Most of us rarely talk about power in ministry. If the topic somehow happens to come up, we seem to default into pretending that social power doesn’t exist. Treating people as equals and ignoring social power seems to be the Godly way of responding. However, stopping to examine how Jesus used power in ministry reveals a totally different way of using power in ministry. Rather than avoid power in ministry, we are called to steward our power for the sake of others.
Jairus’ Daughter and the Bleeding Woman
Luke shares in his gospel the story of Jesus healing a bleeding woman and raising a child from the dead (Luke 8:40-56). Jesus is on his way to heal the dying daughter of Jairus, the synagogue president. As He presses through the crowd, he feels a woman touch him and be healed. The woman had been sick with menstrual bleeding for 12 years. Jesus stops the procession and demands to know who touched him. The woman comes forward, shares her story, and is sent on her way — healed. Jesus then proceeds to Jairus’ house and raises his daughter from the dead.
If you are like me, you’ve heard this story many times throughout the years. This familiarity had obscured the social dynamics at play in the story. It was only when listening to a fantastic lecture by Sherwood Lingenfelter of Fuller Seminary (Lesson 1A – What is Culture? (start at 6 min mark)) that the full effect of how Jesus used his power in ministry came to light.
Stop for a minute and inventory the power dynamics in this passage. Which characters would have had more social power and why? Which would have had less? This is crucial to understanding how Jesus leads in this story. “Culture always has social structures and always has economics. If you don’t understand those, you don’t know what’s going on.”1 Below is a table listing some of the power dynamics at play in the story:
|Power Dynamics in Luke 8:40-56|
|Named “Jairus”||Isn’t even named in the story|
|Has his own home||Spent all her money on doctors that didn’t help|
|Leader of Synagogue||Isn’t allowed into synagogue for 12 years because of ritual “uncleanness”|
|Important Man in Society||Marginalized in society for a dozen years|
|Has social standing to approach Jesus and ask for healing||Can only secretly touch Jesus and hope for healing|
|Is ritually “clean”, so he can invite Jesus into his home||Is ritually “unclean”, so can’t touch anyone without making them unclean|
It is easy to see that in this situation Jairus has far more social power than the bleeding woman. But, in the story, Jesus is the person with the most social power. Crowds are following him. Multitudes are asking for healing. Leading men from the town are prostrating themselves before Him. What he chooses to do with His power sets an example for all of us.
It would have been simple for Jesus to allow the bleeding woman to be healed and continue on to Jairus’ house with no one the wiser (but the woman). This would have been the path He chose if He was ignoring His social power. Instead, Jesus stops the procession (and makes Jairus wait for his healing), identifies the bleeding woman, and has her share her story of bleeding and healing in front of the entire crowd.
Why would Jesus do this? Forcing a woman to share about a decade of menstrual bleeding is socially awkward at best. Jesus is not only concerned about the woman’s physical healing, He wants to heal her socially and emotionally as well.2 Notice how Jesus addresses her after she shares her story with the crowd: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”
How Jesus Uses Power
Jesus takes the power dynamics table above and flips it on its head. A poor, sick, socially outcast, nameless woman is not only healed physically, but she is reintroduced to society. She can attend the synagogue again. She is no longer permanently ritually unclean. To top it all off, she is called daughter by the most socially powerful man in the story.
Jesus didn’t ignore His social power. Instead, He uses it for the sake of others. He used His social power to restore this child of God who had no power. In other stories like Luke 13:10-17, Jesus faces persecution for using His power for the sake of others.3 But He does it anyway. Jesus doesn’t ignore those with power, Jairus’ daughter would still be raised from the dead. Jairus got more than his daughter back that day, he got a front row seat to a kingdom use of power.
In ministry we are called to follow the example of Jesus. We are called to socially exegete situations to identify who has power and who does not. We are then to use our power not for our own benefit, but for the sake of others. This is the true meaning of servant leadership.
- What struck you the most about how Jesus used His power?
- Exegete another passage from the gospels through the lens of power dynamics. What do you notice that you’ve never seen before?
- If Jesus doesn’t ignore His power, why do we?
Photo credit:Nick Thompson