Macbeth enters with bloody daggers and simply says, “I have done the deed…” Every time I read this story, and Judas greets Jesus and kisses him, I think, “Judas has done the deed.” As the soldiers lay hands on and arrest Jesus, Judas’ betrayal is complete. The crowds of weaponized soldiers to arrest one man with this friends is reminiscent of law enforcement officers in riot gear at a peaceful protest. It feels like overkill (and in fairness, not all demonstrations are peaceful, but many are). Jesus rightly calls them out on it: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me” (26:55).
One of the themes we continue to identify in Matthew is the interplay between power and authority. We saw it as soon as Jesus showed up in the power play by King Herod with the Magi. We saw it with John the Baptist and the power dynamics between him and the Pharisees. The question of authority continues to come around and it really comes to a head here. Jesus is saying, “you’ve had the power to arrest me all along, but you choose to do so under the cover of night.” You could almost follow it with, “cowards.”
Power and authority are concepts we don’t like to talk much about. We don’t like to admit we have it when we do, we often misuse it when we do, and when we don’t have it, we want it, and as humans, we can too easily do great damage to get it. Among other things, this Gospel is about rightly and wrongly ordered power and authority. The governmental and religious leaders have it, and they are afraid of losing it, so they use it to protect themselves. When power and authority is used to guard itself, it is wrongly ordered. It is disordered power. But Jesus has a whole other kind of power and authority, and he uses not to protect himself but to empower others. He uses it to empower those who don’t have it, and this is the core of the threat that Jesus is.
Throughout history, there are people endowed with a kind of innate power and authority. They have a natural ability to organize, mobilize, and affect real change. When these people step into that work, those with positional power and authority get nervous. We saw it with David and Saul. We see it with Jesus and Pharisees. We saw it with Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther, and Gandhi, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, and Malala. Rightly ordered power and authority makes disordered power and authority quake in its boots.
But this positional power and authority is real, and it has the power to do real harm. So Saul tries to kill David. Jesus gets arrested. Nelson Mandela does too. Malala gets shot in the face. This is not to say that all who are in positions of power and authority at all times are corrupt and doing harm. But it is to say, that when they are, there are those who are endowed with a whole other kind of power and authority who can’t not stand up and against it.
A core part of the Gospel of Matthew is watching Jesus step into his power and authority to break down the walls that the established power and authority built to protect themselves. As we will see, Jesus final words to his followers being with authority. And it is here in this story today, that this positional disordered power and authority shows its true colors. It does harm.
Like I said, we don’t like much to talk about power and authority, but we must. Do I have it? To what degree? Am I aware that I have it? How am I using it? How are privilege and power connected? Who and what am I trying to protect? To empower? And in all of that, with whatever power, privilege, and authority we have, to what degree are we willing to step into Jesus’ call from Matthew 16:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26)