Spirituality of the Readings
What Kind of King?
We are shown two kinds of king in the bible story for Sunday.
One kind has power, wealth, pride, and the forces of war. This king had room only for what he pretended was the welfare of the people. Instead, he took only what he himself wanted. At the other end of the spectrum is a king or queen who has empathetic care for each person, for the well-being of the populace.
I know that this idea could apply easily to the political condition of the United States today. But, this Sunday, let us look at the biblical grounding of such an idea. I want to use TH White’s story of King Arthur (The Once and Future King). There we are told that Arthur was slated to be the good kind of ruler, not the power monger.
As you may know, Merlin the magician, in White’s version, kidnapped Arthur the baby from his father’s great castle and began to train him in a far away bedraggled court, in order to teach him about the small and modest beings of the world around him.
The remainder of that story remains for another day, but it is interesting to note that nearly the same thing happened to Jesus. Not that he was kidnapped, but that he was brought up in quite unpretentious circumstances, and that he loved the small and beautiful parts of his dusty childhood.
Then, this Sunday, Jesus suddenly receives the pomp and glory of power! What happened? Has he changed into the bad kind of king? Let us look.
The custom was for a royal person to ride on a colt, or as it is often translated, a donkey. This was not a sign of humility but of kingly status! People would strew their cloaks on the roadway, along with the tall palm fronds they had picked, in order to shield the King from the dirty road.
Jesus did not shy away from such honors; in fact, in the Processional Reading we hear that he caused them to happen! He sent disciples to get the colt/donkey. Then he rode it into Jerusalem. People honored him with cloaks and palms as Savior King.
Why did Jesus submit to such treatment?
Liturgy has an answer. Peter, who had vowed and sworn that he would never ever deny Jesus, goes ahead and denies him three times. Jesus says out loud that Peter must be “counted among the wicked” (Luke 22:37, quoting Isaiah 53:8-12). Then Jesus sweats blood in the garden, and at last gives himself over into the devil’s hands, saying in effect, “This is your hour, the time for your darkness.” A mock trial follows and our King joins simple thieves in bloody death.
So there was no king at all. Had the throwing the Palms been a mistake?
Leadership has, at its root, service. The real reason for kingship is not dominance, riches, honor or power. These give siren calls to entrap the leader. Kingship and all leadership exist in order to secure the welfare of the kingdom and especially the welfare of those who are in it.
Jesus comes to bring this kind of kingdom, one of service and humility, not of pride and competition. The way of the cross is the greatest fulfillment of his kingship, as opposed to cheering and accolades.
Palm Sunday brings us the real thing.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University