Mark 10:23-45 is a passage about power.
Although a series of seemingly disconnected events, there is a clear theme, and a clear point that the writer wants us to see. Below, I’ll go through this theme and how it applies to politics and power today.
Mark starts this passage with a question about divorce, then moves onto, “don’t stop the children coming to me”. Quickly followed by The rich young ruler, Jesus predicting his death and the disciples argue over their positions. There is a theme running through all of these segments of the passage.
This whole passage is talking about power, and the conflicting values of two kingdoms.
Divorce is about man having power over a woman – this was the cultural norm, absolute submission from the wife. Jesus countered this power.
Children had no power in any sense. Many of them would die before adulthood – up to 50% mortality rate in some places within the empire. They were powerless, and the disciples thought they were unimportant; unimportant for their political goals and aspirations. And then the author introduces a rich young man.
The Rich young man
Wealth is very often synonymous with power. The rich young man is called the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18. You don’t find paupers with power. Here was a man with political power. Power to influence society for good, or so he thought. But although powerful and rich in this world, he was poor and beggarly in the God’s Kingdom. The disciples found it hard to believe that rich people, and people with power would find it hard to enter the kingdom of God…
“Jesus turns the social order upside down. The well- to- do were often hailed for their generosity (they had more to give); being less educated in the law, the poor were sometimes seen as less pious” IVP Bible Background Commentary – New Testament
The disciples must have looked enviously at the rich young man, perhaps longing to be like him, righteous like him, he had everything going for him. Maybe they thought he could support them on their journey? Put in a good word for Jesus? Publicly promote them – Jesus could have asked for any of that and more. Money can buy many things to assist in spreading a message… but Jesus asked for none of it.
Jesus talks about his death
Jesus plainly tells the disciples that he will suffer, be put to death and rise again, in Jerusalem. The rich man who wouldn’t give up his money is juxtaposed against a saviour ready and preparing to give up his life. This whole passage, and more of Mark is part of Christ’s journey towards Jerusalem, where he knows he will ultimately give up the last vestiges of any power, any control – in death on a cross.
The disciples seek power
In Mark 8:29 – Mark tells us that Peter’s response to the question, “who do you say that I am” was “you are the messiah”. And rightly so – but we of course understand what the word messiah means to be very different than a first century Jew – a messiah meant something completely different for Peter and the disciples.
The Jews were living under Roman rule, and they were notorious for not playing nicely with their rulers… many revolutionaries came and many uprisings were squashed. The Jews were looking for the return of the prophesied true king to defeat their enemies, and govern the country into a new golden age of prosperity and freedom.
The messiah that the disciples envisaged was a powerful political messiah, someone to rule the nation. Jesus had the credentials – son of David (royal line), miracles, he did prophet things, and it seemed that God was on his side. If only he would stop being so pessimistic all the time! All this talk about death must have been some deep symbolism for something other than Jesus ACTUALLY dying, right?
When James and John asked to be at Jesus’ left and right hands in (Mark: 10-25-35), they were actually asking for was to have front bench positions in Jesus cabinet. They wanted key portfolios… the treasurer and the deputy PM, because that’s what his Kingdom looked like to them. They knew that their ‘Jesus political party’ was the right one for all, and thought that this meant Jesus would rule by conventional means, with a team around him, creating good rules for everybody to follow, executing justice like the kings of old!
This is why the other disciples got so annoyed at them, because they thought they had been out-jockeyed in the power stakes.
“Jewish people knew well the Gentile model of authority: ancient near Eastern kings had long claimed to be gods and ruled tyrannically; Greek rulers had adopted the same posture through much of the eastern Mediterranean. The Roman emperor and his provincial agents (who often showed little concern for Jewish sensitivities) would have been viewed in much the same light: brutal and tyrannical. Jesus’ reminding the disciples that seeking power was a Gentile (i. e., pagan) practice was tantamount to telling them they should not be doing it; Jewish teachers used Gentile practices as negative examples. ” IVP Bible Background Commentary – New Testament
Mark contrasts Jesus dis-empowering himself with the disciples clamouring and arguing for power with a certain irony: the all-powerful God-man, Jesus, surrendering his power with the refusal of the rich man to yield his meagre amount.
The disciples loved Jesus, followed him, thought he was the messiah – but still thought he was there to change their political situation. It’s very possible to love Jesus, believe in him, and still completely miss the point: Jesus kingdom is not one that views political power in the same way that we do. Jesus was not interested in pursuing the powerful lawmakers of his day to influence them, nor did he seek their assistance in bringing his kingdom. The kingdom of God’s policies and priorities are starkly contrasted to the one of governments and politics of this world.
Power is to be neither courted nor feared
Of all the situations chosen by God for his son to be born, ideally I would have picked son of a priest, or son of an emperor. Or perhaps the nobody who makes it to the big league! Surely this centre stage would enable him to influence thousands in this wonderful new kingdom – the answer for all mankind! He just needed a bigger stage! Yet he was born to a poor family, in a stable, and grew up in a rural, small, politically insignificant town.
Jesus and the early church did not pursue the traditional power structures within the empire to further the gospel. Neither did they avoid them – they confronted people with the truth regardless of their station. There were certainly some rich men who converted, governors and well educated families (Theophilus was one who paid Luke to research and write his gospel) but generally – they couldn’t seek power, because emperors had a tendency to try to wipe out Christians. Domitian, Nero, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian, Galerius and Julius the Apostate were all emperors who, at times empire wide, ordered the persecution of the church. Such was the nature of being an emperor, that they frequently were deposed (likely murdered or overthrown by the one who would seek to be emperor next), and you didn’t know if the new Caesar was going to be lenient or harsh on the church. The church had to keep distance between itself and the political situation for its survival. The church grew in spite of the opposition of the state.
We don’t put our hope in politics to bring God’s kingdom to earth because Jesus didn’t. It was the politicians and the religious leaders working together that, in the end, crucified him. Politicians need the power of the gospel, but the gospel does not need the power of politicians.
The Return of the king…
There is a story etched deep within our psyche that plays out in many of our stories and tales and resonates with us. The story of a good king who goes away, is replaced by a bad king – but one day the good king will return and fix all the problems, and the land will flourish again. King Arthur and Camelot. Robin hood. The Lord of the Rings. We have an inbuilt desire for a king – and something inside of us is looking in hope for one. The only problem is that they always disappoint, because they fall short of the perfect king – Jesus Christ. So we place our hope in Howard. In Rudd. In Abbott. In Gillard. In Barnett. In Ludlam. In Palmer. – and one by one, they all disappoint us. They all fall short – but yet we put our hopes in them still. Our western culture, having done it’s best to get rid of god from the public sphere, has no alternative…
“ONCE abolish the God, and the government becomes the God. That fact is written all across human history; but it is written most plainly across that recent history of Russia; which was created by Lenin. There the Government is the God, and all the more the God, because it proclaims aloud in accents of thunder, like every other God worth worshipping, the one essential commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods but Me.’ ” G.K Chesterton, Christendom in Dublin
Ironically, by our very nature, we resist their reign. “ We are an enmity with God” says scripture, We resist the burden of their leadership, their rule, their decrees, We hate being ruled by anybody, and yearn for freedom, for control of our own lives.
“The Central conviction of hell is this: ‘I am my own’” said George MacDonald – What he is saying is that a life lived for that desire to resist any reign but your own is hell on earth, and makes life hell for everyone around you. To be under a king means to lose control of your life, your choices and even your vote. This is what the Israelites found out in 1 Samuel 8:6-19, and discovered when they sought to replace God as King with their own king.
How does the gospel change how we view politics in a democracy?
So what is the gospel? It starts with the idea that humanity is unable to free itself from the fetters of sin. The best definition of sin I’ve ever heard is “man looking in on himself”. Selfishness, hypocrisy, pride and greed are all the result of man’s obsession with himself. These express themselves through behaviour; (sometimes even nice, polite, socially acceptable behaviour) but sin itself is rooted so deeply in our psyche, that while we can change behaviours, we can’t stop “looking in on ourselves”.
God in his goodness comes and offers a solution: his son. Adoption into his family, that we might have a heart that wants to be like God; kind, loving, selfless and humble. It’s all about what God has done for us, not “what do we need to do for God” which only deals with behaviour modification, not heart change. God’s love melts our selfish hearts into action, so our focus needs to minor on the depths of our sinfulness, and major on God’s wonderful, selfless love for us.
1. Political power is not a part of God’s solution for bringing his kingdom to earth.
If it was, then Jesus would have been born in a temple, a palace or a parliament house. He would have seized power from the Romans, or from the Temple leaders. The early church would have pursued power. If it was, then Jesus would have bypassed the poor, the hurting, the outcast and the weak – and hung out with the power brokers of his day. Thank God he didn’t.
2. When we vote, we expose our heart idols
False Kings are really idols, or at least, there to serve our true idols. There are three types of idols, religious, personal and cultural. I would suggest that the biggest cultural idol in Australia (after watching the 2013 election campaign) is financial security. Stability. But here are other idols too – safe to say, every political persuasion – both left, right and in the middle – have their idols.
Idols require sacrifices. The idol of financial security demands the sacrifice of spending on programs for the poor and marginalised. If we idolise freedom of the individual and individual choice, then we have to sacrifice the needs of the community, the needs of the unborn.
This means that you two people can vote liberal, and one is worshipping their idol, the other is worshipping the true King. Two people can vote Greens, one can do so out of love for God, the other out of idol worship. Political divides matter less to us, we don’t demonise the other side of politics, because although we can clearly see their idols, and their ridiculousness, Christ has clearly revealed our own.
3. Christ came to change hearts, not laws
Jesus came to fulfil the law, not create laws against sinful people. He simultaneously supported the moral laws and gave us the power to actually fulfil them – a changed heart. The law does not change hearts – so if laws are passed that allow practices that are immoral – we can still bring God’s kingdom, and we can still live God’s kingdom out of changed hearts.
Israel already had the law, and it wasn’t enough. If it was, then Jesus would not have had to come. The moral laws of the old testament show us that we are unable to keep them, they reveal to us the depths of our selfishness and sinful hearts. The issue is not that we don’t have enough laws to make us do the right thing, it’s that we have selfish hearts.
4. We don’t hope in a prime minister, we hope in our king
This means if the party we voted for gets in – we rejoice, but it tempers our rejoicing without being disillusioned in two years time, when they fail us (as all kings do). Because they were never our king to begin with, our hope was never put in them. It cannot be dashed when they fail. Our expectations are realistic. We don’t gloat, or stir up those who voted opposite us.
But it also means that if our party loses – we can still rejoice, and are not disheartened – because the king of kings is on the throne, and we can still outwork his policies. It also means that we can vote almost anywhere on the political spectrum as worship unto God, it helps us to understand the other side. It helps us to be able to have family and community with those who voted opposite us.
We rejoice because we are under the policies of our true king – in either case.
5. Our allegiance to Christ trumps all national and cultural allegiances
We are not Australian Christians. We are Christians, who live in Australia. What I mean is that, the our truest citizenship is not of Australia. We can’t confuse our Australian agenda with Christ’s. The two “nations” are often in opposition to each other in many ways.
So, how should we relate to politics? We can see that it is impossible to join arm in arm with politicians, as Christians – the two systems are fundamentally opposed to each other. Neither does Christ instruct us to exit society, and live in exclusive communities and forget the state ever existed.
I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life in Nazi Germany is a good lesson for us all regarding how we are to live for the policies of our true king, and not our government; while simultaneously realising that politicians need the gospel.
Soon after Hitler came to power in Germany, long before the events of WWII, he slowly started implementing anti Semitic policies. As the Lutheran church was the official church of the nation, this meant that when the government changed the laws banning employees of government agencies from being Jewish, it meant that all Jewish pastors had to resign.
This started an internal battle within the church, should they do something about this? Some thought that by using the state’s influence, they could bring the church and the state back to their former glory. The moral degradation of society was evident – and the government leaders were promising the restoration of “moral order” to the nation. This appealed to many within the church. Some even named themselves “German Christians” who believed that together, church and state would stand together to defeat the godlessness of communism (Bolshevism) they called their beliefs “positive Christianity”
Enter, a young German minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote an essay against the state trying to control the church, and how the church should respond to it, and he spoke it at a church conference – dealing with the question, “how should we respond to a government influencing the church”.
Bonhoeffer then famously enumerated “three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state.” The first, already mentioned, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy—to help the state be the state as God has ordained. The second way—and here he took a bold leap—the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”
The third way the church can act toward the state, he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” The translation is awkward, but he meant that a stick must be jammed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle. It is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of a state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil.”
Even as he was still speaking, numerous God loving, Bible believing pastors walked out on his presentation, unable perhaps to separate their love for their country from their love for their true king.
Bonhoeffer went on to live his speech with the rest of his life, he spoke regularly against the regime, exposing it’s crimes against the policies of his true king. He eventually was involved in operation “Valkyrie”, the plot to assassinate Hitler. Sticking his own stick in the wheel that was crushing the people without power within it. The plot came unstuck, and he was imprisoned – dying a martyr’s death hours before the allies swept through his camp, liberating all prisoners.
In a democracy, we use our vote to serve the policies of our true King. We use our vote for the powerless, we use our vote as worship to God. But regardless of the outcome of such vote, we have an obligation to prioritise the enactment our king’s policies: the care of the least powerful in society, those without a voice, such as refugees, children, the unborn, aboriginal, the poor, the environment, animals, other outcasts and other voiceless groups in our society. The church’s mandate is to care for and speak up for these groups, for Jesus showed us that these are the politics of his kingdom. We serve those who are unable to repay us with political favors. These are the actions that melted gospel hearts are moved into doing.