Power and Powerlessness

Tuesday 13th October 2020
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Matthew 18.23-34

One of the fascinating aspects of handling parables is working out which character we are most like. For example, in Luke's Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican we usually frame ourselves as the Publican even though we mostly behave like Pharisees. But in Matthew's parable it is more tricky because he does not make the rich king unjust and the poor slave just, as our contemporary sensibilities demand; quite the opposite: so are we more like the rich but just king or are we the poor but unjust slave?

I chose this passage because in this time of pandemic when many of us cannot do what we want, when we feel powerless, the issue of power is central to the way we understand our situation.

Looking at the world as a whole, we are the powerful; we may not be kings but we live well compared with most of the people of the world and, what is more, through our institutions we have chosen to lend vast amounts of money to poor countries instead of making them generous gifts. Narrowing to our own country, again, we are relatively powerful, able to make choices about what we do with our money and how we spend our time. Most of us don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, where we will sleep tonight, or how we will spend tomorrow. And many of us will have exercised some kind of power, over colleagues at work, sitting on committees, making all kinds of minor decisions about people and things.

But the virus has seriously spooked us because we don't know where it is and we don't know how to control it. We want to see the end of it but we want to do things which prolong its power; we want firm Government regulation but we want flexibility; we laugh grimly when Government changes its mind in trying to balance health and economic needs; but often we do this ourselves.

It seems to me that the only way in which we can come to terms with powerlessness is to accept it as a fundamental aspect of human existence and, from there, to us the small power we have carefully and responsibly. In our parable the power is exercised hierarchically, from the king down to the slave, but most power is exercised laterally: on occasion we may be hierarchical but mostly we cannot accomplish anything important without co-operation.

It is easy to resort to the simple idea that we have no power at all and must submit to the will of God but that is to flirt with fatalism; God in his creation has given us very great power which we know we have more often than not exercised carelessly, or even callously; but our greatest error has been the collective failure to use power for the good. As we wrestle with the outrage of the Pandemic, there is much that  we can do ourselves, but more that we must do together.

Sometimes we become confused because we oscillate between being powerful and being powerless, between telling and being told, between choosing and being unable to choose, between speaking and feeling incompetent; and if this is generally true the Pandemic has magnified our dilemma. I think that the answer for dealing with this problem is to spend more time praying and thinking about power.

To begin with, God is all-powerful and we are subject to his power; but, as we have been given stewardship over creation, and as we have been given the talents to fulfill that function, we have to exercise power in a godly context. Secondly, we must make conscious decisions about when to exercise power and when to refrain and we must, in our Godly context, always exercise power in love and not in selfishness or self indulgence. Thirdly, the error we are more likely to make than using power badly is to refrain from using it when we should for the sake of the common good. Our sins are mostly those of omission.

Finally, and critically, all human power should be exercised in the full sense that we are persons living in community and not individuals living to please ourselves; and we must always distinguish the difference between power and judgment. We should use our power for the good of others and the common good but we must never judge people, even if we think it will do good. We exist to encourage, not to blame. Indeed, one of the policy dilemmas during the Pandemic has been the supposed relative merits of the carrot and the stick; but this is a false dichotomy. There is no proper balance, ethically or scientifically, between the two: the carrot wins convincingly every time. When people are unjustly blamed and harshly punished for things over which they have little or no control, that breeds resentment and undermines collective consent.

Matthew is rather too fond of punishment, hell fire and gnashing teeth, but even in his Gospel we can see past the retribution to the central core of the teaching of Jesus. The limit of power is that it can only do so much and, too often, do what it does through force. The power of love is fundamentally exercised from the heart of the individual; you might persuade somebody to do something for pragmatic reasons, but you can't legislate for and certainly can't enforce love. That is why we have such a terrible mismatch: whenever power is confronted by love its only resort is to ratchet up its claims.

So it is that we must use our power carefully and lovingly with no advantage to ourselves.