Historical Culture Context
Kingship and Truth
Jesus prefers ... to be known as one who “bears witness to the truth.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t preach the kingdom of God or of heaven as in the Synoptics. John rather presents Jesus as one who uniquely reveals and speaks the truth about God. Like the prophets of old, John’s Jesus speaks the will of God for the here-and-now.
Jesus’ followers are not subjects in a kingdom but persons who hear the truth and respond to it. It is in this and not in a political sense that Jesus can be understood as king and possessing a kingdom. Jesus concludes his comment to Pilate with a veiled challenge: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” The implicit challenge is clear to Pilate: “Will you listen to me and accept the truth, God’s plan for salvation?” Pilate chooses to evade the challenge: “Truth, eh? What is that?”
This Gospel makes a very appropriate conclusion to the Sundays of this cycle and their Scripture readings. Sunday after Sunday, believers have heard Jesus’ witness to the truth in the Gospels and learned the power of its cultural impact in these reflections and in the homily. Jesus’ challenge to Pilate challenges modern believers as well: “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Have you heard and responded to the voice of Jesus?
Celebrating this particular Sunday as the feast of Christ the King offers yet another challenge to believers, particularly those who live in a democracy. Since its founding as a republic, the United States vigorously rejected any effort to impose a king’s rule over it. They would not accept King George of England, nor would they crown George Washington as king either.
Jesus denied kingship in the political sense, too. The kingship celebrated today is a theological construct contributed to the Church in part by Franciscan theology.
The Franciscans who helped develop this observance called it “the feast of the absolute predestination of Christ.” Taking their cue from texts like Colossians 1:15, they reasoned that Christ was the firstborn of all creation. God who exists outside of time knows the existence of all creation at once. To create the first flesh-and-blood human in the divine image and likeness, God needed a flesh-and-blood model. Jesus incarnate was that model. This is how the Franciscans understood the kingship of Christ.
Clearly, American believers cannot blindly imitate their Mediterranean ancestors in the faith. Only after grasping the cultural dimensions of their ancestors’ beliefs can Americans begin to translate and incarnate those insights into their own distinctive culture, Sunday by Sunday.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University