But power in the Christian sense is very different. Instead of being a “power over” kind, it expresses itself as “power with.” In order to understand this, I’d like to perhaps expand your definition of power beyond the image of strength or might. Power, in the Greek sense of the word dunamis, is the ability to accomplish something – the ability to get something done. And if we think of power this way, then we can begin to understand that the image of brute strength or force isn’t the whole picture.
In today’s gospel reading, we hear that Jesus returned to his hometown and once again causes a stir. Last time his family thought he was out of his mind, this time the hometown folk think he’s grown a bit too big for his britches! In our translation today, we have the folks in his hometown asking, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” This translation has an exclamation point in that last sentence and makes it sound like they are acknowledging the deeds of power he is doing. However, don’t be fooled by that exclamation point. In first century Koine Greek, there was no punctuation and many translations (including King James) have a question mark there which I believe is more consistent with the other statements. What deeds of power are being done by his hands? I think this picks up the mood of unbelief which is evident from the other questions. “Who does this guy think he is?” is the real underlying question being asked. And they took offense at him and he could do no deed of power there – in other words, he could not accomplish much (although he did heal a few sick people).
Some have suggested this is a case of familiarity breeding contempt as Jesus is the hometown boy and his neighbors just can’t see him as a prophet because they know him too well. I think it may be a bit more than this. In first century Palestine, one’s status in life was determined by where you were born and to whom you were born. The hometown crowd’s questions about Jesus’ identity are actually more of a put-down than we realize. As a carpenter, Jesus would have been part of the artisan class – a class of people below the elites and just above those considered degraded or expendable. And their inquiry about him being Mary’s son is also a slight as any man would have been identified not as a mother’s son but as their father’s son – therein lies a hint that Jesus is illegitimate. The offense people tooks was that by teaching in the synagogue, Jesus was rising above his appointed station in life. How dare he! One of the greatest obstacles about Christianity for those in the Greco-Roman world was not that a man could be born of a virgin or that a human could be divine – but it was that this could be true of someone in a lower class. After all, Jesus was just a carpenter.
Mark tells us that Jesus could do no works of power in his hometown – except to heal a few sick people (which for those few sick people constituted works of power for them!). After this, Jesus goes around to other villages teaching, calls the twelve disciples and sends them out two by two with authority over unclean spirits. Mark tells us that these ordinary disciples cast out many demons and healed many who were sick by anointing them with oil. This is the kind of “power with” – power which comes from walking along side as friends and companions which accomplishes great things.
While Jesus was just a carpenter, our reading from 2nd Corinthians today deals with the same class consciousness. Paul was just a tentmaker too – also one of the artisan class. Now we know Paul was literate as he closes his letter to the Galatians with a self-deprecating remark about his poor handwriting; however, one of the things the people of Corinth took offense at with Paul was his insistence of earning his wages as a common tentmaker rather than doing what all good Greco-Roman teachers did and charge his disciples for his teaching. In the larger context of his letters to the Corinthians, he speaks of himself as one who does not boast in direct contrast with a group he calls the “super-apostles” who make grand claims about their superior spiritual gifts and knowledge of God and who may have fallen into the Greco-Roman practice of charging for their teaching about Christ. It is in this context that Paul shares with us what God has revealed to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Often we think that our weaknesses are barriers to serving our Lord. But Scripture tells us that God has a preference for those who are weak and not for those who are powerful in the earthly sense. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking God can’t work through us … after all, “I’m just a kid” or “I’m just a housewife” or “I’m just a teacher” or “I’m just a layperson.” If anything our readings today tell us is that “just a” does not limit how God’s power can work in and through your life to manifest the gospel. In my ministry, I am always amazed at how transformational moments seem to happen when I have shared the messes of my own life with others. Somehow, some way, God finds a way to bless my mess and use it to bring healing.
Scripture tells us plainly that God recruits the nobodies in this world to serve the Lord and to do great deeds of power – from the shepherd boy David, to Paul, to the disciples, and each of us. God gives each of us the ability to accomplish something for the kingdom just by being ourselves – being authentic and sharing the real stuff of our lives with others. As you take this good news to the world this week, trust that God’s words to Paul are just as equally spoken to you: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”