Christ the King – background

Here on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time the Church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. The title is given several places in Scripture:  king of ages (1 Timothy 1:17), King of Israel (John 1:49), King of the Jews (Mt. 27:11), King of kings (1 Tim 6:15; Rev. 19:16), King of the nations (Book of Revelation 15:3) and ruler of the kings of the Earth (Rev. 1:5). The solemnity has been celebrated on the Roman calendar since 1925 and was instituted as a culmination of the liturgical year and a reminder that in His suffering and death, Christ ascended to his throne.

An oft used phrase in Luke, he basileia tou theou (the kingdom of God), is a difficult phrase to understand. How should it be translated?

  • basileia can refer to the area ruled by a king. So phrases such as “entering the kingdom” (Luke 18:17, 24, 25) may be understood as coming to the region controlled by the king — or entering the heavenly realm as the “kingdom of God”.
  • basileia can refer to the power or authority to rule as king. With this understanding, “entering the kingdom of God” might be better understood as “accepting God’s rule (over me/us).”

It is clear in Luke that the basileia of God refers to the second meaning. It is not something that can be seen (Luke 17:20). It is something within us (17:21). It is something proclaimed or preached (4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 60; 16:16). It contains secrets (8:10), but it can be sought (12:31) and given as a gift (12:32) and received (18:17). The kingdom comes near (10:9, 11; 21:31). All of these references make better sense if the kingdom is defined as “God’s power to rule over us” rather than “a place where God rules”.

Did Jesus understand himself to be a king? We might assume that he did. The “Palm Sunday” crowds call Jesus king by quoting Psalm 118:26 (Luke 19:38). When Pilate asked: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered: “Yes, it is as you say” (23:3) Usually, when Jesus is called “king” it is by his enemies who are mocking him (23:2, 37, 38). Culpepper (Luke, 456) notes this in his comments on vv. 35-38: “The irony and pathos of Jesus’ death are that those who mock him declare his messianic identity and the salvific significance of his death but do not grasp the truth they speak.”

The Crucifixion as a Moment of Discipleship 

The gospel reading is from the Crucifixion. Joel Green (Gospel of Luke, 744) provides a clear context for the suffering and death of Jesus, couched in the idea of the growing conflict that has been so evident in the Holy Week encounters with the authorities in Jerusalem – a  conflict that was indicated even at the earliest stages of Luke’s gospel.

Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ suffering and death is inexorably linked to the earlier chapters of the Third Gospel by the development of numerous motifs,  the most pervasive and important of which is the motif of conflict. Conflict, too, has been a primary force driving the narrative plot forward to this point. Jesus, according to Simeon, was to be the cause of division within Israel (2:34); as Luke has narrated it, division has surfaced as the divine purpose has been disclosed, first in the ministry of John (who was subsequently imprisoned [see 3:18-20] and beheaded [see 9:7-9]), then in the ministry of Jesus. The propagation of the “good news” has attracted both allies and opposition, with some persons working to embrace and serve the divine project, others to reject and obstruct it.

Both in anticipation (e.g., 13:31-35) and in reality (19:29-21:38) Jerusalem has been a place of conflict. Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish leadership (Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, et. al.) which has consistently opposed Jesus (e.g., 19:45-48; 20:9-19) and thus has taken a position against the purpose of God.

A key theme of Luke’s gospel has been a call to discipleship – and thus a time to “take sides.” On the one hand is Jesus together with Jesus’ disciples and “the people,” who have responded to the coming of God’s reign in the person of Jesus. On the other are the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, as well as the devil.  As Green points out (Gospel of Luke, 475) Luke’s narration has repeatedly established the important place of “the people” as a buffer between Jesus and his opposition (cf. 19:47-48; 20:19) — a barrier that must now be breached if the Jerusalem leadership is to have its way with him. One need not look far for hints that this barrier is penetrable, since those closest to Jesus, the disciples, have been known to falter in their understanding and support of Jesus (e.g., 9:46-50; 18:15-17, 31-34); indeed, we have known for some time that one of them would become a traitor (6:17). Moreover, Jesus had only just predicted with reference to his followers, “You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (21:16). If this is the destiny of the followers, what of the one whom they follow?

Image credit: Christ the King, Krakow Poland, Pixabay, CC-BY-NC

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