What Does It Mean to Be King?

Christ the King Scripture Readings

Our country has just completed another national election cycle—as if you hadn’t noticed. Everyone running for office promises to do the right thing and to create the kind of government that works, but they all seem to have different ideas about what that means. The same was true in ancient Israel. Everyone in the twelve tribes pretty much did their own thing with God as their only ruler—until there was a war, when they’d appoint someone to lead them. As soon as the war was over, they’d go back to doing what they did before…at least until the time of the Prophet Samuel. The people decided they needed a king and demanded that Samuel anoint one for them. Samuel warned them it was a bad idea.

“He told them: ‘The governance of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. He will appoint from among them his commanders of thousands and of hundreds. He will make them do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war and chariotry. He will use your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will tithe your crops and grape harvests to give to his officials and his servants. He will take your male and female slaves, as well as your best oxen and donkeys, and use them to do his work. He will also tithe your flocks. As for you, you will become his slaves. On that day you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.’” [1 Samuel 8:11-18]

Saul was the king that Samuel anointed for them, and he turned out to be every bit as bad as Samuel had predicted, ruling the people for his own power and glory. The Israelites gave up on Saul and turned to David to be Saul’s successor as we read in today’s first reading. From that time on, down to the time of Our Lord, they were looking for a king who would rule them with justice and love.

What makes a king? I think we could take our cue from the doxology we add to the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “…for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours…” Let’s start with the kingdom. It may seem obvious that a king needs a kingdom, a people to govern. But it’s more than that. Having a kingdom implies that the king has a certain autonomy of action. The people of the kingdom must at least tacitly allow the king to rule.

Then comes the power. A king must have power to rule. His commands must be carried out. People have to do what he says, or else there are consequences. Power implies not only the authority to have others carry out the king’s will, but also the authority to punish those who do not or will not obey.

The final characteristic is glory. Glory is one of those intangible concepts that are hard to pin down. Glory refers to the weightiness of the office. It’s akin to honor. It’s that feeling you get when you are in the presence of greatness. It inspires deference—that feeling that we’re not “worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.”

We’ve heard it said that Jesus turned our common understandings on their heads. I would put it differently. What I’d say instead is that Jesus showed us just how wrong-headed we can be, particularly when it comes to politics and governance. Today, as we end our year-long journey through the Gospel of Saint Luke and look forward to restarting our liturgical cycle with our preparations for Christmas, we’re invited to reconsider everything we believe about how our social and political lives should function. Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King.

To get our attention, those who established this celebration chose a remarkable gospel passage from Luke—his narration of the crucifixion. Do you remember the charge that the religious authorities brought against Jesus? He claimed to be the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel in the line of King David. The authorities forced Pilate’s hand, and, to get back at them, the procurator had this mocking indictment nailed to the cross: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

What is Luke showing us? Jesus is convicted of being a king. Where’s Jesus’s kingdom? All but a tiny handful of his followers have betrayed him or fled. Bystanders who’ve come for the spectacle read the indictment and find it either pathetic or hysterical. Of all the people there, only one takes him at all seriously—a criminal under the same sentence. Jesus is alone with him and with God.

Where is Jesus’s power? He’s been arrested, dragged before both religious and secular authorities, accused, tried, and condemned, offering neither excuse nor resistance. He’s been tied up and scourged. Under guard, he’s been nailed to a stake in the ground so that he can only move a few inches, either hanging from the nails in his wrists or pushing up against the nail through his feet. He can’t so much as take a sip of wine on his own.

Where is Jesus’s glory? Who around him feels anything but pity for this poor, deluded excuse for a human being? Anyone? The good thief? The person who offered him some wine on a sponge?

From the outset, our concept of political power is contrary to God’s. If we truly understood what political office was all about, nobody would want it. Call it “kingship” or “rule” or “governance” if you want. It doesn’t matter what you call it, what matters is what it demands. For someone who actually “gets” the message of the gospel, “kingdom” consists of those people who cannot repay. The king is servant of all, especially those who have nothing to offer.

The power of kingship that Jesus showed us is the power of total surrender. It’s the power of the crucified ego. It’s the power of a personality wholly aligned with the will of God to do good. It’s a power that focuses its energies to lift up our fellow human beings—particularly those incapable of lifting themselves.

The true glory of a Christian leader is found in self-effacement. Others’ recognition of who we are and what we’ve accomplished is meaningless. We are but trusted servants. We’ve done only what we’ve been called to do.

That there are poor politicians is no surprise. What is surprising is that there are some who sincerely try to pattern themselves on Christ the King. Sadly, they never last very long. Their measure of success is most often not the same as those who’ve elected them. That’s sad; but what’s tragic is when self-proclaimed followers of Christ promote a politics of earthly kingdom, power, and glory like the Israelites who clamored for a king. In Jesus’s name, these people make a mockery of the lessons of the cross.

Jesus directly addresses those of us who strive to understand what the kingdom, power, and glory of the crucified really means. He says to us, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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