November 20, 2022
St. Stephen’s UMC, Burke, VA
Luke 23:33–43 (NRSV)
In the movie Schindler’s List (1993), a film based on the true stories of the Holocaust that is considered one of Steven Spielberg’s bests, there is a scene where two characters have a discussion over the definition of power.
One character is named Amon Göth, a Nazi commander. The other character is the protagonist of the movie, Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and a member of the Nazi party who has a change of heart and helps save thousands of Polish Jews using his factories.
In this one particular scene, Göth is drunk, notices Schindler is not, and murmurs, “You’re never drunk. That’s real control. Control is power.” And continues to say that is why people fear them, because the Nazi leadership has all the power to control its people. “[If] a person commits a crime, then they have him killed. And they feel pretty good about it,” says Göth.
Schindler interjects, saying, “That’s not power. That’s justice. It’s different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” And Schindler continues on with his monologue:
“That’s power. That’s what the emperors had. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the floor, he begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die… and the emperor pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go. That’s power.”
This short two-minute scene shows how these two men define and view power differently. And their differing understanding of power puts them on two different paths. On the one hand, Göth considers control as power, and power derives from fear. And throughout the movie, we see Göth being driven by this very definition of power, causing an unthinkable horror to the Jews. And it is not just Göth but this kind of power motivates both the Nazi soldiers of different ranks and the German citizens of different ages. In the movie, we see a child mocking the Jews while throwing rocks at them, adopting the behaviors and actions of the adults around her.
On the other hand, Schindler considers mercy as power, and power derives from compassion. And throughout the movie, we see how Schindler works against his own people, against the current, against the status quo, and against the face of evil, in order to rescue as many people as possible from the concentration camps.
The movie Schindler’s List, in its entirety, begs us to ponder on this theme of power.
What is power?
How would I define power?
What kind of power influences me and motivates me?
In today’s scripture from Luke’s Gospel, we also see two differing understandings of power.
One is the power that controls. This power is represented in Caesar, the emperor of the Roman Empire. The empire’s mantra was that Caesar is Lord. It was Caesar who would deliver the people and bring peace on earth. It was Caesar whom the people should worship in fear.
The accusation against Jesus was to claim that he had undermined law and order of the Roman Empire, preventing people from paying their taxes to their emperor, and claiming himself to be the true king (23:2). This was the justification to crucify Jesus on a cross, a method of capital punishment designed for violent criminals.
Perhaps, capital punishment is the most extreme, yet effective way of showcasing the system’s power over people. There are reasons why these kinds of executions have been done publicly in so many different civilizations throughout human history. The scripture says the people just stood watching what was happening, being bystanders either paralyzed or captivated by the power represented in capital punishment — if you cross the line, we will take your life, for we have power over you.
We see both the leaders and the soldiers mocking Jesus. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (v. 35b). “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 37). Both worked for power that was Caesar. And the dissonance between their understanding of Caesar and the image of Jesus made the situation even more comical. How could one who cannot even save himself claim to be a king? Instead of sitting on the throne, Jesus was hung on a cross. While it’s not told in Luke’s Gospel, instead of a crown made of evergreen leaves, Jesus was given a crown made of thorns.
Even one of the criminals next to Jesus joined in the mockery, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (v. 39). Maybe he just wanted to join the fun before his own execution, an example of mob mentality, which is adopting the behaviors and actions of the people around him. But his comment nonetheless highlights the normative understanding of power across all people.
The Messiah was understood to be the promised deliverer and savior of Israel. And the expectation of this messianic king was conceptualized with the common understanding of power represented in Caesar, or in any other earthly kings and queens. The Messiah would deliver his people by destroying their enemies with force, ultimately bringing justice and peace on earth. What they expected in the promised messiah was a warrior king on a stallion, not a humble teacher on a donkey.
This brings us to the other type of power, the power represented in Jesus Christ, the humble teacher on a donkey. From his birth in a manger to his death on a cross, his life and ministry subverted the common understanding of power. Instead of armed forces, he took fishermen, tax collectors, and women as his community. He exercised a different kind of power: a kind of power that loves, a kind of power that forgives, a kind of power that serves, a kind of power that heals, and a kind of power that shares a table with the poor, the lowly, and the marginalized. He said his peace would be different from what the world gives (John 14:27).
I firmly believe that Jesus could have saved himself from the system of capital punishment if he wanted to. Yet, he did not see the need to prove himself to anyone, and that’s power. His prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” is power. And his obedience unto death, allowing his blood to be the very thing that reconciles all things to God through the forgiveness of sins, is power (Col 1:20).
And for the other criminal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, despite the crowd behavior, is also power. For him to confess his sins and ask for deliverance, despite the appeared helplessness and hopelessness of Jesus on the cross, is power. Anyone can confess Jesus as Lord, but not all enter the kingdom of God unless they recognize and submit to the kind of power Jesus embodies (cf. Matthew 7:21–23). This other criminal recognized and submitted himself to that power, thus Jesus responded to him, “Truly I tell you, today — now — you will be with me in Paradise.” The kingdom of God begins as soon as we acknowledge his power different which is from the world’s.
So, what is power?
How would you define power?
What kind of power influences you and motivates you?
The triad of “save yourself” repeated from today’s scripture made me ponder for a long time. Perhaps, all of us are familiar with the mockery of “save yourself” and the pressure to prove ourselves in light of established systems. Isn’t that the sweet aroma of the American Dream we are told to chase? You have all the power to do whatever you want. You can control your destiny if you put your mind to it. So go out there and prove yourself.
Whether we like it or not, we naturally assume control as power. Those who can control their lives become powerful and those who are powerful control the lives of other people. Holding this power is perceived as attractive, successful, and influential. This kind of power is what we worship, idolize, and pursue after.
Autonomy and independence are seen as key traits to becoming functional members of society. It is considered disgraceful and shameful to show others we have no control over our lives. So even when our lives are caught in a whirlwind, we try to carry this facade that everything is in control. This is also why we have a hard time asking for help. Research from Stanford University reports that children as young as seven hold this belief that asking for help would make them appear incompetent, weak, or inferior.
We also go through an extensive grieving process when we lose our power, when we can no longer control the things that we used to control. We experience this when we get sick, when we get hurt, as we get older, and as we get lost in our fast-changing, unpredictable world. Because our identity is so deeply embedded in our ability to control, losing our power also becomes losing our identity.
I think about this a lot in relation to our church, as a local church in general, as a denomination, and as a religion. The church is shrinking, or as they often say, the church is dying. We often hear, “The church is not the same anymore.” And a lot of people are grieving, and this grieving is manifested in various stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. And I wonder why we are actually grieving.
Are we grieving because we think the church no longer has the kind of power that controls all things?
Or are we grieving because we think the church no longer has the kind of power that reconciles all things to God through the love of Christ?
What is power?
How do we define power?
What kind of power influences and motivates our church?
The Apostle Paul testifies in his second letter to the Corinthians, that he appealed to the Lord three times about his apparent thorn, whatever that made him weak. And the Lord responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And so, Paul praises, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:8-9).
To profess Jesus as our King is to submit ourselves to the power of Christ who reigns over us. This means we let go of the world’s understanding of power, we are not budged by the temptation to prove ourselves, we do not keep count and tabs of the wrongs done by people to hold it over them, and we confess that we are weak and cannot save ourselves.
The kingdom of God begins as soon as we let go of the world’s understanding of power and surrender ourselves to a different kind of power exemplified in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is this very power that influences and motivates us to live as kingdom people. The Apostle Paul explains in the same letter (5:16–21):
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Sharing this message of reconciliation in the face of evil is power.
Sharing this message of reconciliation in light of all the commotions of the world is power.
Sharing this message of reconciliation despite the fear of losing our control is power.
Like the other criminal, who recognized Christ in a dying man with a thorn crown despite the crowd’s mockery and derision…
Like those who continue to serve faithfully as ministers of reconciliation despite the talks of schism or disaffiliation…
Like those who forgive their debtors, trespassers, and enemies despite the temptation to settle old scores…
Like those who boast in their weaknesses despite being looked down upon as incompetent, weak, or inferior…
Like those who pray, confessing they cannot save themselves, despite the world that tells us otherwise…
May this power of Jesus Christ found in the powerful powerlessness of the cross restore us, sustain us, and empower us as we seek God’s kingdom come. Amen.
Rev. Minoo Kim is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving in the Virginia Annual Conference. He will very much appreciate it if you like and follow his Medium profile. Peace!