Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter, by Peter Paul Rubens (1612). Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/Wikipedia

God's Word on Sunday: Power must be used for benefit of all

  • August 16, 2020

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 23 (Year A) Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20

Power is not a right and not something to be coveted or seized. Any position or exercise of power is for the common good and the benefit of others.

That should be obvious, but abuse of power is one of the most destructive of all human activities. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most familiar. It is present in government, education, business and religion. Power is a powerful drug and corrupts many.

Shebna was master of the king’s household, sort of a second in command, but he did not belong there. He was an interloper — an outsider — and extremely ambitious. He insinuated himself into this position of power and began setting up shop, building himself a home and an elaborate family tomb.

The king was under a lot of pressure, both external and domestic, and Shebna was part of the problem. He was corrupt and power hungry. God would have none of it and acted immediately.

In the Old Testament, God raised up or deposed leaders and kings, but here God made internal changes in governance. Shebna would have to go; the new man of the hour and God’s choice was Eliakim. God raised him up, endowed him with authority and ensured his future.

Obviously, Eliakim was going to govern in a way that was pleasing to God. Power is only legitimate when it is exercised for the benefit of all.

Why does God not depose those who abuse power as God did in this story? God is patient and does not manipulate humans like pawns — we have free will. Eventually, illegitimate or corrupt power destroys itself. History is littered with the wreckage of despotic and corrupt regimes and individuals.

Power must always be called to account by the people, to whom it is accountable. But most of all, those who wield power — even on a small scale — are always accountable to God.

Paul marvelled at how unlike us God is. God’s wisdom, knowledge and judgments are deep beyond human comprehension. Humans need to be reminded of this constantly, for they usually seek to understand God on their terms.

They bring their own opinions, prejudices, fears and desires to their reflections on God, with predictable results. They produce a God that is a mirror image of themselves. Approaching God in silence and humility is far more fruitful. We leave our baggage behind and wait to be taught and formed. Any understanding of God that is too comfortable and self-serving should immediately be suspect.

Peter was a prime example of what can happen when we listen to the voice of God within. Jesus asked His disciples what the word in the marketplace was concerning His role and identity.

One by one, the disciples repeated what they had heard: Elijah, prophet, John the Baptist. None of the answers was the result of searching or inner conviction. Peter was uncharacteristically quiet, finally blurting out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Jesus was pleased and heaped praise and honours on Peter, but not for having the correct answer — this was not an ancient version of Jeopardy. What pleased Him was that Peter’s answer did not represent human opinion or reasoning — it was obviously a personal revelation from God.

Jesus affirmed that this sort of inner listening to God and faith based on the divine voice would be the rock and foundation of the community of believers. This sort of faith will never be shaken because it is not based on a collection of ideas lodged in the brain but personal experience.

But He warned them to tell no one. Why? Jesus probably knew that people would immediately twist the words of Peter’s proclamation in distorting ways, filtered through human consciousness. It was better for people to witness the ministry and teachings of Jesus and come to their own conclusions.

Surprising and wonderful things happen when we attune ourselves to our inner teacher and allow ourselves to be formed.