First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Christ the King

William Loader

Christ the King: 20 November Luke 23:33-43

A different kind of king! The passage bristles with irony, which goes back to Mark and beyond, and must have arisen from Jesus’ first followers who were inspired to make the right connections. Had he not said that the great among you shall as the one who serves? Had he not called into question the dominant models of power? At the same time other forces pulled in a different direction which would lead to a triumphalism which reversed the incident of shame and preferred a Lord and King on an invisible throne: Jesus, the loser, becomes Jesus, the winner. Let’s forget about the losing! Does christology really need a Jesus? Yes it does!

The complexity is not to be disentangled. Paul knew that when he spoke of the powerful powerlessness of the cross. The risen Christ carries the marks of the crucified and his heart. The crucifixion confronts the norms of power with a new way of being; ultimately, a new way of being God.

Luke follows Mark for the most part, but with variations in order and important additional touches. Jesus is being crucified on the grounds that he is subversive. That subversiveness is associated with the notion of a ‘messiah’ (‘anointed’) king. ‘Christ’ is simply the Greek word for ‘anointed’. ‘King of the Jews’ makes the charge explicit and stands over the cross as a warning against other would-be messiahs. Such a figure was widely expected to overthrow the Romans and bring liberation for Israel. The notion was, however, rather flexible and need not have entailed military intentions. These are fine points, probably lost on a busy Roman administrator like Pilate, whose chief concern would have been to suppress any form of popularist movement which had the potential to undermine stability in the region. Fear is often indiscriminate and ruthless. He must have understood enough to know there was no need to round up Jesus’ followers and execute them as well.

Christians acclaimed Jesus as messiah, but he was not the kind of messiah which warranted such an execution. In that sense the charge was false. There is a certain consistency with which it was followed through. Jesus was being placed in a general category. Thus it made sense to bring Barabbas into the deal; for he, too belonged in the general category. So did those who were crucified with Jesus. Outside of Luke they are called ‘lestai’, a term commonly used for revolutionaries. This all goes together to create an ironic situation in which one falsely charged for being ‘King of the Jews’ and messiah is being hailed as the ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘messiah’ by Christians.

An easy way out of the dilemma (and potential embarrassment and danger) which the narrative poses is to emphasise that Jesus was no threat at all. It was all a terrible misunderstanding. Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom within, nothing to do with the broader political concerns. You could read Luke that way: forgiveness of individual sins is the goal, offered generously even to his despisers as 23:34 shows (though with a ‘let-out’ because they were sins of ignorance) and even available for ‘criminals’, as Luke’s elaboration in 23:39-43 illustrates. Luke has even removed from his narrative the dangerous suggestions that Jesus may have spoken against the temple, which Mark has reported as an echo of the Jewish trial and for which the tearing of the curtain of the temple is an advance sign (see Mark 14:57; 15:29,38). In Luke it is now more a sign of divine grief (23:44-45).

Was Jesus then a messiah, a Christ, of a rather harmless kind, concerned primarily with the inner or other world? Were those who colluded in his execution totally wide of the mark? Was it all a terrible misunderstanding? Certainly Luke is at pains to emphasise that Jesus was innocent of the charge. He has both Pilate and Herod Antipas say so. But there is no smoke without fire. Something was smouldering in the movement of Jesus. But it was clearly not military revolution. It was, however, something which gained a following of a kind that presented a danger. It is impossible to make sense of this without recognising that there were indeed elements of potential subversion in the movement.

Luke presents Jesus from the beginning as one who is addressing Israel’s hopes of liberation. The songs of the birth narratives are full of it. Jesus marches into the synagogue to link his mission to Isaiah 61 in 4:16-20. He announces good news to the poor, hungry, those who wept. He asserts and expresses the value of those considered valueless. He gathers people and announces change. He is not beginning a school of meditation for personal enrichment (though that will have its place); nor is he promising a utopia at another time and another place. Rather he is announcing change and embodying it already in himself and in his community. Dangerous? Certainly not harmless for those with a vested interest in the status quo. Is he one with Barabbas and the brigands? Certainly not; yet we need to see that in some sense there would have been shared goals. He would have more in common with them than with Christian quietists.

To affirm that Jesus is king is to affirm a different kind of kingship. But it is not a kingship which abdicates into an inner or other world. Powerlessness is simply passivity if no power is taken up. Jesus was enormously powerful and assertive. He did not come to create a set of doormats, but to spread a revolution of love and grace, which entailed identifying and embodying a new kind of power and priority. The feast of Christ the king is something very assertive. The paradox and irony of the passion is not to be dissolved by dislocation, by saying Christ’s concerns lie elsewhere. It is rather to be entered as representative of a fundamental conflict in the here and now: about God, about Christ, and about being Christian.

‘The king’ is a gendered expression. The issue is bigger than that, although the dominant model has also been mainly a male one. Asserting Christ the king as an image of ethereal splendour with all the trappings of ancient royalty, in word or in song (plenty of possibilities here!), reinforces standard images of greatness as might and domination. Asserting Christ the king as a counter image, of a life poured out in compassion in life and even in the midst of the cruelty and corruption which keeps the poor poor, is a subversive declaration. It is a way of locating what matters most - and in the end: God.

Epistle: Christ the King: 20 November  Col 1:11-20