We’re all familiar with the statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Those words are attributed to Lord Acton, who wrote them in a 1877 letter to Mandell Creighton, the newly consecrated bishop of London. Lord Acton was a Roman Catholic who was repulsed by the history of corrupt papacies. Bishop Creighton, on the other hand, was an Anglican, and also a historian and highly regarded scholar. He published an important multi-volume work on the history of the papacy. But Lord Acton felt rather strongly that the bishop had given some popes a free pass when he should’ve been far more critical in his evaluation. In the end, Bishop Creighton acknowledged that the papacy had indeed sometimes functioned contrary to its purpose and become corrupt.
Whatever one’s overall view of Lord Acton, I think his famous words are true, which is why they are still so often quoted. The quest for power and the trap of corruption have a direct relationship. We see it in the story of today’s first reading. This is the saga of King David and his upstart son Absalom, who attempted a nearly successful coup to dethrone his father. As a young man David was once described as “a man after God’s own heart,” but that was before he ascended to the throne of Israel. Once he held power, he fell to corruption of the worst kind. As king he raped and impregnated a married woman, then tried to cover it up by arranging for the murder of her husband so that he could take the woman as another one of his wives. His family life was a mess. Absalom was David’s third son. He is described as good-looking, a charismatic personality, and brilliantly cunning. He orchestrated the murder of his half-brother, David’s firstborn son, who had attempted to rape Absalom’s sister. This was a revenge killing, but it also now positioned Absalom as the heir apparent to the throne—or so he thought. He plotted a coup by sending messengers throughout the land to spread the lie that he had already been coronated. This generated confusion and discord in Israel, and David was forced into exile on the other side of the Jordan River.
But David’s military generals and a large army remained loyal to him. They fought against Absalom’s forces, a bloody conflict that resulted, we’re told, in 20,000 casualties. Absalom himself was engaged in the conflict and came in direct contact with David’s army. Even though his own son had staged a coup against him, David instructed his army not to kill Absalom, perhaps because he knew he hadn’t been a great father and he felt responsible for the whole situation. Tragically, his instructions were not followed. As Absalom was encountering David’s army, we’re told that the horse he was riding passed under a huge oak tree with low-hanging branches. Somehow Absalom was snagged in the tree, trapped—“hanging between heaven and earth,” as the text says—while his horse took off. When David’s top general heard of this, he immediately went to where Absalom was hanging and bludgeoned him to death. Word was then sent to David that the coup was over. But this was not David’s ultimate concern. He was worried about the safety of his son. When he was told that Absalom had been killed, David was overcome with grief. In his anguish, he wished that he had died instead of Absalom. David would’ve given up the throne, even his own life, for Absalom to live. When we read this story in the context of David’s overall reign, we find that David’s own abuses of power led to major dysfunction in his family. Absalom was a product of that, and it fueled his own quest to seize power for himself at all costs, even at the betrayal of his father. The whole saga ended in violent tragedy, with David in deep regret.
If this story is a lesson about the folly of succumbing to the temptations of power, today’s Gospel offers a very different perspective on leadership and sharing of power. It’s important to remember that today’s reading from John’s Gospel follows the iconic story of the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. The “miracle” in that story, as I understand it, is not something that defied the so-called laws of nature. When Jesus distributed the loaves and fish shared by the young boy, that very act compelled others in the crowd to give up whatever food they might’ve been keeping for themselves. A ripple effect passed over the 5,000. Everyone was empowered to share, and the result was abundance—so much that 12 full baskets of leftovers are gathered up.
It’s no wonder that the crowd doesn’t disperse but persists in following Jesus around. They follow him not because they are seduced by his power, but because he empowered them to do what is exceptional and unexpected. Jesus embodies sharing—the sharing of his life and the sharing of power. And this mobilizes the crowd and begins to form them into a community. As they follow Jesus, he explains that he is “the bread that came down from heaven.” The image he draws on is of the manna that God provided the ancient Israelites each day in the wilderness. Jesus is telling his followers that his way of life will sustain them. It is in sharing his life, and ultimately giving it up, that he empowers others to do the same, so that in the end no one is ignored or left behind.
That brings us to today’s Gospel where we find that the religious leaders and elites are complaining about Jesus. They resent that Jesus calls himself “the bread that came down from heaven,” and they’re threatened by the way he has empowered the people. Jesus is a threat because everything about him challenges their authority and the very notion of concentrated power. Tragically, these religious leaders would continue to oppose Jesus to the very end, celebrating his execution as a vindication of their own position of power in maintaining social and religious order.
What emerges in today’s readings are two very different images. In the first reading is the cunning Absalom whose hunger for power leaves him “hanging between heaven and earth”—elevated above the people and yet not at the height that he craves for himself. It is the image of Lord Acton’s warning of power corrupting. In the second reading is Jesus, “the bread coming down from heaven,” the one who walked the earth among the lowly, empowering those he encountered, calling them to give up their lives as he gave up his. These are stark contrasts, different ways of living. The first image is all too familiar, even in the present time. Then we have the second image. What would the structures of our churches look like if they reflected the sharing of power exemplified by Jesus? What would City Hall look like with power shared among the people, especially those who have no recourse but to live in tents? To walk the Way of Jesus is to share our lives; indeed, it is to give up our lives on behalf of all those we encounter, and to empower them to do the same. It means not seizing power for ourselves but sharing it so that no one is left behind. So today each of us is challenged to examine our lives and identify the many ways in which we hold power. Let us deepen our commitment to “the bread that came down from heaven,” so that we avoid the fate of David and Absalom.