By Professor Deirdre Good
Today we reflect further on the exercise of power, whether that of God, or human rulers like Pharaoh, or any other leader. The readings from Exodus relate the origins of Passover as the story of the deliverance of Jews from Egypt celebrated today as Pesach.
In Matthew 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king. Images of “the triumphal entry” show Jesus on a donkey entering the holy city to universal acclamation. People wave palm branches and shout approval. Contrast this with the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt in silence and terror (Matthew 2) where Jesus fled for his life with his mother Mary and Joseph. Now Jesus rides in to Jerusalem not as a triumphant ruler in a victory procession but as a meek king fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah for Jerusalem crowds and gospel readers. (Modern translations prefer the word “humble”). Contemporary treatises on Hellenistic kingship in Jesus’ day describe a meek king as a non-coercive leader who practices disciplined calmness over oneself and is benevolent and magnanimous to others. Since Roman Empire was the dominant power in Jesus’ day, rulers and kings were not autonomous. As a client king, Jesus looks to God for help in time of threat and success in struggle (Psalm 20) and brokers God’s kingdom to others.
Entering the temple, Jesus overturns the money changers tables, thus symbolically reforming it. Jesus welcomes into the temple hitherto marginalised and excluded groups: the blind, the lame and the children and it is this that causes the temple authorities to become angry. Upon leaving the temple, and finding no fruit on a fig tree, Jesus curses it and it immediately withers. This is a symbolic comment on the ineffectiveness of temple leadership.
Within the temple courts Jesus then instigates five controversies with the Jerusalem Temple religious elite. Such controversies characterise Jesus’ speech with opponents in the gospels. These encounters end with silence of opposition and Jesus’ last words.
Discussions about exercising power do not belong to ages past. In the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List”, Oscar Schindler, a Jewish businessman, discusses power with the prison camp leader Amon Goeth. He is trying to persuade Goeth to release Polish Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto into employment in his factory and so save them from death.
Schindler: They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better. That’s not power, though, that’s justice. That’s different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill – and we don’t.
Goeth: You think that’s power.
Schindler: That’s what the emperors had. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die. And the emperor pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.
Goeth: I think you are drunk.
Schindler: That’s power, Amon. That is power.
(Schindler gestures toward Goeth as a merciful emperor) Amon, the Good.
Goeth: (He smiles and laughs) I pardon you.
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.