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.