Despite Alexander Hamilton’s misgivings, the United States of North America (excluding Canada and Mexico), repudiated the rule of kings, itemizing in the Declaration of Independence a low appraisal of royalty, notably George III. The colonists’ accusations were not unlike the tirade against regal monarchs delivered by the prophet Samuel when the Israelites demanded to have a king to rule over them like the those the pagans had. It’s an intriguing story (See 1 Samuel 8:4-20).
In the ancient world, kings were a pretty dismal lot – violent, avaricious, cruel, unjust, and generally pretty nasty in most respects. Today kings are hardly feared, seldom pitied, and only rarely strike a note of solemn majesty. They’re not even much assassinated. Writing at the turn of the century, Ambrose Bierce defined a king as “a male person commonly known in America as a ‘crowned head,’ although he never wears a crown and usually has no head to speak of.’
The tradition of king-bashing is not new. There are more than 2700 references to kings in the Hebrew scriptures — only about 20 refer to God. And, by and large, the human kings were considered a pretty vile lot. Not even David was very good at it. And for a couple of centuries now, royalty has been decreasing in stature as well as number. So you may wonder, what does it mean to celebrate the feast of Christ as King? And in recent times, King of the Universe? Especially in a country like ours, which was founded on the premise that in the main, kings were a royal pain?
The feast itself is not ancient — it was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to counter what he perceived as growing secularism and atheism and possibly the anti-monarchism of the era which had recently seen the assassination of the Tsar and several other European monarchs. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the feast from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday of the liturgical year and also added the phrase “King of the Universe.” That gave it a more eschatological tone in keeping with the readings at this time of the liturgical year and also removed it from competition with Reformation Sunday among our separated Lutheran brethren and sistren. Jews, on the other hand, have long since used the phrase “King of the Universe” in the blessings before solemn occasions involving the fulfilment of a commandment in reference to Almighty God.
That leaves the question, however, why Jesus Christ as king? He certainly avoided that designation during his life on earth, even though he was executed by the Romans for treason because he was accused of accepting it. He avoided it for good reason. And so when we come to King Jesus, we may well ask what kind of title is that for him? What did Jesus himself say about kings and kingship? And what did he do that resulted in his arrest, torture, condemnation, and execution as a pretender to the throne?
There are over 100 references to the kingdom of God in the gospels, and about 24 in the rest of the Christian scriptures. But Jesus himself never seems to have claimed to be a king except indirectly. In fact, he usually has some pretty harsh things to say about kings. Even in today’s gospel, Pilate says to him, “So you are a king?” And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. But it was for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”
In John’s gospel, the people acclaim Christ as their King when he enters Jerusalem: “…they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” It was this outcry that most likely led to his arrest and execution for sedition and treason. Jesus himself said nothing about it until before Pilate.
And Pilate had the inscription placed over his head, ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23:38). Taunted by the soldiers, the leaders of the people, and even one of the criminals crucified with him, Jesus remained silent. But, as we read in today’s gospel, when the other criminal refused to mock Jesus and says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ Jesus gives him what he asks for: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
In the end, 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?
Above all, God’s kingdom is a gift; and it is given to the poor, sick, and suffering, even thieves who hear the good news and keep it. For the kingdom of Jesus is a realm of mercy and grace and truth, a kingdom of real freedom. This kind of kingdom and this kind of king still strikes fear into the heads and hearts of tyrants everywhere. It was to such a kingdom that Pope John XXIII recalled us when, summoning the Second Vatican Council, he prayed: “Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to your Church that being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace.”
If Jesus is King, he is king not of this world or as this world sees things, but of minds and hearts everywhere and always.