The Master’s Tools: A Reflection for Tuesday in Holy Week

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the late, great Black feminist thinker Audre Lorde’s words, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It was a warning to marginalized communities against co-opting the tactics the powerful have used against them, for that only serves to perpetuate the cycle of injustice rather than to break it. Albeit in a very different context, this same warning — and the call to work with different tools that goes along with it — can be found throughout the readings assigned to Tuesday in Holy Week.

The theme lies in the background of the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 49. There, in a back-and-forth between God and Israel, we are reminded that God created Israel to stand out against the nations — they weren’t to be just one more kingdom among the rest, but to be something different. But, time and time again, they chose to blend in, insisting on being ruled by a king like everyone else, on worshiping the idols of their neighbours’ gods and goddesses, and on building wealth for the few by exploiting the many. Now God is calling them back; the question before Isaiah and the Servant whom he describes is, will they listen? Will they pick up their vocation to be a true light to the nations in a dark world? Or, will they once again prefer the tools of the rulers of this world?

Turning to the New Testament readings, the theme of ‘the master’s tools’ comes to the fore. The Gospel reading presents a series of sayings by Jesus in the aftermath of the Triumphal Entry. Jesus wants to disabuse anyone listening of any misunderstandings they might have about him. He says:

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. (John 12.23-26)

The ethic described here is the opposite of ‘the master’s tools’. If the tools of human masters are scheming and grasping for power and domination, the tools of our Lord, our divine Master are to be found in humility, weakness, nonviolence, and death. It is those the world most likes to crush who truly understand life. (Is it any wonder, then, why so much of the past century’s best art, literature, music, theology, and philosophy has come from marginalized communities, be it Black, Brown, female, or queer?) Jesus’ life, and our lives should we accept the mission to follow him in it, is what “drives out the ruler of this world.” Out with the old master and his tools. They represent darkness, the ways and tools of Jesus shine the light for all to see.

Paul makes this clear in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1.20). The wisdom of this world and its rulers and masters has failed. Its philosophers, lawyers, and statesmen can only describe systems that don’t work. It may be “the way the world works,” but that way is killing us. Paul continues:

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are (1.23-28)

The sobering fact is that, sadly, over much of Christian history, the public face of the faith has chosen the tools of the masters of this world over the way of Jesus. Over and over again, it has been lured by the false promises of Empire, of power, wealth and privilege. It has chosen the way of earthly glory over the way of the cross, which, as Jesus said in today’s Gospel, is what reveals God’s true glory.

“The master’s tools will never destroy the master’s house.” Truer words have never been spoken. Today, and every day, we hear the challenge and call to set down the tools of earthly power and take up those of our true Master, Lord, King, and God: the tools of humility, love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace.

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