Today’s Message, Palm Sunday, 4/5/2020

Matthew 26:14-27:66 (Verses 36-27:66) (Verses 1-27:66)

The Right — and the Left — Side of Power

Jesus invites us to use what power and privilege we have to say “no” to dominant and oppressive systems.

As Lent moves into the season of Easter, we are invited to consider among other things how:

  • We participate in power and powerful structures in our world, whether it is economic or political power, or some power of our identity.
  • How can we share our power with the Son of Man?
  • How are we invited into another kind of power where our power can be amplified and magnified to make the world a better, more just place? 
  • Can we use what power and privilege we have in our life to say “no” to dominant and oppressive systems?
  • Can we use the power and privilege we have in our life to refuse to be reactive and threatened by other kinds of power? 
  • How can we use the power we have to find more creative, more beautiful and more just answers to a broken world?
  • We are invited to power. How will we use it?

            When you write with a pencil, which hand do you use? More than likely, it is your right hand. Only about 10 percent of the human population is left-handed. We are a right-hand-dominant species. Very few other species in the world show such strongly right-dominant traits. Many other species, including cats, dogs and birds, are about 50 percent right- or left-dominant.

            If you are left-handed, you’ve probably noticed your minority status among righties. Scissors, desks, computer mouses, knives and so many other daily implements have been designed with the expectation that the user will be right-hand dominant.

            You have probably heard about how historically left-handed people were said to be marked with a curse, or perhaps that their left-handedness was the product of bad upbringing or poor posture. In fact, in Latin, the word for “left” means “sinister.” When something is “correct” in English, we say it is “right.” In the Bible, left-handedness is scarcely a positive thing. It is associated with deceit or trickery in battle, such as in the story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges.1 Some of you may have been born with a left-hand preference but were “corrected” by your parents or caregivers to become right-handed so as to avoid these superstitions about left-hand-dominant persons.

            Still, even given all the difficulties of being left-handed in a right-dominant world, left-handedness persists. Whether it is through genetic fortitude or the shear strong-willed nature of left-handed people we may never know. Some say that evolution has favored a left-handed presence, even if in the minority, because having some members of the species whose brains work with the other hemisphere helps us solve problems more creatively and efficiently as a community. Moreover, there’s no clear binary between right- and left-handed people. Many people are mostly right-dominant for some tasks and occasionally left-dominant for others, or vice versa. The diversity of human expression is both mysterious and beautiful.

The trial

            In today’s scripture, Jesus is interviewed by Caiaphas the high priest. Witnesses come before him and say he has been overheard saying that he could destroy God’s temple and rebuild it in three days. Caiaphas asks Jesus to answer this accusation and Jesus is silent, so Caiaphas asks him directly if he is the Son of God, the Messiah.

            Jesus answers with what seems to be a riddle. He replies that Caiaphas and the others “have said” he is the Son of God, the Messiah, but that from now on they “will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power.” It raises the question, what is the “left hand of power” or the “wrong side of power”? Is the “left hand of power” sinister or evil, or wrong, as so many hypotheses of left-handedness have posited over the years? Or could it be something else?

            Caiaphas’s question is tricky. We, the modern readers and hearers, have the advantage of anticipating the ending. We know that Caiaphas is right: Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus’ answer is also tricky. He never admits to being the Messiah or the Son of Man, only that the Son of Man would be “seated at the right hand of Power.” What is beautiful about Jesus’ answer is that it allows so much space for mystery and interpretation.

The right hand of power

            The phrase “to be seated at the right hand” is familiar biblical language. The Bible often places good things on the right side. But, as we know, left-handedness is not sinister or wrong. The left side of anyone’s body is not evil. We know and understand that the diversity of humans is beautiful and that one’s dominant hand is part of the expression of identity in this incredible mix of humanity. We also know there are very few people with singly dominant hands. As has been mentioned, many of us use both hands to do many things.

            Surely Jesus knew this too, so could Jesus be implying that the Son of Man would be seated at the right side of power, where most people can be found, but that the “left side” of power is just as powerful, just as beautiful, and just as necessary? Could it be that what Caiaphas heard as blasphemy was actually an affirmation of Caiaphas’s leadership and his authority as a person with great power, and a plea for Caiaphas to see that there is a whole other kind of power, also beautiful, with many other people to serve — perhaps even the majority of people? These are the least, the lost, the lonely, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the needy.

Binary of power

            Just as the false dichotomy between right-handed and left-handed people can be harmful — even dangerous — so can the false dichotomy between the “left side of power” and the “right side of power” be harmful and dangerous. Whether you are right-handed or left-handed does not decide your morality or human worth; it simply points to an unconscious preference for how you move through the world.

            So too, the “right side of power” and the “left side of power” point to ways of moving through the world. Both originate from the same source of power, from the same Creator. Both can serve to make the world a more perfect place. Placing one in opposition to the other creates a false dichotomy where one is “bad” and the other is “good.” It is perhaps more helpful and healthy to think of them as different ways to move in and through the world, deserving to be seen as different and beautiful on their own, and even more powerful together.

            Caiaphas ultimately responds to Jesus with violence, but perhaps it didn’t have to be that way. Jesus’ response to a tense and difficult situation was to neither confirm nor deny Caiaphas’ accusation but to offer him an opportunity to be right and also to work alongside and together with another kind of power. Imagine a world where powerful men like Caiaphas meet the “right side of power” and, instead of being threatened, choose to accept an invitation to even greater possibility and purpose. What problems could we solve if these types of power could move and work together? Poverty? Homelessness? Bigotry?

Combined power

            Jesus’ story is tragic and violent, just as our world is tragic and violent. Even in his last moments on earth Jesus invites us to something bigger and greater than our “rightedness.” He invites us to see past false dichotomies and into realities that are more diverse, more beautiful and even more powerful than anything we could achieve in our corners of power.  Jesus offers us an opportunity to work with the “right hand of Power” to build a more perfect creation. 1 Judges 3:15-22.

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