*I know that the political references in this sermon are dated (2007), but those preaching on the parable of the leaven in 2011 (and beyond) may still find some helpful thoughts here.
Luke 13: 10-21 (focus on verses 20-21)
The Powers That Be
November 13, 2007
This morning, most of us here have uttered treasonous words. And no, I am not talking about whatever government-bashing might have gone on at the breakfast table or the words you might have muttered under your breath as you heard the latest NPR report on the Iraq war. I’m talking about words that we all said together a few minutes ago: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We, or at least I, tend to say these words without really thinking about them. But my professor pointed out last week that in the first century, these words were treason. The Greek term—basileia–that gets translated as “kingdom” is a somewhat slippery word. To the ancients, the concept that would have been triggered by this word is “imperial rule.” Specifically, the oppressive Roman imperial rule.
For Jesus and his followers to pray for God’s kingdom to come was to pray, in no uncertain terms, for the end of the Roman empire. Treason.
And in this morning’s scripture Jesus is again talking about the basileia of God. In these two little parables—the mustard seed and the bread—it becomes obvious to Jesus’ listeners that the rule of God is quite different from the imperial rule of Rome under which they are suffering.
We get just a hint of that oppression in the beginning of this chapter. People in the crowd tell Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”
Some scholars read this as a reference to an event not documented elsewhere in which Pilate’s forces murdered rebellious Galileans as they were offering sacrifices at the temple. Others think this passage is a reference to a documented incident in which Pilate had his men dress as Galileans and mingle with the crowd. When the signal was given, the slaughter of the unarmed Galileans began.
But whatever the specifics, it is clear that Jesus is being told about an incident where Roman imperial rule was maintained through violence and oppression. There is surprisingly little attention given to this report. Maybe because it was a common story in the first century Mediterranean world. We know the government slaughtered innocent people and routinely crucified those that threatened the control of Rome.
About 1500 years later, governments continued to practice this basic method of maintaining political power. Machiavelli summed it up with his advice to political rulers: it is better to be feared than to be loved.
And, sadly, such methods of kingdom-building and maintenance are alive and well today. If you’ve listened to much news this week, you have heard how the Burmese government is again using military force to quell the protests in that country.
I am not enough of a scholar of history or political science to lay out a list of governments that have exercised power in the manner of Pilate. But I know the list is long. I know the victims are many. Indigenous peoples, the disappeared, the poor, women, children, soldiers, pastors, those who dare to question, those who try to hold the powers accountable.
Great violence has been done against human bodies and spirits in the name of maintaining power. It is happening right now in Burma and Guantanamo Bay and Guatemala and too too many other places around the world.
That’s the kind of power we read about in the beginning of Luke 13.
A little later in the chapter we move to the story of Jesus healing the bent-over woman in the synagogue. And here, I think, we see a different kind of power at play. The synagogue leader is upset with Jesus for healing this woman on the Sabbath.
The leader, surely, is not upset that the woman has been healed. But he is concerned about the rules. The rules that the religious elite established; the rules that the religious leaders were in charge of upholding.
Really, to break a rule was to threaten the power of the religious leaders. And Jesus broke a rule—a big one. I think it is interesting that the synagogue leader directs his admonishments to the people and not to Jesus himself. Jesus has already broken the rule; the leader’s power over him is thus broken as well. But to the other people in the synagogue the leader says, “Come on one of the other six days of the week to be cured, not on the Sabbath.” He doesn’t want to loose his power over them.
Religious power is usually more subtle than political power. And it generally seems less oppressive because there is a sense that people have chosen to submit to a particular religious power. But psychological and spiritual—sometimes even physical—abuse happens because of religious authority on a regular basis. And such abuse is usually a means for the religious leaders to maintain power.
I know of women who were told by their pastors to stay in abusive marriages because God wanted them to submit to the headship of their husbands. I know of poor people who were pressed to give their life savings to the “ministry” of a multi-millionaire preacher. Of sick people convinced that they are spiritually deficient because the cancer is back. Of gays and lesbians told repeatedly that they are despised by God.
The power of religious leaders to stifle people’s lives—that is the power we hear about in the middle of Luke 13.
And then Luke moves us on to Jesus’ proclamations about the Basileia of God. It is not like a political leader who massacres people to prevent rebellion. It is not like a synagogue leader who cares more about maintaining authority than loving the people.
The Basileia of God is like leaven mixed with three measures of flour.
Where the governments act immediately, decisively, the Kingdom takes time. And at first, you might not even know it’s there.
A woman in her forties, maybe fifty, was driving a bus full of mentally handicapped children. It was her normal route, and things were going in the normal manner until a deranged man forced his way onto the bus and took the passengers hostage. The driver was able to remain calm and talk this man out of using the gun he was waving around. When reporters later asked her how she was able to do what she did, she replied, “I pray a lot.” Not “I prayed a lot.” Not a big dose of God in the moment. But “I pray a lot.” Day in, day out, connecting, grounding herself in God’s love. That’s how she did it.
The Basileia of God is like leaven.
Where the religious establishment focuses on the maintenance of its own power, the Kingdom slowly but surely builds up all people.
A group of mothers in East L.A. grew tired of living in fear of the gang members who seemed to run the neighborhood. During a Bible Study one day, they decided to stop living out of their fear. They all sat out on their front porches at the same time each day. The public presence of so many mothers made the gang members pretty uncomfortable. Many of them left. Some later joined the women in a community work party to paint over graffiti in the neighborhood.
The Basileia of God is like leaven that a woman mixed in with three measures of flour.
Where the worldly kingdoms are instigated and maintained by the privileged people, God’s Kingdom can be tended by whoever is willing to do the work. Women. The poor. The (gasp) Gentiles.
It’s not easy work. The woman is mixing this leaven into about fifty pounds of flour. That’s ten five-pound bags. She will have to knead all of that dough. Pushing and pulling and wiping the sweat on the sleeve of her clothes. She will have to shape the loaves and let them rise. Then, the next morning, she will carry the loaves to the village oven and bake them.
It’s not easy work. But when she is done, she will have bread. Lots of it. Enough to feed the other women at the oven, and their husbands, and their children. Enough to give to any homeless people she might pass on her way home. Enough to have a feast for her own family. Enough to feed any guests that might show up.
That, says Jesus, is what power looks like in the Basileia of God.