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How We Relate to Power Is Our Witness

Zacchaeus in tree summoned down by Jesus in front of his disciples

The common definition of “rich” is rarely “people like me.” It’s a famously squirrelly word that makes many of us squirm. In the Sabbath School lesson’s focus this week on mission to the rich and powerful, I imagine the assumption most readers will likely have is that we are talking about “those other people.”

Fair enough. For the quarterly’s large Adventist readership, that’s probably a safe bet. My own reading reflects this, as I quickly imagined the lesson insinuating that Jeff Bezos needs Jesus, too, and that someone ought to witness to him. No argument here! Amen and amen. And if meeting Jesus were to lead him to a Zacchaeus-like commitment to give half his wealth to Amazon packers and drivers, put me in the front row of the altar call choir. 

The lesson’s comments on the “powerful” likewise brought to mind stories of those “out there”—spiritual advisors to presidents or perhaps military chaplains. These are complex and important missions, to be sure. In addition to attending pastorally to these individuals’ soteriological wellbeing, such unique relationships no doubt require deep discernment of when to be a prophetic voice in the mold of, say, Nathan in King David’s court. 

Still, such scenarios may strike readers as exceptional. Shifting how we understand power helps this topic become more widely relatable and allows it to hit closer to home.

Our common-sense notion of power frames it as something that some individuals have and some don’t. Power is power-over, which is always repressive or controlling, even when benevolent. Power is certainly like that sometimes, but this view misses the more subtle ways that power works. Power is, after all, relational. It is sometimes repressive and domineering, but it is also productive—and, importantly, unavoidable. It is like the pressure against which clay finds its form to become pottery. Power is how we negotiate who we are—somewhere between our own creative agency and the structures and limits of our social context. In the language of faith, there is the power of God working within us when we resist sin or orient our lives toward love.

Clearly, power is not just out there with the “powerful.” More than just something individuals possess and accumulate (or don’t), power is utilized as we interact with, relate to, and structure our communal and political life.

This is not at all to ignore the ways that power acts upon different bodies differently, sometimes unjustly. It is instead a framework to help us see power as much more complex and embedded in everyday life. This view, among other things, invites self-reflection. 

In a missional frame, such self-reflection might take the following form: we could consider how we exercise power and relate to money within our families, congregations, and denominations as a kind of missional witness in itself. The lesson seems to hedge a default reader-response that money and power are bad or shameful. This anticipation hints at our collective discomfort with these topics and the temptation to imagine ideal communities in which neither is present. But that response risks shirking responsibility for the many forms of power that are always and unavoidably present in community—economic, relational, administrative, rhetorical. 

So the question is not shall we or shan’t we have power; it is how shall we relate to the power that is always present, moving amidst our relationships? And what sort of witness will our orientation to and use of power embody?

Another opening for thinking missionally about power comes through a fresh reading of the Zacchaeus story, which Wednesday’s lesson introduces as an example of witnessing to the rich.

A simple reading—though still ethically demanding—is the Jeff Bezos example. Zacchaeus is sinful and despised for collaborating with the empire and getting rich off his own (oppressed) people. That’ll preach widely—from the evangelist who celebrates the individual repentance that leads to a saved soul to the liberation theologian who leans on the material reparations tied directly to that repentance.

But there’s another way this text can preach, as demonstrated by Pastor Dewald Kritzinger in a sermon at La Sierra University Church on October 7, 2023. The whole sermon is worth a listen, but here is the core interpretive twist. Instead of Zacchaeus’s declaration about restitution and reparation being about what he commits that day to doing in the future (will give, will repay), his words can be read in the present tense—as regular practices that he has already been engaged in, despite the (mis)perception of his community. “Look, Lord, I give half my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (Luke 19:8). Perhaps this story is less about, as Kritzinger puts it, “a sinner in need of repentance” and more about “a saint who surprises us.” In their knee-jerk spite for Zacchaeus, his community missed the faithful work of justice he had already been carrying out. Jesus, who sees with different eyes, calls him out of the tree and affirms him as a true child of Abraham. 

We need not—ought not—abandon the prophetic critiques of unjust distributions of power, but this reading of the Zacchaeus story opens imaginative possibilities for missional approaches to power and wealth. In this vision of mission, we roll up our ecclesiological sleeves and wade into the messy economies of cultural, political, and economic power, looking for those surprising places where reparative justice is being done. We watch for where visions of life together are being formed by the creative power of the Spirit. We witness what God is doing, and we join in.

(Sermon begins at 49:20)


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Vaughn Nelson is Spectrum editor of Adult Sabbath School commentaries for this quarter. He can be reached at vaughn[at]spectrummagazine[dot]org.

Title image in the public domain.

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