Homily on the 34th Sunday of Year (Solemnity of Christ the King)
November 21, 2010
Three decades ago or thereabouts, I read a book entitled Night, written by a Hungarian Jew—was it a certain Wiesel?—about the execution of three men by the Gestapo in front of thousands of spectators in a Nazi concentration camp. The three were mounted onto the chairs, and when the nooses were placed on their necks, two of them shouted, “Long live freedom!” while the third, a child, simply kept silent. Then, presumably asking why such a cruel fate should befall on the threesome, someone from among the crowd commented, “Where is God?” At a given signal from the head of the camp, the chairs tipped over, and in a jiffy, two of them were dead. The small boy, however, was still alive, and for about an hour, he hung there, suspended between heaven and earth, suffering the agony of dying slowly. Then, the same man from the crowd, who probably could not comprehend why such a child should suffer agony, asked again, “Where is God?” Then in answer to the question, a voice was heard, “Where is God? There he is—hanging on the gallows.”
That one sees God in a condemned child hanging on the gallows, that is something concealed from the eyes of many, for one does not normally associated God with defeat, or with condemnation in the hands of sinful men. Our image of God is one who is always triumphant, always in control of everything, and ever above human contingency and suffering. The same may be said of Kingship. In our common understanding, a reigning king is always associated with absolute authority and power. A ruling king who acts like a slave, is treated as a slave, who is in fact a slave—that is something beyond imagination. But that precisely what Jesus is: a servant-king. It is therefore understandable that, in today’s Gospel (Luke 35-43), the Jews could not believe in the kingship of Christ. If anything, he was, in their perception, exactly the opposite. That is why the leaders mocked him; if he were a king, they thought, God would not have allowed him to die just like that; if he were God’s anointed, he should have saved himself (Luke 22:35). The soldiers, too, mocked him in the same vein, placing an inscription over his head: “King of the Jews” (v 36). And one of the criminals derided him, convinced as he was that Jesus could not have been the Christ for he was powerless; to prove his messiahship, Jesus should have saved himself and the two of them who shared his fate (v 39).
But Jesus’ kingship can be perceived only by those who have faith. Only one who has faith can see the kingship of Jesus in powerlessless, weakness, pain and suffering. And precisely because he is a king—a crucified king—Luke is subtly suggesting that rather than trying to understand the kingship of Jesus in terms of what we know from kings who ruled in history, we have to understand what it really means to be a king in terms of the kingship of Jesus. That is to say, the analogue by which we judge what actions are proper to a king is none other than Jesus himself. It is the way Jesus rules that gives us the standard and meaning of kingship. Kings stand or fall on their conformity or non-conformity with the life of Jesus. Because Jesus is a king, as the inscription over his head itself reads, his kingship from the cross is thus a critique of how secular kings, heads of nations and leaders in Churches must comport themselves.
In today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43), Luke focuses on the declaration of faith by the good thief. Unlike the bad thief who shared his fate on the cross, but who uttered blasphemous words to Jesus, demanding that the latter should prove his messiahship by saving them from the cross, he looked on Jesus with the eyes of faith. Because of this faith encounter, he was moved to acknowledge his sinfulness, and appealed to the compassion of Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He could make this appeal because he knew, through the eyes of faith, that Jesus is the real King who could grant him salvation. And his hope was not disappointed: “Truly I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This recalls the words of Jesus to Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Both Zacchaeus and the good thief were notorious and lost, but, by their faith and by opening their lives to Jesus, they received salvation. And because he could dispense salvation to those who have faith, Jesus is thus a king.
At the same time, Jesus’ comportment is actually a scathing critique of leaders of our Churches and of our nations. Luke seems to be saying that now we have a new paradigm of leadership: to be a leader is not to subjugate and dominate people or do them violence; leadership is not about selfish exercise of absolute authority and power, nor is it about maintain one’s place at the top over the broken bones of many people. As Jesus himself points out, “Earthly kings lord it over their people. Those who exercise authority over them are called their benefactors. Yet, it cannot be that way with you. Let the greater among you be as the junior; the leader as the servant” (Luke 22:25-26). Leadership is rather about searching for the lost and saving them, like the good thief and Zacchaeus, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, the woman of ill-repute, etc. It is about serving the disenfranchised, the oppressed and the scum of the earth. It is about forgiveness. It is about service in the manner of a slave (Luke 22:26).
Far from abusing power or using people for his own ends, a real leader allows himself to be derided, or even crucified for the sake of the lost (Phil 2:11). It is clearly not about being perceived or appearing regal, nor about enjoying the trappings of power. As can be gleaned from the 2nd Reading (Col 1:12-20), Jesus is a leader who frees people from the power of darkness and brings salvation to them by his own death, not by absolute power or force or by pursuit of selfish interest: “He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we have the redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). It would be a disaster for the Church if its leaders are seen to be indistinguishable from secular ones, with concerns no different from the latter’s—power and privilege, wealth and self-aggrandizement.
Understandably enough, the attitude of the Bible toward human leadership is ambiguous. Although there is a tradition that approves of the institution of kingship over Israel (1 Sam 9:1-10:16; 11), a different strand of tradition altogether rejects it. Precisely because it saw how kingship was exercised by its pagan neighbors, Israel rejected it; in Jotham’s fable, only a useless person would accept the office of a king (Jdgs 9:8-20). Historically, of course, Israel had bad national leaders (1 Kgs 16:25-28.30-33), as did Judah (2 Kgs 16:2-5). An example of a despotic monarch who was guilty of apostasy and lawlessness was Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:1-18). That is why some prophets like Samuel were not in favor of its institution (2 Sam 8:101-8), and Jeremiah minced no words in his indictment against Jehoiakim: “Your eyes and hearts are set on nothing except on your own gain, on shedding innocent blood, on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer 22:11). But his words equally apply to many of our leaders.
To be sure, Israel looked on David as an ideal king, one who shepherds the people of Israel (2 Sam 5:3, 1st Reading), but that is because the Jews were of the belief that David approximates the king that God had in mind: “He tended them with a sincere heart, and with skillful hands he guided them” (Ps 78:72). Of course, Jesus, who in Luke is David’s son (Luke 18:38; 20:41), is the ideal king. More than David, he is the leader God had in mind, because the Spirit of God is with him; in him all the qualities that a human leader must have resided in him. And as crucified leader, who gave his life for the salvation of all, he never ceases to be an embodiment of God’s critique of our present kings, dictators, presidents, and powers-that-be in various countries and leaders in Churches who continue to take their position not in terms of suffering, sacrifice, oblation, dishonor, self-emptying, servanthood and even death.