Brief synopsis of the readings: Continuing with book of Daniel, he describes “one like a son of man” whose “sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away.” John’s Gospel describes the dialogue between Jesus and the Roman ruler Pilate. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the “king of the Jews,” Jesus didn’t directly reply. In the dialogue Jesus tells Pilate that he is a king sent to bear witness for the truth.
In the history of human language we know of few words that have evoked such strong feelings as the word “King” (and its synonyms).
From our earliest days as humans we’ve ordered ourselves into leaders and followers have had a variety of views of leaders. Ask an ancient Egyptian how he viewed is Pharaoh and he would support him as someone who made things work; ask one of the Hebrew slaves and they viewed Pharaoh as a horrible tyrant. Europe in the Middle Ages brimmed with kings and queens and lesser royalty who were constantly at war with each other, battling over land and wealth and the wealth came virtually entirely from the farmers and merchants who found themselves serving the king of the month. I’m writing from the United States and when we think of kings we think of tyrants. We think primarily of British King George III who drove us to independence. Today we are allies with Great Britain and George’s 4th great granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. But his tyranny drove us to imagine a nation where rulers serve only with the consent of those they governed.
We have complicated understandings of the words king or queen, but it’s interesting to look at the dialogue in the Gospel between Jesus and Pilate. In some ways we can see that Pilate grasped Jesus’ place better than some of his disciples.
Pilate, at the time, was a mid level Roman official in a place far from Rome. But he understood that a Jew who was seen as a king posed his greatest danger. When he asked Jesus if he was the “king of the Jews” he probably hoped the Jesus would answer affirmatively and make Pilate’s role easy: he must be stopped (and even executed) because he posed a clear and present danger to the Roman Empire.
But of course, Jesus didn’t make things easy. Truthfully, he really never does, and that’s much of what makes me want to follow him.
We call this feast the Commemoration of Christ the King not because he’s the best King we can find but because he redefines how we look on kings and other leaders.
Throughout history kings have held power (often absolute power) but not always wisdom or a proper moral compass. Oftentimes we’ve seen rulers do horrible things only because they could. In the Old Testament, King David had sex with Bathsheeba only because he could. In more recent times Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong killed millions of their own citizens who got in the way of their vision of their nation.
We now live in a world where almost all successful nations have either eliminated royalty (United States) or relegated them to primarily ceremonial duties (Great Britain). And I think we can be forgiven if we find the celebration of Christ the King a little outdated or at least a little outfashioned.
But if our king isn’t one of us (however chosen) but Jesus, how is that different? We know from Scripture that Jesus “is like us in all things but sin.” But how does a sinless ruler rule? A sinless ruler doesn’t covet the wealth of his rivals or his subjects. A sinless ruler doesn’t exercise power over people or land because he can. A sinless ruler ensures that his subjects have what they need to live safe, dignified lives.
So what do we do with this? The easy answer is we sit in the smug reality that our true king is sinless, almost a sense of “We have Jesus. He’s got this. We’re good.” That’s true and good as far as it goes. But what does it mean for our lives? Does it call us to anything? I think it does.
None of us are sinless but we are called to head in that direction. I may be straying into dangerous territory, but I suspect most of us who are reading this are white. There’s a great deal of attention toward phrases like “white pride,” “white privilege,” “white man’s burden,” etc. There’s little doubt that part of the respect I receive on a daily basis lies with the color of my skin (and since I work in health care I’m often mistaken for being a doctor) and this gives me a certain level of power. Can we use this power for the good? Can we use this to check our ambition, counter our greed, and find our generosity? I think we can.
None of us are kings, but can we look at the power we’re given with gratitude and a commitment to use this power for good. Maybe it’s something big: we own a corporation and decide to expand into a blighted neighborhood, not because it’s profitable but because the good people who live there will see great improvement in their lives. Not many of us find ourselves in that position.
But maybe we’re called to smaller, though not less important actions. We’re in a staff meeting where one of our female coworkers comes up with an idea but is interrupted and we stop the meeting to make certain she is heard. We know of a homeless person on our way to work and we pack a sandwich for him.
The point is this: none of us will be kings and most of us live in places where everyone is subject tot he rule of law. But we all benefit from good fortune and have the ability to exercise that fortune to benefit others.