Despite the slow and tumultuous progress of democracy around the globe, kingdoms have made something of a comeback in recent years, at least in the entertainment world. Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, the inevitable remake of a King Arthur movie, even various incarnations of The Lion King manage to keep the franchise going. Americans and, surprisingly, the Irish, can’t get enough of the Royal House of Windsor. Otherwise, the dwindling number of monarchies in the actual world does not bode well for royalpersons. There are just over two dozen real ones extant, only seven of them absolute monarchs. By and large kings remain a ceremonial remnant of past ages, harmless political decorations trotted out on occasion to rev up patriotic or romantic sentiments of past ages.
Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for many of the world’s billions to resonate positively to the image of Christ as King. In fact, it’s a hold-over from the Middle Ages, when
being a king really meant something — mostly waging war, imposing high taxes, and oppressing the poor, something many modern democracies do much more efficiently. The feast itself is modern, however. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, who wanted to counter what he saw as the growing secularism and atheism of the time, not the spread of democracy. Jesus Christ, the true King of the World and of hearts has always served as a check against the sins of monarchs and presidents alike.
But did Jesus think of himself as a king? It seems clear that the Roman authorities executed him because they suspected Jesus of claiming to be “the King of the Jews.” One of the last images of Christ in Scripture is, actually, the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 17:14, 19:16.)
But Jesus himself was not particularly impressed with the notion of being a king of anything, just as he had very different ideas about what being the Messiah really meant. For Jesus, only the kingdom of God mattered.
When the people acclaim Jesus as their King as he enters Jerusalem “crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” this bit of sedition leads directly to his arrest for blasphemy and treason. And in today’s gospel, when Pilate says to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus counters, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Not even much of a politician then…
Most of the time, Jesus simply rejected the idea, even hiding himself when the notion of proclaiming him king popped up among his followers [John 6:15]. He was executed for it anyway. And if every gospel and virtually every shred of early Christian writing affirms that Jesus really was not a king, but THE king, we are still left wondering: What kind of king? And what kind of Kingdom does he rule?
When Jesus announces his mission to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, he doesn’t so much tell us what the kingdom is as what it isn’t. First of all, it isn’t one based on power and money. Jesus preaches a kingdom of the poor and suffering: “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”’ (Luke 6:20).
God’s Kingdom is also one of compassion and mercy. Jesus heals as a sign of that kingdom and sends the disciples to do the same. ‘Heal the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you”’ [Luke 10:9, cf. Luke 9:2]. When the crowds learn of it, they follow him: ‘and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing [Luke 9:11]. This is true of spiritual as well as physical healing: ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, the kingdom of God has come upon you’ [Luke 11:20].
Jesus comes closest to accepting the title of king in Luke’s Gospel. But he does so by giving his kingdom to his followers: “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” [Luke 22:28-30]. But here as always the Kingdom is God’s gift, not a human inheritance or a prize to be stolen [Luke 12:32], although it may be stormed by the poor, sick, and suffering who hear the good news and keep it. God’s Kingdom cannot be bought, nor may it be conquered, except by love.
Like everything else in the social world of his time and since, Jesus turned the notions of kingship and kingdom on their head. Call me a king if you wish, he says to Pilate, but take a good look at what I am and what my kingdom consists of. It is not of your world, not an earthly kingdom, not a rule of force, or of money, or even of reason: Jesus is neither a tycoon nor a philosopher king. His followers are the poor in spirit, not the high and mighty.
King Jesus, as the poet Robert Graves called him, wears a crown of thorns and his scepter is a reed. He is wrapped in a borrowed military cloak but speaks of peace. His throne is an instrument of painful execution. He reveals his kingdom to us from the Cross — a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom of grace and truth, a kingdom of peace and freedom. In the end, St. Paul tells us, Jesus even divests himself of his kingdom and hands it over to the One who sent him, having overcome every principality and power and authority hostile to God’s rule [1 Cor 15:24-25].
God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Christ, is foremost one in which those who rule really serve. Those with rank and privilege to whom we must look to see the face of God among us are the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, then hungry, the thirsty, the sick and homeless, the tramps and prostitutes that annoy us on the street, abused children and battered women, those on death row for crimes they did not commit… people who are denied their human and civil rights because of race, gender, or religion.
For to such by divine right belongs the kingdom of God, the realm of Jesus. To recognize them, to serve them, is to acknowledge Christ the true King.
Somehow you may have noticed that it’s that time of the year when we begin to anticipate the Coming of the Lord — Advent is not far off. There’s mention in scripture about judgment and the End of Days. A sure sign. When as a boy I attended Sunday mass with my parents, it used to scare hell out of me, so to speak. The Jesuits in our parish church were powerful preachers.
These days Advent kind of creeps up on us, although I had plenty of warning from Costco. A week before Halloween I noticed that Christmas decorations were already on display. Last night, Michigan Avenue was jammed by thousands of people gathered for the annual parade observing the lighting of the Magnificent Mile. I saw a bit of the parade and ceremony on the late evening news – Minnie and Mickey Mouse were there, Santa Claus, too, and lots of other symbols of the buying season. This, of course, is the beginning of the most important sales period of the year. Black Friday has been in full force for weeks.
Actually, the message is less about advent than its opposite. Commercially, there is really is no advent… there is only Halloween, Thanksgiving, then Christmas sales. The long period of anticipation that used to prolong the excitement of the holiday ahead has vanished just about everywhere.
But we’re not there yet. We have two weeks to go. Still, Advent has a way of casting its violet shadow ahead, and that is reflected in today’s readings and those of last week’s and next week’s daily liturgies. Liturgically the year is drawing to a close, and the theme of the readings is about the world drawing to a close. The new Church year will begin on the first Sunday of Advent, when the liturgical calendar changes, but no one will really pay much attention.
But Jesus himself said to look ahead – to be prepared. I don’t think the parable of the Fig tree is about stashing away guns and ammunition ahead of the Tribulation, however.
The first reading introduces us to the figure of St. Michael, the Archangel. That makes more sense if you recall that he was not only the protector of Israel but also the
angel of judgment, which is why he is usually pictured holding a set of scales. Here, in the Book of Daniel, he is the Great Prince — one of the seven great angels who stand in the presence of God. In later Judaism, Michael assumed considerable importance — first as the protector of Israel, and later, the protector of the Church. There used to be a special prayer at the end of mass that began “St Michael, the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil…”
The Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, was written in part to deflect attention away from the cult of angels and to emphasize the mission of Jesus, the great king and high priest of the world to come. Christ has taken his place forever at the right hand of God… “When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offerings.” More importantly, what have we to fear? When Christ appears in glory, he will triumph over the forces of sin and evil. Such as our hope, and our hope to be counted among those at his right hand.
Which brings us to the Gospel. Here again, the imagery is taken largely from the Book of Daniel — a work written during the dark years of the Seleuccid oppression of the Jews in order to strengthen their faith. Down the ages, Christians have taken these passages to heart, especially at this time of year.
This sobering thought is from a second-century homily attributed to St. Clement of Rome. Once even considered part of the New Testament in some ancient churches, it is still put forward for reflection by the Church at this time of year, as things draws to a close – and the merchandizing season heats up (alongside the political temperature).
“No honest man becomes rich overnight, because he has to wait for the reward of his labors. If God gave virtue an immediate recompense, we should straightway find ourselves engaging in commerce, instead of perfecting ourselves in his service. Although our outward appearances might be irreproachable, we should not be seeking God, but our own advantage, and bringing down on our sinful souls the divine judgment that would soon make us feel the full weight of our chains” [2 Clement 20:3-4].
In the fifth century, when the world of classical antiquity was truly coming to an end. St. Augustine may have despaired of the human city, but he looked forward to the City of God, a city of truth, justice, love, and peace. “What should a Christian do?” He wondered. He or she ought to use the world, not become its slave. “What does this mean?” he asked. “It means having as though not having” –not becoming the world’s slave, victimized by market forces or politics or anything else. Ultimately, he turns to the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel.
“He will judge the world with equity and truth,” he wrote, citing Psalm 95. “What are equity and truth? He will gather together for the judgment his chosen ones with him, but the others he will set apart… What is more equitable, what is more true than that they should not themselves expect mercy from the judge, who themselves were unwilling to show mercy before the judge’s coming. Those however who were willing to show mercy will be judged with mercy. And he reckons to their account their works of mercy. “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink’” [Discourse on the Psalms].
Thanksgiving is just ahead. It’s a good time to reflect on mercy and to practice compassion. Then, amid the passing fancies of the world that is so much with us, we can anticipate the coming of a new world, where mercy flowers into true peace, justice, joy, and everlasting love.
From Nov. 19, 1863:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Today marks the 100th anniversary year of the Armistice that ended combat in the first truly World War – reputedly the last, according to the politicians of the day. In fact, it was only a prelude to the even costlier and more appalling Second World War and lesser wars that followed. Humankind does not learn easily. And as wildfires rage over California, so soon after the dreadful shootings in Thousand Oaks last Wednesday, we can’t be oblivious to the fate of the casualties, and not least the widows and orphans who are the subsequent victims of such catastrophes. Today’s scripture calls us to keep them in mind – and also to come to their aid.
The epistle and gospel readings continue those selected for this time of year, called “ordinary” by someone who had no clue about election years. In any case, we need to pay particular
attention to the first reading, which is especially chosen to point up the gospel. It’s about a widow and an orphan, one of the most important themes of Hebrew scripture. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers to this story in his first sermon, which manages to turn the whole town against him [Luke 4:25-26]. Like Medicare and Medicaid today, talking about widows and orphans was a sure way to stir up strong feelings.
Then, far more than now, widows and orphans faced a very difficult life, as they had few rights and, apart from the charity of their relatives and generous benefactors, no way of supporting themselves. And, more to the point, no way of repaying the kindness of strangers. For that reason, the welfare of widows and orphans, and for good measure, please note, the resident political refugee, was typically taken as an index of the spiritual health of the whole nation by the prophets and in today’s gospel, by Jesus.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, from Exodus to the Book of Malachi, we hear the refrain: “…I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” [Mal. 3:5]. The message is clear. Then why, you might wonder, do we need to hear it so often? The answer is that now, like then, we aren’t listening or just don’t learn.
The gospel begins where we left off last Sunday. Jesus is quick to point out that despite the wisdom of the passing scribe and his recognition of the need to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t often do that in practice. Beware, Jesus says later in Mark’s account, especially of those who parade themselves as religious but in fact devour widows’ houses, which is to say, deprive them of their life savings and only security. “They will receive the most severe sentence” [Mark 13:38-40].
Both Mark and Luke turn at this point to an event in Jesus’ life that focuses on one of these widows, a nameless old woman who offers just about everything she had as a sacrifice to God because she, unlike the others, gave not out of her surplus, but out of her poverty. If the poor are proportionately more generous than the wealthy, it is probably because they know what it is to depend on God alone for help.
Jesus’ compassion for widows, especially those who were childless and therefore without resources of any kind for their old age, is dramatized in an event in Luke’s gospel that is not found in the other gospels, a story that points us back directly to another event in the life of Elijah and the poor widow of Zarephath we heard about the in the first reading. Shortly after Elijah came to live with her, her little boy fell ill and died.
So Elijah “carried him up into the upper chamber, where he lodged, and laid him upon his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.” And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” [1 Kings 17:17-24].
Lord Acton, the great English Catholic of the nineteenth century, insisted that “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”* Today, we could do well to look to the well-being of single mothers and fatherless and motherless children for signs of our spiritual and political health, for of all minorities they are the most vulnerable, especially if they are also people of color, Native Americans, or recent immigrants. “…learn to do good,” Isaiah tells us, “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” [Isaiah 1:17] For in the eyes of God, and I hazard to guess, history, their welfare is our welfare.
The elections are over, all but the recounts and lawsuits anyway, but the time for vigilance is not. Now, more than ever, with winter fast approaching and ordinary time running out, we should especially remember the needs of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most wanting in political guarantees and the necessities of daily life. Then, as the widow of Zarephath said, people might say of us, too, “Now I know that you are of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
* John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Essays on Freedom and Politics, selected and pref. by Gertrude Himmelfarb, Boston: Beacon Press, 1948, p. 33.
“… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933.
Traditionally, November was known as the month of the Poor Souls, beginning with the commemoration of all the saints, known and unknown, and then those closer to us among family and friends. It’s fitting. Autumn is a time for reflection and remembrance, as the summer growth and freshness gives way to winter — in this part of the world in a blaze of glorious color. Summer celebrates its passing. Not, however, today so much.
Recently, we have had more than sufficient cause for reflection and remembrance – the tragic, senseless shootings in various parts of the country, culminating in the terrible scene in Pittsburgh just over a week ago. Or the senseless deaths of so many small children on their way to school. So our hearts may be heavy today as we gather to remember our own loved ones and those of our sisters and brothers elsewhere, but we do so in the light of the word of God, a word of hope and longing, not of resignation and regret.
Today’s first reading was selected so we can’t possibly miss the connection in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus and the scribe discuss the great passage from the Book of Deuteronomy
known to Jews throughout history as the Shema’ Yisra’el, the greatest of all Jewish prayers: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
The second commandment Jesus cites, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is taken from the Book of Leviticus [19:18], in the most important section known as the Holiness Code, the rules or commandments that set Israel distinctively apart as God’s chosen people.
In Mark’s account, the scribe happens to be passing by when a fierce row is going on between Jesus, King Herod’s supporters, and the Sadducees over the question of the resurrection of the dead. Something to bear in mind today.
The Jewish Scribes or Sopherim were not just town clerks, but experts in scripture, men who had devoted their wholes lives to its study and practical application. This man, seeing that Jesus was answering well, as Mark puts it, simply cut to the chase. What’s the most basic commandment of all? And Jesus replies first by quoting the Shema’ and then cites the verse from Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” When the scribe praises Jesus, and even raises the ante, pointing out that such love is greater even than the Temple sacrifices, Jesus returns the compliment: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” a Jewish way of saying that he’s right in the midst of it.
This is the kindest and most positive remark attributed to Jesus regarding the learned scriptural experts, and it fits here perfectly. On this point, Jesus and the scribe were in complete accord. The heart of all true religion, of the Jewish faith and the Christian faith, is total, undivided love for God and one’s neighbor. All the rest is commentary. But the story continues beyond our reading today as the disciples bring up some of the difficulties raised by the scribes themselves. Jesus warns them about following false leaders who twist the word of God.
But even this does not take away from the high praise Jesus gave the passing Scribe who was not far from the Kingdom of God. For he knew what scripture taught, the simple truth that love of God and love of neighbor sum up everything. Self-glorification, haughtiness, and religious pretentiousness melt away in the radiance of that great insight.
What is it, then, to love God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and all your mind, and your whole strength? And your neighbor as yourself? Meister Eckhart once complained that many people love God the way they love a cow — for her milk and butter and cheese, and maybe even her tenderloins. But that’s not love, it’s self-interest. We love anything that makes us happy, even for an hour or two. But what we are really loving is ourselves. Jesus calls us to look far beyond personal fulfillment or the satisfaction of present wants. Inn this he is simply completing the Law and the Prophets.
More than that: Jesus’ own lie and ministry reveal, as the second reading tells us, that it is in unselfishly loving one another that we love God and show that we love God. In the end, this is everything the Law and Jesus himself have to teach us. Do that, and do it well, or perhaps even badly, and we are not far from the Kingdom of God.
As for those we remember today, do so with a joyful heart. St. Paul said it well,
“For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” [1 Cor. 15:20-22].
All will be made alive in Christ… If there are poor souls to lament, they are to be found among us, the living. Those who have gone before us are in God’s presence, where every tear shall be wiped away … “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” [Rev. 21:4] They rest in peace. May we share it with them here and for endless ages. Amen.