Ministry in our parish introduces me to some threatening forms of power. I see the pecking order for dominance and survival each day even among people our society claims have no power. People who sleep in their cars look down on people who sleep under the bridge. People living under the bridge often ignore people living in the doorways along our street. People who are not addicted to alcohol or drugs put down those who are stoned or drunk standing in line at our church door.
Every day I observe the deep human need for people to look down on other people. This moment of control defines so many human situations. This power struggle is seen in prostitution, child abuse, drug use, gangs, wars and even on a grade school playground. The misuse of power happens in marriages, workplace relationships and among children of wealth as well as children of poverty. These struggles for control and dominance separate the employed and the jobless, the well educated and the illiterate, and the dominance of one race over another. This battle for power happens among siblings and between adult members of religious communities.
As I read the Gospel passages beginning on The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I see Luke assessing our use of power. Luke puts very strong words into the mouth of Mary, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” These prophetic words place opposing people on the same plane, on the same level ground, with the same view of life. To live a life of faith then, we must be able to look other people in the eyes, to recognize their worth, to honor their dignity, to serve people simply because they are human beings.
These Gospel passages help us all, even in the Church, to sort out how we may put other people down by our unkind words, knee-jerk reactions, obsessive thoughts and threatening gossip. Luke reminds us when we think our way is the only way that some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last. Luke’s message is not just that we need to watch out for people living in poverty, but that we need to quit putting down others whom we think are beneath us. He is asking us for a change of attitude, a conversion of heart, a transformation of reaction and a new way of living our faith.
Jesus invites people who have chosen the place of honor at a banquet to sit elsewhere. He unseats the proud and haughty. He offers a new seat of honor to the man who humbled himself. Jesus lifts up those who know their real place in life. These stories remain not just proper etiquette, but invite us to a deeper conversion of how we live our faith in the world. These passages mold our view of how we see the stranger at Mass and the kinds of judgments we place on people who look different from ourselves. These Gospel words form us into true believers when our automatic response is to put others down. This changes our instinct when we think false power makes us look better, or feel more worthy or deem us more acceptable.
Jesus says to us, “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple”. These possessions are not only physical, but even include negative thoughts that cloud our judgments of people. These are not just possessions we store in our hope chests, but the dreams of other people that we destroy by prejudice, bigotry, sexism and homophobia. Our possessions include all the ways in which we speak about people, making them less than ourselves.
Jesus runs a mile for a lost sheep, leaving the rest. He expects us to search our homes for the lost coin and to run far and wide to embrace our lost child. This is the real mystery of God, to ponder the unthinkable, to retrieve the cast-off, to reunite the lost and to forgive when forgiveness is unthinkable.
We risk letting go of false power because of Christ’s dying and rising. The Paschal Mystery is not just a way of worship and belief for us, but a radical new way of thinking and treating other people. The power that Jesus broke through was death itself, so there are no other deaths of put-downs, biases, threats, bullying, abuse or neglect that will ever win. Our parish communities must find our balance of power again after scandals, sex crimes and our judgments of people.
Every day I observe people striving to claim their place in life through false power. As followers of Christ we can live beyond our instincts to put people down, to put destructive labels on others to make us righteous. My ministry among people living in poverty shows me these power struggles and teaches me to love.