There is a story of two politicians engaged in conversation, and one asks the other, 'But how do you know for sure you've got power, unless you abuse it?'
Of course, this story is meant to illustrate a certain image of politicians. But it also says something about how we understand what power is, an issue that is central to Christianity. For Christians preach a strange Gospel about power: that the power of God was once most visible in a naked man dying on a tree. And if that is so, then what Christians mean by 'power' must be transformed in the light of this.
What we often understand by 'power' is more the abuse of power, using it in ways we should not. For the Christian power is that capacity, that openness to love, shown in the life of Christ, not something to be understood in terms of domination, manipulation, adulation or force.
And a sign of the depth of our Christianity is how that way of looking at things has become part of our own lives and how we act.
To love freely and honestly is power because it takes a great amount to refuse to be swayed from loving by circumstance that come our way, or impulses within ourselves. It takes guts. It took enormous courage to die on a cross out of love for us. That was power. It took enormous courage for men and women throughout the centuries not to give in to inhuman forces.
History is littered with such stories. An example is that of Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun of Jewish background, who, when summoned by the Nazis and greeted by the commandant with the words, 'Heil Hitler!,' replied 'Jesus Christ be praised!' That too was power. It may even have hastened her delivery to Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious example we have of how badly we misunderstand what power really is.
Today's Gospel is about, among other things, power and the abuse of power. The vineyard is the House of Israel, the servants are the prophets who were sent to Israel; and the sending of the landowner's son, refers to the coming of Christ. The tenants stand for those who mistreated them, Christ and the prophets, even to the point of death.
However, the merest reflection should be enough to remind us that the themes of this story of violence and abuse of power remain very much part of our present day world. Part of this contemporary story are the power struggles going on across the globe, as well as the violence we encounter in our neighbourhoods and towns.
But we must also look within, at our own tendencies towards the abuse of power. It is so easy to shift the attention onto others, as though these issues are not part of our lives. They are. All our lives are littered with the consequences of this: broken and damaged relationships, a loss of ability to hear what others are saying to us, and a deafness to the voice of God in our lives.
This might sound sombre, but is in fact a story of the greatest hope. It only seems depressing when we forget what power really is. When we do this, we think of the tenants in today's Gospel as powerful. In the light of the Christian understanding of power, what gives hope is that they are not really powerful at all, but woefully weak. They practise the abuse of power, not its exercise. And if the consequence of their actions is destruction, then the Christian must respond by proclaiming that the consequence of real power is a victory of the deepest kind.
This is to turn upside down our expectations. But Christianity does that. For at its core is the story of a man whose death made it seem that he was a failure, but who was vindicated by his Father raising him up. And if that is true of Jesus Christ, "the first-born of many brothers and sisters," then it is true for us too. We look at the life of great people like Edith Stein as a kind of victory, not only because we admire her courage, but because we see in it a powerful overcoming of what is wrong with our world, and with ourselves.
And what makes this victory an ultimate one, an example of real power, is that we believe that this overcoming will prevail eternally.
That is our Christian hope, and just one example of how the world looks very different, and for the better, when seen in the light of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.