Power and Authority Reframed
By Joel Van Dyke
“I have the power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again.”
“We must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity…. The real issue confronting us is whether the news of God’s abundance can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity?”
We live in a world where power and authority are firmly rooted in a fear-based myth of scarcity. In our lectionary text this week Jesus upends that myth, smashing it against the rock of a counter-intuitive way of life – a way of life celebrating abundance, rooted in trust.
We are entering this week into the 4th Sunday of Easter, and in light of the resurrection we are confronted with a compare-and-contrast of two ways of understanding power and authority.
What does power look like in the lives of people around you? Does it mean, as I have often fallen prey to, the ability to aggressively make things happen? Is it defined by organizational, political, or financial muscle? For whom, or for what cause, would you actually lay down power – or even lay down your life? Is there a cause so dear or a person so precious that you would willingly let go of life itself?
In our gospel text this week, Jesus gives us the image of a good shepherd. In so doing, he radically reframes “authority” by describing true power as the willingness to lay down one’s life for others. This laying down is an absolute prerequisite for any authority to “take it up again.” This reframing only makes sense in the light of God’s abundance. How can we take the risk to release our tightly managed grasp on whatever bits of power we may have, unless we have some sense of trust that there will be enough – more than enough to sustain us within a community of abundance?
Jesus sets up a vivid contrast between the shepherd who freely gives his life away and the hired hand who hoards his life and makes decisions driven by ambition and self-preservation. It is, as Walter Brueggemann asserts, the classic “contest between the liturgy of generosity and the myth of scarcity – a contest that still tears us apart today.”
While the hired hand runs away, the shepherd lays down his life. While the hired servant cares nothing for the sheep, the shepherd intimately knows his sheep. While the hired servant abandons the sheep, the shepherd is so engaged with them that he knows his own and his own know him.
The hired hand in this passage mirrors the “false shepherds” of the previous chapter. After Jesus heals a man born blind on the Sabbath, the religious leaders of the day retreat into the same defensive act of self-preservation displayed by the hired hand in our passage. Jesus says near the end of Chapter 9, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” They were blinded and bound by the myth of scarcity!
We at Street Psalms have the privilege of engaging contemporary examples of those who, living in light of the resurrection, see and embrace power as it was modeled by Jesus as Good Shepherd. Tita Evertsz and her team serve in the largest urban slum in Central America. When they were threatened by drug lords and extortion ringleaders, they were forced into hiding for a period of time, and two of the schools they developed were closed. It was a clash between two radically different dynamics of power and authority. It exposed questions of who has real power, who doesn’t, and upon whose authority is would such a decision be made?
After several weeks of hiding and devout prayer, Tita and her team came to a realization that led them to a bold decision. They felt compelled to return to the community from which they’d been forced, even if it meant laying down their lives as a result. It was an act of radical obedience from followers of the Good Shepherd – who invites us all into a vision of power and authority, reframed and redefined.
Joel Van Dyke
Photo: Tita Evertsz (center) in Guatemala City