The Powers That Be


When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory (Matthew 25:31)

Twenty years ago or so my wife and I visited Istanbul and we went to look around the Dolmebahce Palace. In the nineteenth century the Ottoman sultans built this lavish palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. We are talking bling overload. From the gold-plated bathroom taps to the lavish decoration to the huge chandelier that hangs in the reception chamber this is a building that is designed to communicate one thing: the guy who lives here is enormously important and immensely powerful. There was nothing whatever unusual in that. Louis 14th of France had built Versailles for exactly the same reasons: to demonstrate his power and his authority. Going back further, our own James IV had Linlithgow Palace built for the same reasons: to show that, as the king, he was tthe most important person in the world.

None of which, even then, was at all new. The Middle East where Jesus lived had a long tradition going back millennia of monarchs who had built massive palace complexes filled with gold, silver and jewels. These were symbols of their importance as the powers that be. In Jesus’s own time Herod the Great had been famous for building lavish palaces. 

These palaces were places where the wealthy and the powerful would gather. They weren’t for the hoi polloi - unless they were slaves who could pour wine in a suitably subservient way. When Jesus talks about his coming as king  he sets up in his followers’ minds something they will understand. He sets up expectations of the throne of glory the Son of Man will sit on. Surely it will be dripping with gold and jewels. Surely it will be radiant with silver and ivory. Surely this is the place where the powers that be - the wealthy and the powerful - will gather. Maybe. If that’s what is in their heads, though, what follows will turn all that on its head.

As the parable continues the king - Jesus - makes it clear that he identifies himself not with the wealthy and the powerful, but with the poor and the hungry. “In so much as you did this for these, my brothers, you did it for me.” Throughout the ancient world as today the powers that be focussed their attention on staying in power and keeping their wealth. For them the important people in the world were people like them - the elite; the 1%. Jesus turns that completely on its head. In this parable the people who matter are those who are in need; the people who are at the bottom of the heap and who are ignored or oppressed by the powers that be.

There are those who want to restrict Jesus association of himself here to his followers. I think that misses one of the crucial points about the Incarnation - of God coming into the world in the life of a human being. It misses the point that God came into this world not in the life of a king, or a wealthy patrician or any of those people we tend to have in our minds when we talk of “the powers that be”. He came in the life of an ordinary carpenter’s son. He came in the life of someone who saw, every day, the casual cruelties of a society that keeps its kings in wealth and state while it drives its poor into slavery and starvation. 

When Jesus says, “When I was hungry” maybe he knew from personal experience what that was like. He certainly saw folk who were thirsty, who were strangers or naked or sick or locked up in prison. He lived among those who the powers that be had forgotten about. Or just didn’t care about. I don’t see any need whatsoever to think that Jesus was speaking only about the folk sitting around the table with him or the followers that would come after them.

In fact he’s standing in a long tradition of prophecy. This is what Ezekiel is getting at when he talks about the fat sheep and the lean sheep. The powers that be have not used their power to care for weak, but have feathered their own nests and looked after their own. God will come, Ezekiel says, to judge those who have “butted at all the weak animals”. Jesus’s parable stands completely in that tradition.

So what are we supposed to do about all this. We are supposed to have, as our king, Jesus. We are supposed to have, as our king, the man who told this parable and insisted that everyone matters; that those who go hungry and thirsty in this world matter; that those who are cast out and alone in this world matter; that those who are sick and can’t fend for themselves or who are locked up matter. In a world where the papers are filled with stories of the wealthy and the powerful, where we are expected to rejoice when a new prince or princess is born to the royal family, or to just accept that the wealthy and the powerful can shift their money overseas to avoid tax, or to kow-tow to the Kardashians or buy into the cult of celebrity it is our place to think different.

It is our place, as Christ’s Church to speak truth to the powers that be. It is our place, as Christ’s Church, to speak with a prophetic voice alongside Ezekiel. It is our place, as Christ’s Church to acknowledge him as our king and to serve him in doing what we can, in our place and time, to make this world a little more like the one it is meant to be: a world where everyone matters. A world where no-one goes hungry or thirsty; where no-one is a stranger or goes without a roof over their heads; where the sick are cared for and the prisoner can hope for freedom.

Have we always done that?  Sometimes I think that, as the “established church” we have cosied up to the powers that be. Sometimes we have been obsequious in the face of wealth because wealth has built our churches. Sometimes we have bowed our heads to the powers that be because that’s the done thing. Sometimes we have been more concerned with what the poor have done in their bedrooms than what the wealthy have done in their boardrooms or the, powerful have done in their staterooms.

If that is so then we have missed our calling. We are called to serve a king who knows what it is to be poor and hungry; who knows what it is to be the victim of the powers that be. More than that, we are called to live lives that speak of another way for the world; of a power greater than any amount of military might or wealth. A power that can be wielded not just by the powers that be, but by you and me. A power that can - and does change the world.

That power is love. Love isn’t some big emotional thing. It is simply compassion. It’s the recognition that everybody matters. It’s the care we can have for the poorest, weakest most forgotten scrap of humanity on the face of this planet. It’s the care we can have for the refugees fleeing war and starvation who flock to the shores of Europe. It’s the care we can have for the kids who are looking after families because their parents can’t. It’s the care we can have for those that can’t get jobs and the world brands as failures. When the way we live reflects this idea - that everyone matters, not just the powers that be, we point to the kingdom we really belong to: the kingdom of Christ.

Lord may we be found among those who inherit your kingdom. May we be counted among those who care and for whom everyone matters

Preached at Wamphray parish church and at Moffat St Andrew’s parish church