The leaders scoffed at him. The soldiers mocked him. One of the criminals hanging next to him derided him. This is no ordinary way to treat a king. But Jesus is no ordinary king. To begin with, he never claims his kingship. He never calls himself a king and evades the question when others try to pin that title on him. He never demands obedience, only inviting others to follow him. He never promises favors and an easy life to those around him, only challenges and even danger. What kind of king is this?
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which marks an end and a beginning. After six months, we reach the end of the Sundays after Pentecost. Next week will begin the Sundays in Advent, a time of waiting, a time of anticipation, a time of expectancy for a new beginning. But here in today’s reading, we appear to be at an end. Jesus has allowed himself to be handled in a way no monarch would put up with. He has been falsely accused, subjected to an outrageous trial, found guilty, and is now hanging upon a cross, a particularly painful form of execution reserved for those with no power, no wealth, and no influence. What kind of king is this?
Christ the King feast is a recent addition to the Catholic calendar. Introduced by Pope Pius XI in 1925, it was to mark the “sixteenth centenary of the Council of Nicaea” held in AD 325 which defended the full divinity of Christ and therefore his royal claims of sovereignty over humanity. It is also viewed in part, as a response to the political turmoil in Europe after the First World War and the rise of various isms: nationalism, secularism, fascism and communism. Many had lost faith in the church and God. The political establishment was viewed as inept and self-serving. People were looking for alternative, likeminded communities in which to express their fear, their anger and create acceptable scapegoats for perceived or real injustices. Sound familiar?
Reign of Christ Sunday was to remind people that regardless of who or what they aligned themselves with on earth, ultimately there was only one loyalty, one ruler worthy of their devotion who could actually offer the security they craved. Today our world is battling its own isms, including secularism, postmodernism and tribalism. Behaviors and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own social group. We all belong to tribes of one sort or other. And to varying degrees we allow our views to be shaped so they align with the beliefs of those we most strongly identify or feel secure with.
The more threatened we feel, the more we will fight for the advancement and success of our own tribe. Even to the extent of ignoring evidence and substantiated facts that contradict perceived threats to our tribe.
We see this sort of tribalism in those among us who seem to be governed by fear, scapegoating the other – anyone outside our own tribe – for our own personal misfortune, obtaining security in the promises of any perceived strong leader who advocates discrimination and even violence.
We see this sort of tribalism at work two thousand years ago in the events leading up to today’s gospel reading. The religious elite who trumped up charges against Jesus because he was a perceived threat to the security of their earthly kingdom. The Roman overlords who mocked Jesus, and his Jewish accusers with the sign, “This is the King of the Jews” as he hung seemingly helpless and powerless, the very antithesis of a king. No power, no influential friends, no way out: What kind of king is this?
A victim of all their allegiances, prejudices and fears which had been shaped by their various religious, cultural and political tribes. And all this leads us to this stark, desperate scene, three men hanging on three crosses. And one in fear, pain and anger derides Jesus: “Save us,” he cries, but doesn’t believe it is possible, not for a minute. He sees a humiliated weak man who inconceivably forgives his enemies, not a strong savior. Till the last, this criminal cannot move beyond blind hatred and mockery.
Then the other criminal. Surprisingly, in the direst circumstances he is able to look beyond himself to another, to reality, the reality that Jesus is innocent. This criminal is able to discern goodness and truth, and defend it even while his world is imploding in pain and fear. He is able to recognize a cosmic reality: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” If there was ever a Holy Spirit moment, this is it. A moment infused with such God given grace, clarity, faith, and probably hope at the most desperate of times. This criminal recognizes the most powerful person in this whole scenario is the one viewed as the weakest. What kind of king is this?
And Jesus responds to his revelation: “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. Today this man will move not simply from life to death, but to another kingdom. His discernment of Jesus’ true identity as King of an eternal realm with the ability to forgive, save and bring eternal life moves him into the Kingdom of God. Surprisingly, there are similarities between this death scene and the upcoming birth narrative. A cow shed, a crucifixion site, are unlikely places to find a king. They reveal a king who defies prevailing expectations of kingship. Allowing himself to be vulnerable to others and for others, using his power to benefit others. Preaching justice and peace. Who will forgive, love and die for those who mock, deny and eventually kill him. And yet remains the one true king, ultimately and eternally having all power and authority. This is what Christ the King Sunday reminds us of. The one who is truly worthy of our loyalty and allegiance.
What kind of king is this? The kind of king who sees and hears and reaches out not toward the powerful and the wealthy but to the invisible ones, the marginalized, the oppressed, the ones living in the shadows. I suspect our world will continue to divide into tribes, each defined by its own particular values and insecurities. My hope is to not give way to mockery, prejudice or fear. To remain able to recognize and defend goodness and truth. Never to lose sight of who deserves our ultimate loyalty, and to hold onto and live out his kingdom values. And always looking towards Jesus, the unlikeliest of kings. What kind of king is this? The only kind of king before whom every knee should bend.