Jesus and Power Plays

Following Jesus’ example of recognizing and responding to subtexts of power can strengthen our relationships and ministries.

Some Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees walk into a bar.

Puffed up on their own significance, they don’t notice it blocking their way and land on their rumps. A watching scribe also eyes the bar—the standard set by Jesus. In arrogance, the scribe approaches. He falls hardest of all.

“Wait a second,” you interject. “You’re describing Mark 11–12, right? The scribe and Jesus had a devotional exchange about commands and love. That’s all. No arrogance. No hard fall.”

More Was Going On

The crowds saw more going on than many of us see. Look at their response: “After that, no one dared ask Jesus any more questions” (Mark 12:34).

Looking through my cultural lens, well outside their first-century Mediterranean world, I judged:

Jesus answered so graciously. He and the scribe even agreed about love. Why would no one “dare” ask Jesus another question? Hasn’t Jesus just shown he is the very one to go to with our theological questions? It doesn’t make sense.

It actually makes perfect sense. I just couldn’t see what I’ll call “the more” from my 21st-century European-American (White) armchair. Let’s travel back to the setting.

Power in Their Faces (Mark 11:1–12:12)

Jesus chooses Passover in Jerusalem, a politically turbulent time in a politically significant place, to publicly present himself as the anointed Davidic king—the Christ, the Messiah, the challenger of ultimate allegiance to all political systems, structures, and parties of the present age. Is he trying to pick a fight?

The next day Jesus turns up the intensity. He makes a whip and serves a public whuppin’ to Israel’s religious and semi-political power players. Entering “their” turf, the temple, he overturns their corrupt, oppressive economic and moral system, defends his Father’s honor, and saves the prayer-space for all nations.

The tables turned, the leaders now crank it up: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28). This is the more. The issue is authority, power, the right to call the shots. They got Jesus’ memo. To answer, Jesus tells a public parable against them: the parable of the tenants who killed the landowner’s messengers, even his own son, leading to their destruction.

Death and Taxes . . . and Power Grabs (Mark 12:13–17)

Offended and humiliated, the religious leaders raise the stakes by sending Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus. Imagine publicly powerful pastors hiring die-hard Trump fans and die-hard Biden fans to join against someone. This is a death trap—literally.

In Jesus’ childhood, a fellow Galilean named Judas gathered followers to revolt against Caesar’s heavy taxes. The Romans massacred them. (See Acts 5:37 and Josephus’s The Jewish War 2.8.1.) Jesus’ friends may have lost fathers that day.

Herodians are vehement supporters of Rome’s appointed stooge and system. If Jesus undercuts Caesar’s taxes, they’ll likely murder him that night. Crossing the Herodians could mean no cross that Friday.

Pharisees are the pastors of the economically oppressed crowds. If Jesus supports Caesar’s taxes, they’ll shame Jesus, murder his reputation, and regain public power.

Tricky plays for power. Life-or-death consequences. All eyes on Jesus . . . but all power ploys backfire in the hands of Christ, in whom dwells the wisdom and power of God.

You Don’t Even Know the Scriptures (Mark 12:18–28)

Sadducees, the most politically powerful (and compromising) Jewish leaders, attempt to shame this self-portrayed Davidic king out of authority to guide God’s people. I imagine arrogant smirks barely masking their verbal trickery about the resurrection, in which they don’t even believe.

Again, Jesus recognizes that more is at stake than mere factual truth. He does answer their theological semi-question, but he also addresses the more. He publicly calls them ignorant of God’s power and Word.

Just a Devotional Dialogue? (Mark 12:28–34)

A Jewish scholar (scribe) watches the others drop like flies before Jesus. Jesus sets a high bar. This dialogue is Mark’s climax in the string of high-stake power plays. When concluded, no one dares ask Jesus more. What exactly happens?

The climax is not found in Jesus’ sound (and fairly standard) answer about love for God and neighbor. It peaks in the unfolding dynamics after Jesus’ answer.

Assuming the power position, the scholar pronounces, “Well done, Teacher.” (The Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees had also called him that crowd-accepted title; 12:14, 19.) The scribe’s subtext seems to be this:

Jesus, I have the authority, the power, the right to publicly pronounce whether you are right or wrong. I deem you to have answered well. (And for the crowd, I am clearly still in control even though you did answer my question well.)

Was Jesus content with speaking truth, even with being publicly commended? No, because more is going on, and Jesus feels compelled to address it:

When Jesus saw that he had answered thoughtfully, he said to him, “You are not far away from the kingdom of God” (12:34).

Mic drop. We should gasp, like the crowd most likely did. They certainly didn’t dare ask Jesus anything else. Because Jesus just clearly implied that a respected Jewish scholar of Scripture is outside God’s kingdom! Jesus has his own subtext:

Do you really think you have the authority, power, and right to condemn or commend my words? I not only have that power, rather than you, but I also have the authority to say whether you are in or out of God’s kingdom. You’re out, but close.

After that flip of mental and social tables, no one dared ask Jesus anything.

I’m not culturally prone to notice that Jesus reads, engages, and challenges the more—the plays for power, for authority, for the right to be the boss.

Jesus spoke meaningfully about taxes, resurrection, and love. But he also engaged so much more. As a European-American, I’m culturally primed to notice cognitive content abstracted from relational dynamics (and from emotions). I’m not culturally prone to notice that Jesus reads, engages, and challenges the more—the plays for power, for authority, for the right to be the boss.

More Is Still Going On

Issues of power saturate our exchanges in America too. Looks, questions, tones, tweets, dialogues, debates, and silences can be infused with them. My insight needs to mature, because the more still happens. Let these cases kindle discussions with trusted and diverse friends about how we might grow more Christ-like in the more.

Family Life

“Excuse me, young lady. Say ‘Yes, sir’ and obey.” She glances sidelong, grunting “Yeeesss, siiirrr” while leaving. The tone, the you-are-being-so-stupid-right-now-dad look, are all nonverbal power tests: “Do you have authority to tell me what’s best? Well, you do still have power to punish me. I’ll comply… -ish.”

Jesus doesn’t ignore the more even when the words are okay. Should parents? Yet note well: Jesus confronts the power-less (like kids) more gently than the power-full.

Church Life

Pastor Doug and Alyssa, a married congregant who sought his marriage counsel, stop their affair. Pastor Doug threatens, “Don’t tell.” Try reversing it. A threat from one under authority simply does not carry the same more as the exact threat from a power-holder.

Jesus would respond accordingly. To Alyssa, he may say, “Go and sin no more.” But as Pastor Doug uses pastoral power to silence her, Jesus may just flip the desk and whip the perpetrator out of his Father’s house. Would we?

Civic Life

Throughout a business meeting, Jessica’s ideas are consistently ignored. Having laryngitis, her husband can barely speak. But seeing this dynamic, he forces out her points through painful words. “His” contribution is considered insightful. Debriefing afterward, Jessica says, “You had no voice, yet they treated it as more powerful than mine.”

How might Jesus respond to such more? Well, he already bucked the cultural trend by giving women the first voice testifying to his history-changing resurrection.

Cross-Cultural Engagement

For nearly a decade overseas, we ethnic minorities would honor each other by asking questions about our family cultures. Returning to America, I re-entered the cultural majority. My same questions to minorities now tended to offend, arising from a different history and power dynamic. Unlike Jesus, I didn’t see the powerful more.

Above, I confessed to judging Jesus’ crowds with “It doesn’t make sense.” I was doing it again, but to American minorities. But I’m the one not making much sense. For Jesus did not consider it odd when Samaritan and Phoenician minority women responded to him differently than women of his own Jewish majority. And the divergent responses do not seem odd to billions of humans worldwide.

I suggest listening carefully to three sectors of people. Not because they’re always right, of course—only Jesus is. But because they truly can see things Jesus sees but many of us often miss.

First, many missionaries serve in cultures that anthropologists and missiologists call “high power distance” cultures (or see here) and “high-context communication” cultures. The missionaries who serve in such contexts—the humble and sensitive ones—likely see the more more easily than they had before. And second, relatedly, listen carefully to immigrant friends who are actually from such cultures.

Third, humbly listen to minority-culture American friends. Enjoy time with them around each other’s dinner tables—as humans first, of course; as dignified images of God himself, not as packets of information to be grilled.

Such brothers and sisters are often more culturally primed (like Jesus) to see the more, the undercurrents of power pushing and pulling throughout daily social interactions in America. If they are willing to share as you do life together, listen humbly and carefully to their stories—eyes wide open to the more, like Jesus.