Christ the King: 25 November John 18:33-37
This is scene two of the seven scenes which make up the trial of Jesus before Pilate, running from 18:28 - 19:16. The Jewish authorities remain outside the praetorium because they want to remain pure so that they can celebrate the Passover that evening. Jesus is taken inside. So Pilate goes to and fro between them.
In scene two he comes back inside to interview Jesus. The question is as it is in Mark: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ (15:2). There Jesus responds with a guarded, yes: ‘You say so.’ John knows this story, either from memory from Mark or from an independent common source. John brings, ‘You say..’ in 18:37. In a manner typical of John’s gospel the minimal tradition has been expanded. Now a dialogue takes place between when the question is first put in 18:33 and when it recurs in 18:37. Why?
The answer in part lies in the way John characterises both Pilate and the Jewish leadership. Pilate mocks the Jewish authorities throughout, exposing their powerlessness. He relents only when they convert to become defenders of the emperor. The situation is bizarre. Pilate emerges as pathetic and weak. The Jewish authorities emerge as traitors to their faith. It is a narrative spun out of some strands of history woven within the fabric of contemporary conflict in which inner Jewish tension has erupted into mutual accusation and recrimination between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. But like a gem on a necklace, this segment also shines on its own and makes its own impression.
To speak of Jesus as ‘king of the Jews’ is to use a Jewish category. That far Pilate is right to redirect the issue. The term is dangerously ambiguous, politically explosive. There was something odd about its use in relation to Jesus from the beginning. It belongs in the realm of revolt: alternative government, liberation - from the Romans! That makes sense of the company Jesus is given on the cross and the offer to swap Barabbas. Jesus falls into that category: seeking radical change. But clearly Pilate must have understood there was something rather odd about Jesus, because he did not round up and execute his followers with him. The accusation, ‘King of the Jews’, which hung on the cross, both indicated a charge worthy of execution and connoted a kind of kingship which did not warrant massive arrests of his followers.
Jesus spoke unashamedly of the impending reign (=empire!) of God and embodied its reality in his ministry through his behaviour. Visionaries, particularly those who let their visions be the agenda for their lives here and now, inevitably confront the forces which want to control the present and mostly resist change. If Jesus allowed royal messianic language to be applied to his activity and hopes - and of this there is mostly only the evidence of his last days - then it must have been understood (and misunderstood) in such a context of confrontation. Temple authorities would see such a movement as either nuisance value or as potentially dangerous because it might evoke a hasty and suppressive response from the nervous Romans. This is the argument in John 11:47-53. The Roman authorities hardly seem threatened. Rather it was a bit of a joke - at least in John. In history it was probably filed under 'elimination of potential unrest from subversives and cranks'.
‘King’ is fascinating because the concept was a focus for thoughts about God and God’s activities and agents. It is therefore revealing how the tradition understood ‘king’. John 18:36 has Jesus state categorically that his kingship is not ‘of this world’, such that he would need to go into battle. That would be absurd. Equally absurd is the popular notion that he meant his kingdom is in heaven and nothing to with what goes on, on earth. Jesus is not espousing the military option. John’s hearers would remember the tragedy of those who did: the debacle of 70 CE when the temple was destroyed.
That clarified, John returns to the question which tradition had preserved: was Jesus a ‘king’ (18:38)? Jesus’ enigmatic and typically Johannine response speaks of his coming to bear witness to the truth. When Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’, John’s hearers might respond with Jesus’ own words: he said: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ Jesus embodies truth. Jesus embodies kingship. Jesus embodies God.
John expands and expounds the early tradition about Jesus’ execution which already exploited the irony of the situation: no, Jesus was not ‘the king of the Jews’; the charge was false; and yes, he is ‘the king of the Jews’; the charge is unwittingly true. He is a mad king: weak, crucified, crowned with thorns, pathetic, defeated. Mark has been telling us about love and self-giving, a path that led him to this. John retains the stark melody. As Jesus’ life is subversive, so also is his death. It depicts in deed what Jesus taught in word: greatness is lowliness and compassion, the last is first, loving matters most.
This subverted image of kingship, given us in the account of the crucifixion, belongs at the heart of Christian faith and community - and at the heart of God. In that sense it represents the kingdom, the kingship of God. Jesus’ ministry interprets his death and his death interprets his ministry. So this is not a passivity which surrenders, a kind of discipline which learns to find fulfilment in being a doormat through some brave self-persuasion that such behaviour is noble or blessed. It is the transforming compassion which gets on the donkey and rides into Jerusalem. It is an engaged spirituality which lives not from abject obedience to a heavenly king, but in common initiatives of creativity and hope which constitute the being of God.
It is so good to celebrate the feast of Christ the king in the context of the passion. Obsession with power so easily 'rescues' Jesus (and God) from all of this and makes the resurrection the point of return to power from the embarrassment or the stunt of incarnation. The military Jesus makes an appearance quite soon and people forget kingship is a broken metaphor which has legitimacy only in its subversion. Our task is no less today to proclaim the kingdom of God, a kingship not of this world - but here and now.
Epistle: Christ the King: 25 November Revelation 1:4b-8