Christ the King, Year B
Last week, I had a lot to say about why we shouldn't dodge preaching on and wrestling with the apocalyptic texts like those in the lectionary this week, and that we are called to engage in Advent. This week, I want to concentrate on the payoff for doing so.
In a sense, these texts are talking about "the end of the world." Only the most jaded reader can encounter the kind of vivid imagery of power in passages like our reading for this Sunday from Daniel without a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat. That's not merely normal; it's necessary, I think, to appreciate what these texts are talking about. The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation are both talking about the judgment of the nations, history's end. I want to underscore that word 'end,' and at least two resonances it has, because I think it points to the heart of Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to our Advent anticipation.
'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so pronounced that we can say, "things will never be the same." Facing 'the end' means that we must finally acknowledge our attachments to what is and our limitations in perspective and power as mortal human beings. 'The end' means that we will no longer be able to deny or dodge them, and we will -- we must -- let go. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to illusions that what we know is all there is and can control all we know, the more frightening 'the end' will be.
That's why I want to suggest this week that when Pilate hears Jesus say, "my kingdom is not of this world" and then sends Jesus to be crucified as guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, it is not because he fails to understand Jesus: it is because he understands Jesus.
The reign of God that Jesus proclaims, that in Jesus' ministry is breaking through among us even now, is not just a reshuffling of this world's cabinet while worldly power structures continue mostly as they are. Jesus is not seizing Caesar's throne. A plan to do so, leaving Caesar or his heir and his generals in exile to plot a return to power, would have been more than enough for Pilate to send Jesus to the cross. But Jesus' plan is far more radical than that.
Jesus is not seeking a throne in the world as it is; Jesus is inaugurating the end of this world.
I'm not talking about the destruction of the planet; that just doesn't make any sense from a biblical perspective. God made this world and said it was good. God made humankind and said it was VERY good. God so loved the world that God sent the Son that we might have abundant, eternal life. Read Left Behind for amusement or to dialogue with others who have read it, but its theology has no substantial claim to be "biblical." God does not intend destruction for Creation or for humankind.
So what do I mean, then, when I talk about "the end of the world" in the prophetic thrust of Daniel, Revelation, and the canonical gospels?
I do mean that a sharp transition is on the way. Someone who, like Pilate, likes the world best to the extent that it is ordered by empires will probably receive the news of the world's end as very bad news indeed, at least initially. After all, the world order of empire works out very well, at least superficially, for many of us. I'm hardly the richest person in America, for example, and yet I consistently make the top tenth of better in the ranking of the world's richest people. By virtue of my skin color, the country of my birth, and my education (to which my skin color and the country of my birth helped provide access), I have a great deal of power in the world as it is.
And yet I long for change. My heart aches for children whom the world as it is leaves without a chance -- those without clean water, good food, medical care, basic shelter, primary education. But my longing for change isn't just a generous impulse. Maintaining this world order is costly beyond my ability to add. It is polluting our atmosphere with such abandon that one way or another, it will come to an end within a generation or two -- whether because we change how we live to slow the global climate change, or because the devastation that change causes -- devastation we've already observed in weather patterns causing drought in some places and flooding in others unparalleled in our time -- so profound that our planet will never recover. And there are less immediately measurable costs to maintaining this world order as well. Our children inherit our all of our anxieties that unless we work harder and longer and are very lucky besides, the hyper-competitive and never-ending quest for achievement that's a part of the world in which many of us live will leave us without resources and without community in a world of hostility. I've preached about the cost our children pay here and now for maintaining our world of privilege before in communities profoundly privileged by worldly standards, and I encourage you to take a look at this sermon if you're wondering what I mean when I say that the world order of empires -- even for those of us now living in the world's richest empire -- imposes a very steep cost in body, psyche, and spirit to ALL of us. And yet who or what can disentangle us from all of the tangled webs we and our parents' parents have woven that have made this world so many of us think is all there is? We might well cry with St. Paul, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
And, if we have claimed the story of the prophets and apostles, the story proclaimed by Jesus as the story of the world God made and loves, as our own, we can also answer with St. Paul: Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus, our and our only Lord! The world of empires, the world that places the Pilates in palaces and so many children in the grave, the world of endless scrabbling and scrapping for resources and power, the world of anxiety and domination, is passing away.
Think I'm dreaming? Well, I'm happy enough to be guilty of that; it would place me in the company of the prophets who proclaimed God's dream for the world even in the midst of the greatest darkness, the ugliest violence of intense persecution. But the dream is close enough to reality. Many of the world's brightest economists tell us that the world in which thousands upon thousands of children die in extreme poverty -- the world into which I was born, and through much of my life the world in which I thought I'd die -- could see its end by the year 2015. Extreme poverty GONE in under ten years. Imagine the dancing at the party where we celebrate that!
And, by the way, please check out my earlier sermon, "Dancing at the World's End," if you haven't already. I was born in 1970, and by some people's reckoning (especially among U.S. Episcopalians!) am still young. And yet I've seen in my own lifetime empires fall, rules change, "certain" destruction averted, new worlds open. I've seen enough poverty and suffering in my travels to be glad enough at the news that a kingdom not of this world is coming to change everything. The judgment of the nations sounds like bad news -- but not to those who know Jesus, and who identify him as the Christ, the anointed king, the one of whom Daniel spoke with awe as "one like a son of man" who would judge.
Jesus is coming. Each time two or three of us gathers, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim the Good News of the prophets and apostles that the world of empires is passing away, and God's dream for Creation is breaking through it even now, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim Jesus the Christ and not any worldly power or principality as our Lord, Jesus' kingdom breaks through that much more.
The kingdom of God. The peaceable realm in which all are free from anxiety, as all have what they need -- the bread and wine, the water and power, the love and joy.
It's not just the end of the church year, we're anticipating this Sunday.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel FINE.
Thanks be to God!
November 21, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Christ the King, Christology, Current Events, Daniel, Eschatology, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)
Maundy Thursday, Year B
I had a chance to explore the issues that I think are core to our Maundy Thursday texts recently and experientially at the Provnce V young adults' retreat in Indiana, which took as its theme Micah 6:8's key instruction that what God requires of us is to do justice, to love mercy, and top walk humbly with God.
We spent a lot of our time wrestling with just what that last instruction to "walk humbly" means. We went at it from many different angles. We thought about people we'd met or knew of who we understood to be exemplars of Christian humility (Desmond Tutu was by far the name most frequently mentioned), and tried to figure out just what it was about this person that drew us as we encountered them not toward them as individual personalities but toward God, and towards God's call to the best in us. We struggled together with what the difference might be between the kind of instruction to "be humble" we might have heard as women, or as gay people, or as young people, or as people of color, or in any number of other ways, that simply boiled down to "I'm in power, and I don't want you to upset that; sit down and shut up." And we also played a game.
It's a game I've blogged about before. We print up labels ahead of time that can be stuck on each person's back. Each label says "monarch," "nobility," "guest" (someone suggested "merchant" might be clearer), or "beggar." Before the game starts, each person gets one of these labels on their back. The object of the game is to interact with everyone else you meet in a way that helps them guess what the label is on their back, so what you do is, once the game starts -- and the scene for the game is a social hour at the start of a grand banquet -- treat every person you meet as you think someone with the label you THINK is on your back would treat someone with the label you actually see on the other person's back.
It doesn't usually take more than a few minutes for pretty much everyone in the room the be able to guess accurately what label is on his or her back, though the more I do this game, the more I get out of observing how people behave toward one another when the object of the game is to help the other person figure out just where in a hierarchy s/he fits. I always ask people afterward to talk about how the game felt to play -- how it felt treating people whose labels said "beggar" like trash, how it felt having to bow and scrape before someone whose label said "monarch," what we all noticed about what people could freely associate with whom and under what circumstances.
This last time I played the game was particularly interesting in some ways for me because it was the first time I'd played it with a group of people I didn't know well, and who didn't know me. I was the guest speaker -- an honored guest in a group of people who were truly gifted at helping someone feel honored -- and my label said "beggar." Everyone was trying to play the game well, and so most people there were obliged to treat me pretty badly in the context of the game -- and yet for so many of them, it clearly wasn't a comfortable relationship to act out. One "monarch" charged past me nearly knocking me over as his role demanded, but apologized to me as soon as the game was over. Others couldn't even play out the domination of lordship for the five minutes or so that the game demanded, and started exploring right away how a Christian member of the "nobility" might be able to break some of the unspoken rules that would help me guess I was a "beggar."
It's a good game to try sometime, and I particularly love to try it -- and to talk about what playing it was like -- in intergenerational groups. Children love to meet their parents when their parents are "beggars" and they are "monarchs," and I think in some ways it does both sets of people good to try out the roles.
My mind always goes back to that game on Maundy Thursday, when we do this strange game of washing one another's feet. On Maundy Thursday, it's the person with the most high and institutionally stable status -- the bishop or the rector -- who starts the game, kneeling at the feet of someone (often someone who's visibly uncomfortable with the relationship being acted out) to play the slave (let's skip the nicer word here -- we're talking about a power relationship, with all its discomforting aspects) and wash her or his feet.
And then we wash one another's feet. My favorite moments in this sacred and solemn game are the ones that upend our usually hierarchies, but it often -- when I can manage to be fully present, to play my role and to understand everyone else's role fully -- is a moving experience throughout.
It's an experience designed to invite us to try on a role of Christian humility.
"Humility" is a hard word for many of us -- me included -- to appreciate. Too often, it sounds like "humiliation" -- a word for which my working definition is "what it feels like when someone higher in the hierarchy makes someone lower realize just how low they're supposed to be." But it doesn't have to be this way. Imagine what it would look like if it was more like this:
Your job in the game is to treat other people in a way that will help them realize what the label on their back is -- what their true identity is. And what would our lives look like if our whole lives were that game ... and if we treated every interaction with another person as an opportunity to let them know what their real label, their true identity, was:
God's child. Beloved sister or brother. Gifted member of the Body whose gifts I -- we -- need to do what we were born to do, what will make us whole.
Doing that doesn't mean treating ourselves as if we were crap. God doesn't make crap, and Jesus didn't understand himself to be crap. Heck, the Gospel According to John, the one that features the footwashing, has Jesus being just about as clear about his own identity as any person ever was.
Jesus washed his disciples' feet not because he thought he was crap, but because he wanted each one of them to know just how precious, how deeply beloved and highly valued s/he was, that the Son of God, the Word of God through whom all the world was made, would without hesitation and with complete and unfeigned adoration wash her or his feet.
Jesus didn't do that only by footwashing. Every time Jesus broke bread -- and I think it's safe to assume that Jesus, being human as all of us are, broke bread at least twice on every day of his life -- he did it with other people in such a way as to help them realize not only who he was -- which is, to be sure, a profoundly important thing to understand -- but who they were:
Beloved child of God. Sister or brother to God's Son, the Anointed. Of more value than countless banquets or footwashings could demonstrate ... so it's a very, very good thing indeed that we've got an eternity at the messianic banquet to demonstrate that to one another.
But anything of eternal importance is far, far too important to put off to eternity: Jesus invites us to start tonight, start to play with and live more deeply into the threefold truth of who Jesus is, who we are, and who the person before us, behind us, beside us, whether in the pew or in the grocery store or on the interstate in our morning commute is.
The Gospel According to John teaches us with Jesus' washing his followers' feet on his last night before death. The Gospel According to Luke makes the same point by showing Jesus instructing his followers in what it meant every time they saw him break bread: You're invited. You're valued. The King of the Universe sees you as having dignity worth serving even beyond his own.
Come to the table. Come to the basin. And Jesus will know when you've got the game, when you know who you are in relationship to who he is and who others are, when you share his love for others, and serve and empower them as he did -- and does.
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King: Proper 29, Year A
First off, I want to offer a personal note encouraging y'all to read this fine reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for this coming Sunday. I commend it to you first on its own merits — its author knows American history far better than I do, and draws on a passage from the autobiography of 19th-century freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas in a way that I think will be very helpful and informative for preachers. The reflection is this week's entry in a regular column commenting on the RCL readings in The Witness magazine, which is my new employer. I'm working part-time (i.e., if you've got a potential additional gig for me, please do give me a shout!) for them as the magazine's editor. I've long admired The Witness and its work as an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and I'm particularly excited about working with them at this particular moment in history. And one other point about this week's RCL reflection at The Witness: its author is none other than my partner. Bravo, Karen!
Now, to my own reflections:
I had an interesting email exchange this week with a regular reader of the lectionary blog about an issue that a lot of us struggle with: the tension between the openness of Jesus' unconditional invitation on one hand and on the other hand, the language of judgment, of insiders and outsiders, in passages like this Sunday's gospel. I've wrestled with it a great deal myself, and while I doubt I'll solve every difficulty we've got with it, I think there's a point that's very important for us to understand as we continue to explore this tension.
Yes, Jesus invites absolutely anyone who will eat with him to come to his table. The invitation to the messianic banquet is open to all -- “the good and the bad,” in the words of Matthew 22:14. In that sense, all are invited to experience “salvation” without precondition.
But what is “salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw it not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife: salvation is something that starts today, and it's about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus' view and Paul's, that's not just any community: it's a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God's word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers (a point that the NRSV unfortunately obscures frequently by rendering adelphoi, “brothers and sisters,” as “believers” or some other ungendered term). In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus' invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God's people.
Here's one way I often put it: the invitation to join the community is issued to anyone with any manner of life. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus' invitation to join.
Last Sunday, we read a passage of the gospels showing how we treat one another when we're at our worst as the human race. How you'll be treated under this system is a function of two things only: how powerful you are, and how useful you are to those more powerful than you. Are you a wealthy landowner? Then act like it. Call yourself “lord,” demand what you like of those in your power, and feel free to discard people once you've used them up. Behave as though the central question governing our relationships with one another were “what have you done for me lately?”
But the coming of God's kingdom is like this: people will be going about their business in precisely the way described above ... and then the final coming of the Son of Man will reveal to everyone's eyes just how empty that way of life is, just how much pain and how little reward comes of living that way.
And that coming will reveal something else as well: just how rewarding, just how abundant and joyful life is when you live in a different way, the way of those the Son of Man designates as “sheep” in this Sunday's gospel.
I've blogged before about a game I like to play to illustrate the dynamic we see in last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's. To play it, you set the room up for a party — punchbowls, finger foods on trays for serving, and so on. Every person in the room gets a sign taped to his or her back, reading “monarch,” “courtier,” “servant,” or “beggar.” Once everyone has a sign on his or her back, you start the party. The game is to try to guess what sign is on your back, and try to help others guess what's on theirs by treating them as you think someone whose status was what you think your sign says would treat someone whose status matched what the sign on her/his back says. If your sign says “monarch,” the vast majority of guests are going to flatter you and offer you treats; if the sign on your back says “beggar,” you're going to be treated like trash — especially if you have the nerve to act as if you were equal to others with higher status. To debrief, I invite people to share how it felt to be treated as they were, and how they felt having to treat others according to the sign on their backs. And then I pose the question:
What would it be like to live in a community, in a world, in which everyone, especially those smarting from how they're treated by others, were treated as if the sign on their back said “monarch”? What would it be like to live amongst people who treated everyone as if the sign on their back, the “secret identity” of everyone they met, said “Christ the King,” and every Christian saw their life's calling as treating people in such a way that they could guess this?
That's the invitation issued to us this Sunday. That's the vision we're called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world. Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malaria in infancy in Africa, knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl toil away her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffer when that water carries disease, if we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn't do for this family was what we did and didn't do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners of our world?
This invitation is not for after we die — the chance to act is gone then. It's an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And it's not just about avoiding punishment. What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus' invitation not just to come into the House of God's chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family as for our own flesh and as for the Body of our Lord, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God's just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. In Paul's words, Christ's risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. In Ezekiel's words, the destiny of God's people since the founding of the world is to be fed with God's justice. Do you want a taste of that? It's there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus' sisters and brothers.
Thanks be to God!
November 16, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Christ the King, Eschatology, Ezekiel, Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Personal Notes, Prophets, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Proper 24, Year A
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction ... in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-9
The Thessalonians' faith was known such that there was no need to speak about it because they lived it out with consistency and integrity. In other words, they didn't shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God's lordship (and please see this post if you want to know why I want to reclaim that fraught language of "lordship") in their lives.
It's a lesson that the Pharisees and Herodians questioning Jesus in this Sunday's gospel could benefit from, as indicated by a combination of two things often overlooked in the story. The first thing is the setting of the story in the courtyards of the Temple, as indicated in Matthew 21:23. There's something very significant about that for how we read this Sunday's gospel story, and it has to do with why the moneychangers' tables that Jesus overturned in Matthew 21:12 were there in the first place. They were there because coinage of the Roman Empire included images -- such as the image of Caesar, that man who called himself "lord" when that title truly belonged only to God -- that ought not be carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images (that's commandment number one in Christian ways of numbering the "big ten"). We need to note that this Sunday's gospel takes place in the Temple because that's what makes the next point such a kicker.
The second point we need to notice in the story is that when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians who are questioning him to produce a denarius in that setting, they do so immediately. In other words, THESE GUYS CARRIED AN IMAGE OF CAESAR INTO GOD'S TEMPLE! And these are the people who were going to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion to God rather than selling out to Caesar if Jesus failed to condemn paying taxes to Rome?
Until that moment when the coin is handed to Jesus, Jesus was between the horns of a dilemma. Had he said in so many words that paying taxes to Caesar was wrong -- especially during the Passover season, in which countless pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem to remember God's liberation of Israel from slavery under foreigners -- Jesus would be provoking Rome to immediate action against him. Had Jesus said that paying taxes to Rome was right, his questioners were ready to accuse Jesus of disloyalty to Israel.
And then Jesus tripped them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness. Anyone who was there to listen probably would have heard in dozens of voices whatever was the first-century Jerusalemite's equivalent of "D'OH!!!!!!!" On the spot, Jesus has won the argument; he could now go home in peace, having avoided that difficult question entirely while still carrying the day against his critics.
But he doesn't. Jesus, having already won the argument, answers the question anyway.
What he says might have confused anyone around (if indeed there was anyone meeting this description) who didn't know their Torah from their Plato, but it wouldn't have confused any self-respecting Pharisee. Jesus says, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's, and give to God what is God's." So what in this world is God's?
Our reading for this Sunday from Isaiah provides some clues. It has God addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, a gentile, as one who is nonetheless called by the God of Israel. In other words, it's not solely the people of Israel who are God's, but everyone to whom God gives life and breath. And God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help "though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:4-7). East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God, and there is none other. Our psalm for this Sunday describes God similarly as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth.
As Psalm 24:1 puts it:
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it.
It's a claim even more sweeping than some people would have wanted to make as they said that the land of Israel and everything in it belonged to the God of Israel. But as far as it relates to the question Jesus was asked -- the question of whether Israelites should pay taxes to Caesar -- it boils down to essentially the same thing:
What belongs to God is everything.
And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it, over what is Caesar a rightful lord?
Nothing. Squat. Nada.
That is the radical edge and the liberating cry of the claim that "Jesus is Lord"; as I've argued before, it's that when we make that the central fact of our lives, nobody and nothing else gets to make the same claim. So when it comes to all wordly powers who would be our lord, whether it's the flag of a nation, a cause that we hold dearer than the Spirit's guidance and the fruit of following it, those amorphous but ubiquitous would-be lords of respectability and achievement, or a person who wants to take God's place as Lord of our lives, get up off your knees. They have no rightful claim on you at all. And when somebody else wants to condemn you for the freedom Christ won for you, then remember how often people lash out at their own shadow sides, and ask them to produce a coin. You might be surprised -- and get a much-neededm life-affirming, and despot-disarming laugh in the process -- at what you discover.
Thanks be to God!
Palm Sunday, Year A
Matthew 21:1-11 - link to NRSV text
It strikes me in some ways as an oddity of American politics that one of the worst things one candidate can call another is "a Washington insider." Wouldn't we want people representing us in Washington to be "Washington insiders," to know how Washington works and be both experienced and skilled at navigating that system as it is? Why is it an insult to say that a political candidate is a "professional politician"? After all, when a leak has sprung in our basement, we don't seek out a person who is a "plumbing outsider" or "not a professional plumber"; in plumbing, when we want skilled help immediately, we seek out the person who's an insider to the system we use.
There are reasons, though, that we tend to like candidates who we're convinced are outsiders to politics, and I think that one of them is that we're dissatisfied with the games of politics as they're currently played. We don't want someone who works well within the system; we want a system that works, and on some level, we know that the system as it's been running isn't working for a lot of people.
I think a dynamic with some similarities to that is at work in Matthew's presentation of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Matthew has the crowd proclaiming Jesus as the king in Jerusalem who has come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:11). This is not a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss": things are going to change, and in the biggest of ways, when Jesus is king -- starting with how kings rule.
Matthew bends over backwards to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, even to the slight awkwardness of showing Jesus as riding on two animals at once. Matthew wants people to understand that Jesus is "Son of David," the king who restore permanently the Davidic line, fulfilling God's promise to David:
I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
‘I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.’
(Psalm 89:3-4, BCP)
But Matthew also wants people to know that when he says that Jesus is king, we're not talking about kingship as it's usually conceived, or kingship as it's usually used by those who have it. Jesus is a king who restores the glory of God's people, but not with military victories. Jesus triumphs, but not with the might of the sword. Jesus rides into the city not on a war horse, but like the in Zechariah 9:9, "triumphant and victorious," but "humble and riding on a donkey," a beast of trade rather than of war, because this is a different kind of king, a king who
will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations.
There are at least two points that are central in the Christian proclamation of Jesus as Lord. The first is that the position has been filled, fully and forever -- no other candidates need apply. Jesus, and not any earthly ruler, nor any power or principality, is Lord of all that is. The second is that the Lord Jesus is not like other kings. Jesus did not come to be "king of the hill," but to fulfill our longing that
every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
That's what the writer of the Gospel According to John meant when he wrote that Jesus said to Pilate, "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). It's not that Jesus is uninterested in what happens on earth. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus didn't come to tell us to give up on the earth, any more than he came to rule it like Pilate. Jesus came to redeem it. Jesus is king, but his kingship is not of Pilate's world and world order, his kosmos.
Jesus didn't come to take over Pilate's system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates of this world. When we confess Jesus as Lord – not in some distant world or only in the future, but of all that is, and of here and now – we are proclaiming the Good News that it is possible, with Jesus as Lord, for all those with power to use it as he used his, for the vision of the prophets to find flesh among us who proclaim Christ the king.
When the nurse at the door of Viola De Lesseps, Gwynneth Paltrow's character in Shakespeare in Love, comes to wake her, saying "It is a new day," Viola responds, "It is a new WORLD."
That is the vision and the reality we proclaim when we honor Jesus, the outside of Nazareth, as king in Jerusalem. Jesus brings more than a new face under the crown, a new point on the calendar: it is a new world.
Thanks be to God!
Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year C: Christ the King Sunday
Luke 19:29-38 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday is our celebration of Christ the King. But what are we doing when we acclaim that Jesus is our king? There's a game I like to use to provoke thought about that. It starts as each participant gets a sign taped to his or her back saying, "queen," "king," "duke," "duchess," "servant of the court," or "beggar." There are munchies and a punch bowl to sample, and everyone is told that this is a party, and the object of the game is to help people guess what the sign on their back says by behaving toward them as you think someone of your status (what your current guess says the sign on how the sign on your own back reads) would treat a person of that status. If the other person's sign says "beggar" and you're pretty sure yours says "duke," you would might haughtily ask, "what are YOU doing here," or you might try to summon a servant to remove the beggar -- but you'll have a rude awakening if it turns out your own sign says "beggar" too! After a while, we stop the game and talk about how we tried to guess what sign was on our backs, how it felt to treat other people according to what we saw, how it felt to be treated as we were. The "beggars" and the "servants" almost always report that it felt pretty bad to be treated as they were -- especially when they tried to present themselves as someone worthy of a place at the table.
Jesus' parable in Luke 19:11-27, AKA "The Parable of the Talents," shows us the brutal side of living in such a hierarchy. It's a common thing to interpret this parable using wordplay on "talent" as a unit of money and "talent" as a gift or talent, and to conclude that the parable is an allegory suggesting that we ought to make profit with the talents (gifts, abilities) God gives us. But there are some serious problems with this interpretation. First, the whole "talent/talent" wordplay thing doesn't work in the Greek; the Greek word means clearly (and exclusively) a unit of money, and bears no resemblance to the word for an ability. Second, in the culture of the first-century Mediterranean world, making a profit as the master of the parable demands and two of the servants do wouldn't be seen as virtuous or clever so much as grasping and unethical.
But most importantly, look at how the nobleman in the parable -- the character usually taken as representing God in an allegorical reading -- is described. He is NOT a king at the start of the parable; he is a nobleman who is seeking royal power for himself, an ambitious pretender to the throne. He is "a harsh man, taking what [he] did not deposit and reaping what [he] did not sow." He fumes that his servant could at least have lent the money at interest, breaking the commandment against usury, and he punishes his servant for refusing to break that commandment.
Is this how God behaves? Is this how God uses power? I don't think so. It makes a whole lot more sense to see the statement of "to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" as a statement of how sinful people operate -- the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. That's what happens when your ruler is a sinful man: ruling by might and fear, he aggrandizes himself at the expense of his poorest subjects.
Jesus offers a radical redefinition of kingship, a radical vision for how the truly powerful use power, and Luke's presentation of the "triumphal entry" in this Sunday's gospel right after his "Parable of the Ruthless Nobleman" (a better title, I think, than "Parable of the Talents") makes the two passages together a one-two punch blow to those who misuse power, following up the verbal jab of the parable with a roundhouse blow of street theater.
And I do think that the "triumphal entry" was street theater, a satirical criticism of how rulers like Pontius Pilate behaved. When Roman rulers had a military triumph, they would process in to the city mounted on the finest war horse, outfitted in gleaming armor, marching the prisoners captured on the campaign and displaying trophies from the conquest. Such processions served to honor the conquerors and humiliate the conquered, striking awe and (for those who hated Rome's power) fear into the hearts of all who saw the spectacle.
Jesus rides in to Jerusalem on the same route these conquerors would have used. But instead of mounting a charger, wearing fine clothes and impressive armor, and marching with his armies pushing forward their captives, Jesus rides in on a borrowed colt, a peasant flanked only by a ragtag bunch of followers. His humble entrance spoofed and mocked the displays of might that Roman rulers staged. The people's recognition of his humility comes across as they acclaim him not by his own name, but in the name of the Lord.
But I don't think that we need to read Luke's comment on "the deeds of power they had seen" as being necessarily or entirely ironic. True, Jesus does not display the might of armies, the power of senators and generals and governors. Jesus' power is not shown in his ability to bring a people down, but in his power, given by God, to bring a people together. It's a people called to treat one another and everyone they meet as if the sign on their back -- the identity they secretly have and need to discover, is something like what 1 Peter 2:9 says is our identity as God's people -- "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation."
Christ the King is the one whose kingship was shown in how he treated the poor and outcast as royalty, and whose vindication from the God in whose name he rode into Jerusalem showed us that his humble service is the kind of behavior God truly honors.
Thanks be to God!