Kings don’t amount to much these days. Elizabeth II has been much on people’s minds lately because of her longevity and ill health. She’s a good old thing, as the English might say. But she, like the great majority if not all monarchs in recent times, has no real power and authority. Royal influence, should we be so fortunate, is moral and sentimental. Constitutional royalpersons, as my students call them, must remain aloof from politics and serve largely as emblems of continuity with a fading and often inglorious past.
In fact, kings, and perhaps less so, queens, have been a sorry lot over the centuries. When the Israelites pressed Samuel to anoint a king for them like those who ruled over their pagan neighbors, he was unsparing in his warnings, not least of the moral depravity that follows the royal train like a starving hound.
“‘he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; … and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.’” And that was only for starters. Samuel finished by lamenting, “’in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles’” [1 Samuel 8:4-20].
Samuel was the first of the prophets to insist that Israel’s true and only king is God. They wound up with Saul, who died crazy, corrupt, and out of sorts with God. It didn’t get much better after that. The long and dismal history of kingship largely proved Samuel right. So why would Christians over the centuries be keen on calling Jesus a king, much less King of the Universe?
In 1925 Pope Pius XI elevated the Feast of Christ the King to a celebration of the universal church in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that launched the First World War and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family in 1918 during the Russian revolution. It is widely believed that the pope did so in order to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause in the face of growing republicanism and with it the perceived threat of secularism and atheism.
But when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, that raised some serious questions about overreach. The universe is far more vast than scientists believed even in 1970. Would the notion of a planetary monarch on the outskirts of a respectable but otherwise insignificant galaxy in the trillions of galaxies “out there” have any meaning to the inhabitants of those faraway realms? It’s worth noting that only half our own world is nominally Christian today.
So today’s readings underscore the tensions inherent in calling Jesus a king in any meaningful way.
The first reading from the Book of Daniel ends with a prophecy concerning the coming of the Son of Man, who would receive dominion, glory, and kingship from God and rule all peoples and nations forever. The reading from the Book of Revelation similarly portrays Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth”[Rev 1:8]. One of the last images of Jesus in Scripture is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” [Rev. 17:14, 19:16], a title originally borne by the Emperor of Persia. Such accolades hang on the notion of the “true king,” the ultimate monarch reigning infinitely above the limited power, petty intrigues, and lethal plans of earthly kings.
But did Jesus think of himself as a king? After all, the Roman authorities executed him because he was accused of claiming to be “the King of the Jews.”
But if we look behind the poetic imagination and fervor of the early Christians, 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. Before Pilate, who demands to know whether Jesus claimed to be a king, he replies tellingly, “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” [John 18:37].
Up to then, Jesus simply rejected the idea of kingship, even hiding himself when the notion of proclaiming him king popped up among his followers [John 6:15]. The words “king” and “kingdom” do not appear at all in Mark’s gospel.
It is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus comes closest to accepting the title of king. 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].
Like everything else in the social world of his time and since, Jesus turned the notions of kingship and kingdom on their head. ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’ [Luke 18:17]. He tells Pilate to take a good look at what his kingdom means. It is not of Rome’s 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. And his followers are the poor in heart, not the high and mighty.
Jesus ultimately reveals his kingdom 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 in fact serve. Those to whom we must look to see the face of Christ the King are the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the 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 belongs the kingdom of God, the realm of Jesus, true King of the Universe.