In today’s age of democracy kings are a thing of the past. There are still a few around but they are mostly figureheads. To call Jesus king then seems to be a bit of an anachronism – an archaic title from a previous age that no longer speaks to us today. And then there is the chilling fact that many kings were tyrannical, self-serving and ruled with terror. Herod the Great for instance was a paranoid tyrant who even killed members of his own family. These are not the kind of deeds we associate with Jesus. But today’s gospel quickly sets the scene for a very different kind of king. Nailed to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem, Jesus is totally helpless and is written off as a failure. And yet we must ask, why did the rulers put Jesus to death? It wasn’t just for patting the heads of children. These rulers sensed in Jesus a moral and spiritual strength that they couldn’t cope with. Condemning him to death was admitting that Jesus was indeed king, albeit his kingdom was not of this world.
It takes a certain faith to realise that the broken body of Jesus on a cross is a king. Luke suggests that not all the people at the crucifixion scene were mocking Jesus. He is very careful to distinguish between the leaders of the people and the soldiers, who actively mock Jesus, and the people, who only stand watching. Those who ridiculed Jesus, obviously held a view of kingship where a king wielded absolute power for its own sake or for the benefit of the king alone. Hence, they figured Jesus should have been able to save himself. The ordinary people, on the other hand, are the ones who return home beating their breasts as they realised that Jesus was indeed an innocent man. This division within the people is further demonstrated by the two criminals who are crucified with him. One of the criminals is of the same mind-set as the leaders and joins them in their mockery of him. But the other makes a confession of faith and asks to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom. That’s the kind of faith Luke is asking of us today. So, let us not be scandalised by a crucified Jesus, but rather like the good thief and the centurion in Mark’s gospel confess that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.
The crucifixion reminds us that the Reign of Jesus isn’t a reign of glory and power, but of service, love, and complete self-giving in order to rescue human beings from evil, sin, and death. There is a little clue in the first reading about this kind of kingship where the Lord says to David: “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” David is first called to be a shepherd on the people of Israel and we get the feeling that insofar as he is a good shepherd, will he be a good king. Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ spells out the duties of a shepherd. The focus of the good shepherd is entirely on his flock and not on himself. Jesus himself, lived this kind shepherding with his every breath. Again and again we find him, not in the halls of power, but among the poor and oppressed. As he ministered to the less fortunate he was only too aware of how their rights were trampled underfoot by the rule of the powerful. To remedy this a completely fresh start was necessary, something that he alone could initiate, ultimately through the complete sacrifice of himself. Although Christ died in apparent powerlessness, nevertheless he holds real, spiritual power, which will be revealed at the end of time. The repentant thief caught a glimpse of this when he called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus Christ at the end of time handing over the kingdom to God the Father. Today’s Preface repeats this, describing Christ’s kingdom as one of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace. This ideal is not to be merely a future hope but is to be worked for in the present. The kingdom is our hope, but somehow it is also in our midst, in the process of becoming – a work in progress. The gospel tells us how we are to promote the fuller coming of God’s kingdom among us. It comes whenever justice is done for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed. To behave in this way is to imitate the Shepherd-King himself who is presented in our Gospels as one who rescues from situations of alienation, who feeds, gives rest, heals and makes strong. Among his final words was a promise to the thief being crucified at his side, that he would be enfolded by the eternal love of God, in paradise.
I find the liturgy on Good Friday very powerful and sombre, as we recall the death of Jesus. At one stage, we are all invited to kiss the cross of Christ. It’s a way of saying thanks to Jesus from the bottom of our hearts for his unfathomable love for each of us. While this is a very good thing, let’s not forget that Jesus didn’t ask us to kiss the cross but to carry it. That’s the real challenge. That’s where the rubber hits the road. If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow him. Let us today earnestly follow in his footsteps with responsibility and commitment, knowing that the path takes us sooner or later to share his painful destiny, for there is no Christianity without the cross.
Sunday, 20 November 2016