Let the Scriptures Speak
King of Everything
He delivered us from the power of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. (Col 1:13)
Let's face it. For most of us these days, royalty is the stuff of tabloids and talk shows. Ironically, though the print and electronic media were yet to come, things were not much different at the time of the New Testament writers. For the residents of first-century Palestine, and the Eastern Mediterranean generally, kings and queens were not a happy topic. For the governed, Herods and Caesars were mainly bad news. And yet, when it came to the long memory and longing hopes of the people of Israel, kings still figured in a big way. God could take an adulterer and a murderer like David and use his gifts of leadership to forge a unified people out of twelve scrappy tribes. And what God could do in a glorious moment of the past, God could do once again in a messianic future, any day now. Whether the current kings of this world were a bane or a boon, the conviction that the Lord God was king of the universe remained the centerpiece of faith.
The kingship of God and the coming reign of God’s anointed, therefore, continued to be important in the mind of Jesus and his followers. For that reason, king-talk is still a necessary part of our own language of faith. This Sunday’s readings help us recover what we mean when we, tabloid and talk shows notwithstanding, continue to hail Jesus as Christ the King.
Our brief passage from the second book of Samuel (First Reading) is key. It celebrates the moment when the twelve loosely aligned tribes really became a unified kingdom. The elders of the tribes, impressed with David's military leadership, anoint him king and join in covenant union with him. Their sense of solidarity is such that they can say, “We are bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh.” In other words, they now claim to be one body with their leader. All this sets a powerful precedent for an image of the end-time king that will emerge later.
Since a popular image of Messiah (“Anointed one” or “Christ”) was that of a military savior of the people, it is not hard to understand why Jesus' adversaries would play ironically on the title “king” when they mock him during his crucifixion. In Luke's account of this moment, the leaders jeer, saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” The soldiers taunt him in the same way. In the place for the official description of the crime for which a criminal was condemned to this form of capital punishment, Luke notes that Pilate has posted, “This is the king of the Jews” on the cross. All of this comes to a head when one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins the mockery, and the one hanging on Jesus’ other side defends Jesus' innocence and then addresses him directly, “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your kingdom.”
This is a startling act of faith; the man acknowledges that the dying Jesus is indeed a king, but one whose reign extends to the other side of death. Jesus’ answer goes beyond the criminal's wildest dreams: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That “today” echoes the “today” of salvation announced at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:11), in the debut in the synagogue of Nazareth (Lk 4:21), and at the conversion of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:9—“Today salvation has come to this house”).
Later, when Paul wrote to the Christians at Colossae, people surrounded by a culture of Caesar worship, he affirms the vision that Christians, even before death, participate in the kingdom of Christ: “Give thanks to the Father for having made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Second Reading).
Like it or not, the language of our faith commits us to calling Jesus, King. We can easily recover what the title meant to our Christian ancestors. Even more important, we know that the question of who has power over us is now and always will be a perennial issue. We pledge allegiance, first of all, to the reign of God in our lives; and that entails hailing the role that Jesus plays in our lives. Gathered in Hebron three thousand years ago, the tribal elders pledged themselves as David's flesh and bone. When we gather at Eucharist, Jesus draws us into an even greater solidarity with his kingship. That has powerful implications for our lives as family members, as coworkers, and as citizens.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University