Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin near the beginning of the Second Book of Samuel in the Old Testament. Saul, the first king of Israel, has died and David has taken his place. The reading makes clear that David is the choice of both God and the Israelites. David made a pact with the King of Hebron and was anointed King of Israel. In Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus during his crucifixion. As the crowd gathered they jeered him claiming that if he was who he claimed to be he could save himself. Above him on the cross was written “This is the King of the Jews.” Two other men were also being crucified, and were on either side of him. One of them abused him, demanding that he save them. But the other asked for forgiveness and acknowledged that Jesus was innocent. Jesus promised that this man “will be with me in paradise.”
Today we celebrate the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next week we begin the season of Advent as we await Christmas. We call today’s celebration “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King,” or the Feast of Christ the King.
The word “king” has gone through many changes in our history. A king has always defined himself as an absolute ruler, someone who answers to nobody and had complete power over his subjects. He decides who lives and dies, what they do, where they live. They are often, but not always, chosen by succession: their fathers were the king before them and they will pass the crown onto their sons.
If you grew up in Great Britain you recognized Elizabeth II as your monarch, the head of state (if not the government) and the image on your currency. If you grew up in the United States you looked to George III as a tyrant and a good reason to declare independence.
And if you grew up in the generations after Exodus, after your ancestors escaped Egypt for the Promised Land, you yearned for a king. Memories of the oppression of Pharaoh had faded and the Israelites asked for one person to lead them. God appointed Saul and when Saul died, David succeeded him. Alas, this was not a dynasty that lasted long. David was succeeded by his son Solomon, but Solomon wasn’t up to the job and on his death Israel divided into smaller factions. Since then the Jewish community has looked back to David’s reign as the high point in their history. Eventually the idea of a new David morphed into a belief in a Messiah that would unite them once again.
But let us contrast King David with the view we see of Jesus in today’s Gospel. Here we see Jesus dying, the most horrendous and painful deaths we can imagine, and over his head is a sign that says: “This is the King of the Jews.” When a person was crucified his offense was written on the cross above his head and was meant as a warning to others who were considering the same crime. They were, in a sense, saying this what happens to someone who claims to be king in opposition to the Romans.
Not only do those gathered mock him, even one of his execution partners sees him with nothing but contempt. In the last hours of his life this man mocked Jesus. And why not? He certainly has nothing to lose.
But then something else happens. The other criminal recognizes he might have one last shot at a happy ending, one last opportunity to turn his life around. And he takes it.
Only this man, only this criminal, looked at the man on the next cross and said “king.” Only he had the eyes of faith. And in return he was granted salvation: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
Although they would never admit to it, I suspect that many Christians find themselves uncomfortable with this scene and see it as “cheap grace.” They feel that this man has selfishly “lived for himself” and only in the last day of his life does he say the magic words that grant him salvation. To this I say: we know nothing of his life and it’s worth suspecting that he had a miserable life, full of hating the Romans and fearing this day would come.
But I think this misses a larger point: We need to be the man who saw Jesus as a king. I’ve spoken about this again and again but when we look to those who lead us we need to pay attention to Scripture and not pay attention to those who promise to protect us.
Jesus never promised to protect us from each other. He never said that he would be a king like David whose reign didn’t last beyond his son. Instead Jesus, on the cross, promised us that his kingdom wouldn’t last for generations, centuries, or millenia. Jesus promised us that his kingdom would last beyond this life and this world and would bring us to paradise
And this promise frees us in our definition of our king. Kings depend on their followers. Look again at Solomon. His son didn’t follow him because his subjects didn’t trust him and Israel. They either didn’t want what Solomon promised or they didn’t trust that he could deliver on his promises.
We follow Jesus not because he promises to keep us fed or make sure we’ll always have friends. Christianity doesn’t promise those things. Instead Christianity promises that following Jesus will give us not only eternal life but also a full and meaningful life here. By feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked we will meaning in our lives and the lives of others.
I love the irony that we revere the anointed David less than the crucified Jesus.