Exodus 10–12, Psalm 20, Matthew 21
Today we reflect further on the exercise of power, whether that of God or of 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) when Jesus fled for his life with his mother Mary and Joseph. Now Jesus rides into 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 noncoercive leader who practices disciplined calmness over himself and is benevolent and magnanimous to others. Since the 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 the space. 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’s religious elite. Such controversies characterise Jesus’ speech with opponents in the gospels. These encounters end with the 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.
Where in your life and in the world have you seen power exercised through submission or weakness?
How can apparent powerlessness be a sign of strength?
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—The Book of Common Prayer, p. 234 (Proper 21)
-Dr. Deirdre Good
Professor of New Testament
The General Theological Seminary