By Scott Downman, Tearfund Lead Community Organiser (QLD)
Misplaced, power can destroy. Rightly restored, it can transform. Within and beyond the church, people are wrestling with questions of power. How does Jesus give us a transformed and renewed vision for power?
The Reimaging Power: Bible study series aims to consider this topic in three different ways. Part 2: The place of honour explores how we can participate in God’s kingdom work by surrendering our own power and submitting to God’s.
Read part 2 below.
Key text: Luke 14:7-24
When my daughter was in primary school, she was invited to one of her first birthday parties. When she arrived at the party there were pastel-coloured streamers and balloons surrounding a table that featured a large, layered chocolate cake. When the time came for the birthday girl to blow out the candles, her younger brother had assumed position in the place of honour. When his parents asked him to step aside, he grabbed the sides of the seat with white knuckles. When they insisted he move, he refused. His father ended up picking up the seat and carrying him away while the boy held on to the seat crying. It was a little bit awkward, some of the guests chuckled and the parents looked embarrassed. The birthday girl eventually stood in the place of honour, blowing out her candles as her friends sang ‘Happy Birthday’.
However, this birthday party scenario isn’t new. In fact, in Luke’s gospel Jesus warns about the dangers of assuming a place of honour. In Luke 14:7-11 Jesus insists that bullish self-promotion is counter-productive. Paradoxically, he radically asserts that those who exalt themselves will be humbled while those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus’ ways are not the ways of the world. This theme is emphasised further in verses 15-24, where the privileged ‘miss the moment’ after they are invited to the ‘great feast’.
Read: Luke 14:7-24
Jesus was invited into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees to eat the Sabbath meal. As Jesus’ ministry has been unfolding, the tension has been turned up: 14:1 says that Jesus was being ‘carefully watched’. At the same time, Jesus himself is watching with discernment as the dinner party plays out. He notices that the guests are jockeying for position as a public display of their honour. Jesus recognises the power struggle that’s going on, and tells two parables to subversively critique the behaviour of the hosts and guests. He wants to open their eyes to a version of this Sabbath banquet that reflects God’s kingdom: a banquet belonging to God, where oppressive rhythms and patterns are ceased, where the guests encounter rest and a reorientation of themselves under God’s rule.
A few key things stand out for me in reflecting on these parables:
Discuss: this quote from 19th Century Scottish Theologian and preacher, James Denney - The Kingdom of Heaven is not for the well meaning, it is for the desperate.
In the early 2000s my wife and I were working with the first Thai-based organisation set up to combat human trafficking in northern Thailand. In one raid that broke a trafficking syndicate, Thai law enforcement officers and social workers freed scores of young women from Myanmar who had been trafficked into Chiang Mai’s sex industry. However, as the social workers burst into the room where one of the teenage girls had been held captive for more than a year, nothing could have prepared them for what they found. Written in pen on the walls above her bed were the words from Psalm 27. It said:
The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?
When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, When my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear, though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
In a place of unspeakable depravity, being emptied of any form of power herself, the 14-year-old girl from a poor rural family had mustered the courage to find a ‘place of honour’ for her Lord and Saviour in the midst of relentless darkness.
She said she had memorised the psalm at Sunday School as a little girl and as she endured the horror of sexual slavery it sustained her, even when she thought she couldn’t go on living. She told us she didn’t blame God for the suffering she endured, and her unwavering faith demonstrated that just because you are a Christian you are not immune from pain, suffering or even torture.
The story of this young girl made us think about our privilege, but more importantly, how we would respond in such dire circumstances. Her faithfulness in the worst of situations showed us that God listens to our prayers and can miraculously rescue us from the evil in this world. But what about us? How do we react when we face trials or difficult situations? Do we try to carry the problem on our own, in our strength (trying to find a way to fix things)? Do we yield to God’s Kingdom, seeking comfort and grace?
What can we learn from the young girl in Thailand who gave Jesus a place of honour while she was held captive?
In our Australian context, power is often associated with wealth, social standing, or career. We like to curate and rule our own little kingdoms. But Jesus is Lord. He is Lord over all life and everything we possess. This can be both a confronting and uncomfortable reality. As we grasp this, as individuals and as groups of believers, it might mean changing the way we live. It might involve changing the way we read, interpret, and apply scriptures. It might mean changing the way we serve, breaking free from our familiar and comfortable friendships and reaching out to new ‘neighbours’. It might mean thinking about the way we welcome people at our churches, and how we live out the ‘great commission’.
Tearfund’s work is an expression of God’s love for all people. We prioritise supporting partners who work alongside people most impacted by poverty and marginalisation, giving greatest honour to God by ensuring that all are invited to a seat at the table. We continually see God being given highest honour in the examples of staff of our Christian partners, who model after Christ’s humility as outlined in Philippians 2:1-5 – oftentimes putting the needs of others in the community before their or their family’s own needs. And our development approach, where communities are supported to overcome poverty by leading their own development initiatives, is strongly anchored in partnership – a valuing of others and their interests, and putting aside selfish ambition (Philippians 2:2-4).
Chiraphone Khamphouvong is an inspiring staff member with one of Tearfund’s partners, World Renew Laos. She reflects on her experience of setting aside her own honour to honour God in the communities she connects with in her work. Take some time to quietly read her story (or have a few people read it aloud for the group) and reflect.Read the full interview with Chiraphone
Much of Chiraphone’s work involves visiting rural villages where World Renew projects are active, and facilitating a process called Appreciative Inquiry, which ensures that the direction of development is led by the people who will actually be impacted by it.
“It’s going into communities to say, ‘help me to understand’. The approach discovers what is good in communities, because good is happening before you even arrive in that village.”
Chiraphone shares the beautiful story of how this approach empowered a widowed grandmother from a minority tribe to generate the change she was wanting to see. After practising open defecation her whole life – there were only one or two toilets in that village – Ms Bhal-Ner Lao-Ly requested to build a household latrine with support from World Renew. She covered 30 percent of the material costs herself as well as the relevant labour, and then World Renew provided access to the remaining resources.
“When I revisited the village again nine months later, I was able to use her toilet,” Chiraphone says. “Together we were dancing and singing an impromptu song about her and her toilet, and how her life is different now, and that she doesn't have to run into the forest. Did I build her toilet? No. Was I a small part of the equation? Yes. But at the end of the day, that ownership was hers.”
And the transformation ripples throughout the community: “Imagine being a widowed grandma, now celebrating with song and dance about a toilet. Imagine having that power, that joy, that ownership. Imagine the younger mums in the village. Imagine the male leadership. Imagine the children who witnessed that.”
Examining and stewarding her own privilege in the context of her work is an ongoing journey for Chiraphone. Born in Laos, her family fled the country when she was a child, encountering danger and isolation to eventually settle in the US. Now, she calls Laos home once again.
“Being Lao-American, I’m already in a place of privilege because of the passport I hold. How do I steward or leverage my privilege and my power to not perpetuate the coloniser mindset or the colonisation process?”
This mindfulness impacts how Chiraphone dresses, travels and resources herself, particularly in her regular visits to the communities where World Renew works.
“How do I also not showcase my privilege, from my clothes to my phone to my laptop? When I'm going into a home that has no electricity and running water and we're bathing in the creek – who am I to bring in things that make the connections of humanity more dispersed, more of a wider gap? I’m trying to be intentional in saying no… to the things that feed the perception of the ‘haves and have nots’.”
It can be challenging to maintain those intentions, navigating the tension of honouring culture while aiming to relinquish power.
“Sometimes they give me the front of the room, or the special seat… it's saying no to that place up, whatever the high honour seat is. Because you're the guests in the village, you say ‘thank you, but I would prefer to sit with these mamas, these sisters and these grandmas’. It's their decision. We never force. But what we do is we open a different way of thinking, just like Jesus with the Samaritan woman. It's beyond gender roles – it's about seeing each person in the image of God. How are they able to be confirmed and affirmed of their worthiness?”
And that different way of thinking always comes back to Christ. His life and teaching show a restored vision of life together, anchored in obedience and the readiness to set aside his power.
“I remember Jesus’ words, ‘not my will but Thy will be done’,” Chiraphone reflects. “If Jesus took himself away from the crowd, how much more do we need to be mindful of those power dynamics to be able to hear God’s gentle whisper? I think Jesus models that, and gave us such an example of how to live our lives.”
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11
You might like to share your prayers with a friend, a family member or your pastor as an act of accountability.