken for granted that any person with Messianic pretensions would have to have some military support from Jewish patriots. No one in their right mind expected a Messianic figure to take on the Roman Empire single handed. The human resources the Messiah needed would have to come from within the Jewish population. Due to this contextual reality, the people of Nazareth, in the mind of those listening to Jesus, had something that they thought Jesus needed – the man power to take on the Romans.
As a result, the Nazarenes believed they had some leverage to force Jesus to do something. In this case, they told him to do a miracle like he had done in Capernaum. They had personal and practical reasons for wanting this miracle, reasons that fit in with their Messianic expectations.
They would have calculated that if Jesus were a miracle worker at the head of a military operation, he could take care of his warriors by 1) feeding them without having to worry about food supplies running out; 2) bringing them back from the dead; 3) healing their wounds. Jesus’ army would be invincible; even the Romans couldn’t conquer!!
Jesus responded to this scenario with two history lessons – one from the life of Elijah and one from the life of Elijah’s successor, Elisha.
Permit me to point out before going farther into the stories of Elijah and Elisha, and remembering that by the end of the two history lessons, the Nazarenes wanted to, and tried to, kill Jesus. Have you ever been in a college lecture room, where after part of a history lesson, the students tried to kill the professor by throwing him out the window onto the concrete pavement four stories below??? . . . . History lessons are not intended to create mayhem, are they??? And, if we don’t see what it is about Jesus’ lessons that makes them so provocative, we are missing the point!
Elijah (1 Kings 17)
Elijah traveled from Israel to Zaraphath, a city in Sidon of Phonecia. It was during the time of King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel in Israel. Israel was heavily involved in state supported Baal worship, worship brought to Israel from Phonecia by none less than Jezabel. One of the consequences of this religious apostasy was a famine that God sent to Israel. At a particular point during those years of famine, Elijah made a trip to Sidon in Phonecia. While there he miraculously provides assistance to a widow, a pagan.
Now, let’s pretend that one day, you as a suffering Israelite, found out that Elijah had done that, and you ask him, “Why did you go to the land of the enemy to provide relief to that pagan woman, when we have so many suffering people right here in our country, in your country?”
What answer could Elijah give, in all honesty? He could only say, no matter how smooth it came out, that “God sent me!! He told me what to do!”
Elisha (2 Kings 5)
In this very abbreviated story, the basic issue is what we saw in the story of Elijah with the starving widow in Zaraphath of Sidon-Phonecia. The differences are that this time it is a man who is a general in the Syrian army. His name is Namaan, and he is an enemy and is suffering from the disease of leprosy.
Although there are different details when compared to the case of Elijah and the widow, the question that Elisha’s countrymen would ask is the same – “Why, Elisha, did you help Namaan, the enemy?” And, the only acceptable and true response from Elisha has to be, “Because God told me to do it.
According to Jesus’ use of these two stories, God’s prophets did not answer to the people. Rather, they answered to God. They were not at the beck and call of the Jews. They did what God told them to do, even to the point of “aiding and abetting” the enemy. In other words, Jesus used history lessons to say to the people of Nazareth, “I do not take orders from you. . . . . You don’t have anything I need which puts me under your power. I don’t need you!!!” You don’t tell me what to do!!!
Of course, the final irony of the story of Jesus in Nazareth is that Jesus did a miracle in Nazareth, in their presence, as we see at the end of the episode. The people wanted to kill Jesus, and tried to kill Him. If they would have been successful, they would have demonstrated that they had more power over Jesus, regardless of the message of the stories of Elijah and Elisha. When Jesus escaped from their attempt to murder him, they got their miracle! But, it was not the miracle they wanted, nor when they wanted it. It was totally determined by Jesus and the Father.
Jesus’ experience in Nazareth – the exercise of power
What happened that day in Nazareth was repeated time after time in Jesus’ life. People thought they could manipulate Jesus to do what they wanted, because they had something they thought Jesus needed.
If someone possesses a resource, thinking that I need it, the next step is to leverage that resource to make me do something that I may not otherwise do. In the case of Jesus, no one had anything that He needed. Consequently, people could not force Jesus to do anything he did not want to do. Jesus never gave in to that game, and that is why He was a “free man.” He was not under the power of anyone on earth. They could never leverage Jesus to do anything. It wasn’t because Jesus was a bull headed “I will do what I want no matter what you think” kind of person. He wasn’t selfishly pursuing his own agenda regardless of what others thought. No, it was more basic and entirely God centered. Simply stated, Jesus responded to Father God. That did not make him anti-social. But, it did give him freedom. Jesus lived in the circle of love – love for Father God, Father God’s love for Him, self sacrificial love (complete commitment to the well being of others).
Now, permit me to make a transition and expand the concept with some personalized references. Some will be on what may appear to be an elementary level. Others are not very elementary, but they refer to some of my encounters with “power brokers.” My guess is that some of the following will have parallels with you.
I remember the smoking situation as a 7-8 year old boy. I was sitting, along with a neighborhood friend, back in Dayton, OH, along with several other boys, in a cluster of bushes, safely hidden from any observers. The lead boy, brought out a package of cigarettes, lit one up, and offered the rest of us a smoke. I had never departed from the narrow path outlined by my parents that “smoking was sinful.” I didn’t have any personally deduced reason for not smoking. I simply valued my parents’ code. But, that afternoon, in that company of other boys my age, I wanted (as I now am able to look back on it) at least two things: 1) to know the taste of tobacco 2) to be accepted by a slightly older boy. As a youngster, I was having to choose between the benefits of conforming to parental expectations and the sense of acceptance by a circle of boys. By my opting for peer conformity, the one boy with the cigarettes had the power to entice me to take a drag. His power was traced back to his having a resource that I “suddenly” needed. He didn’t need to tie me down, stick the cigarette in my mouth, and hold my nose shut to get me to inhale. I willingly “surrendered” to smoking the cigarette. His having the cigarette and my having the need for it gave him power over me.
When that experience was taking place, I had no idea of the psychological and sociological dynamics that were involved. Now many years late, I do.
I recall my bosses, such as when I was working for a surveying company, when I was teaching and coaching at a prep school in Nyack, NY, while attending college, when I was packing gifts for a mail order house called Edith Chapman Gifts, when I was making and inspecting sewer pipes for Orangeburg Pipe company the summer I got married, when reading water meters in Wheaton, IL, m bosses had the money I needed/wanted so I could stay in college. Because they had what I needed / wanted, they had power over me. On the other hand, I never thought that I had power over them, since I didn’t think I had anything they needed.
I recall my professors, all the way through my PhD program. I needed an acceptable grade in their courses. I faced the fact that some professors could be very subjective. Some could be vindictive. Grades were not entirely granted on the basis of objective criteria. But, I needed a particular grade to stay in school, and so they had power over me. I don’t know if I will ever forget having to retype my MA thesis because the original wasn’t submitted on 100 % cotton bond paper, but on 80% paper. They could force me to retype the thesis (prior to computers being invented). But, I couldn’t get my MA without it!!! And, I needed that thesis. That set the stage for them to have power over my activity.
I recall language school in Costa Rica. I recognized I was living under the supervision of the school’s administration. My missionary ministry required a satisfactory completion of a year of studying Spanish. I would never get to Argentina without that certificate. What I wanted very badly created the scenario for others to have power over me.
I am not alone with these examples. You could add your own to the list. We have needs. Others have the resources to satisfy those needs, and that gives them power to force us / require us / obligate us do something that will benefit them in some way or another. The same dynamic was happening that day 2000 years ago in Nazareth with Jesus and the crowd in the synagogue.
We are all under the power of everyone upon whom we depend.
The world is full of people who have what we want or need. They tell us what to do, and expect our conformity. These people will use that situation to force us to do what fits THEIR agenda, and we become a means to their ends. It is the circle of power – the system of pay offs and pay backs. It is all about getting, and forcing behavior. We do it to them. They do it to us.
The drug addict and her 2 year old daughter
One evening in a course I was teaching, I related the incident of a young woman, the mother of a three year old daughter, who had for unknown reasons become a drug addict. Earlier that week, the young mother under the duress of the addiction, went to her provider to get the addictive substance. The provider told her that she didn’t need to pay her that day. The young woman was entirely confused at what she thought was an act of kindness, until she heard the provider say, “No, you don’t have to pay me. I only want two hours with your three year old daughter.”
The young woman had allowed her need for the drug to take first place in her value system to where it was more important than the care she gave to her daughter. The provider, who understood how power works, knew that his resources would satisfy the woman’s need for the drug, and that consequently he had complete access to anything of less value in the woman’s value system. Unfortunately for the three year old at that moment, she was not as important to her mother as was her drug addiction.
What we have been exploring is the circle of power. In our fallen world, there are few examples of the righteous use of power. There may be some examples of mixed reasons for why people do things. And, there may be some few examples of when our actions are birthed by something entirely other than the exercise of power. But, the exercise of power runs so deeply in us that acting entirely out of love (acting entirely on behalf of the well being of the other person) is in very short supply.
Breaking out of the circle of power and into the circle of love
Nonetheless, we are not condemned to live in the circle of power. There is another circle in which we can live, and in which we can be free. I am referring to our living in the circle of love. When we break out of the circle of power that we have been considering, we move to freedom from both (1) the power of others over us AND from (2) our wanting to have power over others.
Breaking out of the circle of power and moving into the circle of love can happen when — upon examining our value system, we:
- adjust our value system to what God provides. God is a giving God, a God who acts on behalf of our well being. God knows what we need to live well. God knows what damages us. He know both of these things better than we ever will.
We need forgiveness. We need consistency. We need security. We need companionship. We need friendship. We need to be built up. We need consolation. We need knowledge. We need opportunities to serve others.
These become the values that dominate our lives. No one can better provide these resources than can God. Becoming free from the power that others would exercise over us requires us to reject the resources that others will use to subject us to their agenda. Moving into this circle does not make us less dependent than we are when living in the circle of power. Rather, it makes us dependent on the only entirely faithful One, the one who will not enslave us for egotistical and self-serving reasons.
- remove from our value system the items whose satisfaction is in the hands of others who can force us to do what they want. When doing this, we are consciously putting ourselves in dependence upon God, not on others. To the degree that God is our need satisfier, we are free from others to whom we turn to satisfy our needs and wants.
Loving God, and making His resources what we most want, we then aren’t susceptible to people trying to force us to do something, either by giving us, or by taking from us, something that they think we highly value.
- make the well being of others so important that we refuse to manipulate them for our own sake. Living in the circle of love frees us from the “needing” them for personal satisfaction. God is providing our needs.
It is true, of course, that we may, and probably do, have things that other folk need. We become the “givers”. That puts us in a potentially dangerous situation. But, when we rely on God providing for us, we don’t give our resources to other in order to get anything from them. At the same time, we will not refuse the other from giving to us. We simply do not accept what they offer to put either of us in the bondage of a power play. In either case, their giving to us, or our giving to them, becomes an educational moment. And, that is fine.
Conclusion – “This is impossible!!!”
Some may be thinking that what has been laid out in this piece is impossible. I disagree. Rather, what has been said is the consequence of at least the following two items:
1. having a correct vision of ourselves. We may not be able to change other people’s personal agenda. We may not be able to take from them the resources they possess and that potentially gives them power over us.
But, we can deal with our wants and needs, and consequently deal with which circle we want to inhabit. We don’t have to live in the circle of power and its abuses. We can live in the circle of love, with all its freedom.
2. having a correct vision of God, the ultimate need satisfier. Although the ultimate need satisfier, God has no need or desire to abuse us, nor victimize us, as he makes His resources available to us.
Comments are welcome