Lectionary Commentaries for November 22, 2015
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 18:33-37

Susan Hylen

Who is truly powerful? Who reigns?

John’s trial narrative raises these questions in compelling ways. Although Pilate and the Jewish leaders may appear to be powerful, John presents Jesus as the one who exercises authority.

The charge of kingship is the central question of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Jesus never answers Pilate’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33), in a straightforward way. As in other parts of the Gospel, John communicates some of the most important messages about Jesus’ identity by enacting them in the story instead of stating them outright. Here, John uses the trial and crucifixion to display Jesus’ kingship and the faithlessness of those who reject him.

Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s charge of kingship directly. He states that his kingdom is “not from here” (John 18:36), which Pilate interprets to be an affirmation that Jesus is a king. He also puts the question aside as something Pilate claims, and instead offers the idea that he is a witness to the truth (v. 37).

Although Pilate declares to the waiting Jews, “I find no case against him” (John 18:38), Pilate should not be viewed as an innocent bystander swept along by the will of the Jewish authorities. He goes on to play against Jewish aspirations for political independence as he taunts the Jews with the idea of Jesus’ kingship. Pilate’s mockery of Jesus’ kingship is seen in John 19:1-7, where he has Jesus dressed in a purple robe and crown of thorns (19:2). He is beaten and then displayed to the Jews. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate has put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).

Pilate maneuvers in Jesus’ trial to appear as the one who crucifies the Jewish king. John recreates this scene of the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion twice. The second time, he underscores that it is the beginning of Passover, the moment when Israel would stop and remember God’s kingship and God’s rule over other powers. Instead, at that same moment, Pilate asks the Jews again, “Shall I crucify your king?” In their reply, “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15), John shows that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus leads them to deny God’s kingship and embrace Roman rule.

Part of the irony of John’s presentation of the trial and crucifixion is that Pilate uses his own authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. Pilate places an inscription over the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests protest, asking Pilate to clarify that this was only what Jesus claimed. But Pilate refuses their request with a solemn pronouncement, “What I have written, I have written” (19:22).

In this way, John crafts his narrative so that Jesus’ kingship becomes most visible in his crucifixion. It is as if his crucifixion is his enthronement as king, the moment at which the declaration of his kingship is made public. Although all four Gospels record the inscription over the cross (cf. Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38), only John adds the extra details about Pilate’s interaction with the chief priests regarding the saying. John crafts the story so that the reader, who has known from John 1:49 that Jesus is “King of Israel,” sees Jesus’ kingship enacted even against the protests of the Jewish leaders.

As the crucifixion makes clear, Jesus’ kingship is “not of this world” (John 18:36). Worldly kings take power from others by winning battles or at least through successful diplomacy. Jesus neither fights nor allows his followers to do so. He does not mount a vigorous defense.

Instead, Jesus offers an alternative to earthly kingship. “I have been born and come into the world for this: to witness to the truth” (John 18:38). Jesus’ testimony to the truth appears embedded within the story of John’s Gospel. In chapter 19, the manner of Jesus’ death testifies to his true identity. Those who can hear or see the message of Jesus’ crucifixion see a true king.

It is clear that many do not understand Jesus’ kingship, and others reject it outright. Throughout chapters 18-19, Jesus is “handed over” through a chain of command that implicates a number of characters as responsible for Jesus’ death. Although Judas Iscariot is widely recognized as the one who “betrayed” Jesus (cf. John 18:2, 5), the Greek word translated “betray” also describes the actions of the Jews and Pilate. In John 18:36, Jesus uses this word to describe his being “handed over to the Jews.” Pilate also tells Jesus that the Jews “handed you over to me” (18:35). At the end of the trial, however, it is Pilate who “hands Jesus over” to be crucified (cf. 19:16). Thus the culpability in Jesus’ death does not rest with Judas alone but is shared through this action of betrayal or handing over.

Yet John is not content to present Jesus as the hapless victim of others’ betrayal. On the cross, it is Jesus who “hands over” his spirit (the NRSV translates “gave up,” John 19:30). Jesus’ purpose, “to witness to the truth” (18:37) is enacted in this moment as well. In the end, it is Jesus, and not Judas, the Jews, or Pilate, who exerts authority over life and death.

John 18:33-37 begins a long scene in which the Gospel writer unfolds the reality of Jesus’ kingship. It is a kingship that can be difficult to see, for it is manifest in crucifixion rather than in political dominance. Today, Jesus’ kingship can be difficult to see for the same reasons. Preachers may want to use John’s story to make visible how, like the Jews, our allegiances to earthly powers lead us to deny God’s kingship. We may not even be aware that we have done so.


First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Anathea Portier-Young

The selection of Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 as a lectionary passage for the Feast of Christ the King reflects nearly two millennia of interpretation that identifies Jesus with the “one like a human being” in Daniel 7.

Jesus himself quotes this passage in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, foretelling that his disciples “‘will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:62) and, in Matthew, that “all the tribes of the earth … will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). For Christian audiences, Jesus’s quotation and reinterpretation of Daniel 7:13-14 casts the passage in a Christological light. But to understand the significance of Jesus’s identification with the one like a human being in Daniel seven, it is necessary first to understand the passage in its earlier, Jewish context.

Daniel 7:9-10 and 13-14 shine a spotlight first on the kingship of God, who is portrayed in Daniel’s vision as “an Ancient One,” and second on the eternal kingship that is given to the one like a human being. Kingship and sovereignty are thus central themes in this passage. Heavenly kingship — and a heavenly kingdom — are not divorced from earthly kingship. The book of Daniel thematizes the relationship between earthly and heavenly rule, emphasizing that the sovereign authority of earthly kings depends upon the will of God (e.g., Daniel 2:21, 5:32).

Within the book of Daniel, these verses are part of a longer vision report that takes place toward the beginning of the reign of the fictional King Belshazzar (Daniel 7:1). The chronology provides context for Daniel’s vision. Through most of the book, years are reckoned according to the reigns of earthly kings. This way of reckoning time was common throughout the ancient Near East, and is found also in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. For the audience of Daniel, this system of dating calls attention to the historical reality that, after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah in 587 BCE (Daniel 1:1-2), Judah no longer had its own earthly king. Ruled instead by the Babylonian empire, Judeans were now subject to the whims of kings who neither respected their autonomy as a people nor recognized the power and authority of their God. The stories in Daniel portray the kings of Babylon commanding the worship of idols (chapter 3) and imagining themselves in the place of God (chapters 4, 6).

Readers learn at the conclusion of chapter 5 that the arrogant impiety of King Belshazzar prompts God to bring an end to Belshazzar’s kingship (Daniel 5:26-28). But Judeans still are not free. A new king, Darius the Mede, “receives the kingdom” immediately upon Belshazzar’s death (5:30). This narrative reflects the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE. At this time, former subjects of the Babylonian Empire, including the Judeans in captivity and at home, became subjects of the Persian Empire.

Daniel’s vision in chapter seven reveals that, in time, yet another empire would follow that of Darius, and the Judean people would continue to suffer under foreign rule. The Macedonian general Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, including Judea, in 333-332 BCE. After his death, his successors fought to establish their own kingdoms. His generals Ptolemy and Seleukus each founded an empire, the Ptolemaic empire with its capital in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Seleukid Empire with its capitals in Seleukia in Mesopotamia and Antioch in Syria. Judeans were subject first to Ptolemaic rule, then to Seleukid rule.

Between the years 167 and 164 BCE, the Seleukid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes persecuted his Judean subjects, profaned the temple in Jerusalem, halted the regular sacrifices to YHWH, and established a Seleukid military garrison in Jerusalem. The biblical books Daniel and 1 and 2 Maccabees (the latter two books are considered part of the Apocrypha by Protestants and deuterocanonical by Catholics) provide our main literary sources for the persecution. They describe a program of state terror, murder, and enslavement and the outlawing of Jewish identity, scriptures, and worship.

Daniel seven received its final form during the persecution of Judean Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The vision of the one like a human being offered hope to Jews who had been subject to foreign rule for over four centuries and now were victims of state terror and persecution. Even as they saw their houses burned, their loved ones tortured and slaughtered, and their temple profaned by an “abomination that desolates” (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11), Daniel’s vision allowed them to see something else: the end of empires, the sovereign power of God, and their own future kingdom. The king who persecuted them would soon pass away. His kingdom, portrayed as a monstrous, mutated beast (7:7-8), would perish (7:11), just as the kingdoms before it had done (7:12). In its place God would establish a new and everlasting kingdom that would not pass away (7:14, 18, 27). It would be given not only to the one like a human being, but also “to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (7:27).

The other kingdoms were characterized by violence, destruction, exploitation, and oppression. The final, eternal kingdom would be oriented toward justice (Daniel 7:10, 22, 26). It has its origin at the very throne of God.

In this week’s Gospel lection, Jesus declares, “my kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). It is from heaven. This statement describes its origin, not its scope. Do not imagine Christ’s kingship in abstraction from earthly politics. In the here and now, many still suffer political domination, state terror, and persecution. Others exercise authority and participate willingly in political systems. God gave sovereignty to this Human One in response to the evil perpetrated by empires and the suffering of God’s people. In so doing, God sought to free and empower the oppressed and inaugurate just rule on earth as in heaven.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7

Ralph W. Klein

When I was growing up in the church, the last Sunday of the church year was known as the Last Sunday after Trinity.

The focus was on Judgment Day, often depicted in very vivid and fearful colors. The switch to Christ the King Sunday put a quite different emphasis on the ending of the church year, emphasizing the hope for a time when Christ would rule over all, with a sense of hope and anticipation of what the worldwide rule of Christ would look like. But this new name also evoked criticism precisely over the word “king,” a term that is explicitly male and often connotes a hierarchical understanding of God’s reign. Preachers at their best need to express the hope for consummation in this Sunday while transcending the male imagery and a hierarchical vision.

The semi-continuous First Lesson for Christ the King comes near the end of the books of Samuel and is called explicitly “The Last Words of David” in the NRSV. Some years ago I wrote an article on the Last Words of David and noted that there are actually ten of them: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; 1 Kings 2:2-4; 1 Kings 2:5-9; 1 Chronicles 22:7-16; 1 Chronicles 22:17-19; 1 Chronicles 23:27; 1 Chronicles 28:2-10; 1 Chronicles 28:20-12; 1 Chronicles 29:1-5; and 1 Chronicles 29:10-19! Fortunately, we do not have space here to investigate them all, and there is plenty to think about in 2 Samuel 23:1-7 alone.

Christ the King is the descendant of David the king in the Old Testament, although Christ is also recognized in the church as part of the Trinity and his messiah-ship is centered on Christ the crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). This Last Word of David comes at the end of 2 Samuel 11-21, a tawdry narrative that depicts David as adulterer and murderer, who seems to be the parade example of Luther’s advice: pecca fortiter. What David says in these seven verses, however, articulates a view of the human condition and of human government that is centered on justice and which acknowledges that such virtue is only possible — for king or people — because of divine aid. David proclaims: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Samuel 23:3-4). Ruling in the fear of God, of course, reminds us of the wisdom traditions in the Bible.

David confesses that Yahweh has made with him an everlasting covenant, a covenant we see radically fulfilled in Christ. David continues: “Will God not cause to prosper all my help and my desire” (2 Samuel 23:5). The all-too-human David admits that whatever good government he has exercised was only possible because of God’s help. In making these affirmations he is indeed speaking for God: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue” (v. 2).

Similar divinely inspired royal justice is affirmed in Psalm 72: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (Psalm 72:1-2). This is a kingship that transcends gender and opposes hierarchy. It is a kingship that Christ embodies. As with the head, so with the members. This means that a focus on justice and help for the poor is the goal of all who call themselves Christ-ians. A famous messianic promise outlines the mission of the messiah and of all those human queens and kings whom God has put in charge of the universe: The messianic ruler and messianic followers shall not judge by what eyes see, or decide by what ears hear, but with righteousness they will govern the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. They will strike the arrogant with the rod of their mouth and with the breath of their lips — their words — they shall disempower the wicked (Isaiah 11:3-4).

As the church year comes to its climax in Christ the King Sunday, we remind ourselves of the goal toward which Christ is headed. And we recognize that with Christ’s aid, and only with such aid, we ought to be not-so-little queens and kings who seek justice in Christ’s name.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 93

Beth L. Tanner

Today’s psalm gives the opportunity to provide some content to the phrase “God is King” or “LORD is King.”

Psalm 93 focuses particularly on God as Creator and Sustainer of the creation. It is a brief psalm with only 5 verses moving through 3 stanzas.

The first stanza declares, “The LORD is king!” and then continues to declare the majesty and strength of God that has firmly established the world for eternity. This fits well with Jesus’ declaration in John that “my kingdom is not of this world.” Indeed, it is God’s kingship that established the world. Pilate was thinking too small when he asked if Jesus was “King of the Jews.” The psalm places the words of Jesus within their greater context, a context that Pilate and the powers of the world cannot see.

The second stanza leaves the realm of humans to remind us that there is more to God’s reign than human issues and concerns. The image in the psalm is intense and frightening. Many of us have seen the devastation brought when the “rivers lift up their pounding waves.” This was a frightening image to the ancients also. The churning waters were the very definition of chaos. In a world gone crazy, it is comforting to realize that even the chaotic waters obey God. Again Pilate did not know what he asked. Read with the enthronement psalms, Pilate’s worldly power as prefect of the Roman Empire seems small indeed in the face of someone that the rivers rise up to praise.

God controls even the most chaotic natural forces on the earth. Yet this does not mean God sends natural disasters. Just as with the rest of the universe, the creation runs by a set of natural laws. Weather changes and earthquakes all function by their own set rules. The problem comes with the growing human population. We no longer are migratory and we live in places that sometimes receives the negative side of that natural order. These disasters are sometimes simply unexplainable and in those cases many reasons are provided, yet we remain unable to completely control the chaotic side of the creation. It appears this is one of the limits that is set for humans in the universe.

The final stanza (verse 5) places God’s decrees as part of God’s vast kingdom. God’s commands and holiness are as constant as the natural order. We do not often think of the decrees of God and the maintaining of creation together. Yet here and in several other psalms, this is exactly what is declared. God decrees that the sun runs its course and God decrees that we should care for the least of the world are linked in God’s kingdom, even if we do not notice it. It takes both decrees to make our world run in the ways God intended. It is the foundation of God’s kingdom.

The whole psalm provides us with a glimpse of the kingdom that the other three texts today point to in different ways. It is not always visible to us, especially when we focus on only human endeavors. On Christ the King Sunday, it is easy to assign these attributes to the Christ as the King and thus ignore our own responsibility. In order to participate in the kingdom, we too are responsible for our part in it. God’s decrees are the equivalent of Jesus’ teachings and his focus on those in need of our help today even includes the very creation itself. What we now know that these ancient folks did not is that we would eventually gain the power not only to hurt the poor of the people but to also inflict harm on the very creation God set in place. Just like Jesus’ declaration to Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world,” we need to be attentive to the kingdom of God that is not always visible to us. We are called to care for the most critical and weak and the creation is now on that list. We must remember that the creation has its own relationship with God and praises God in its way. We have no right to harm that relationship. In this psalm humans and creation join together in praise and we should do everything we can to assure this continues to be possible just as God the Creator and Sustainer of our world intended.

Together the humans as one part of the creation are to join the chorus of shouts “God is King”; let us celebrate God and God’s great kingdom.


Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 1:4b-8

Greg Carey

Perhaps John could have packed more theological content into this little introductory passage, but we preachers may be grateful that he chose not to.

Here we find more than enough to chew on: the timeless glory of God, the faithful ministry of Jesus Christ, the benefits of our salvation, our hope in Christ’s glorious return, the fate of those who reject Christ, and God’s rule over every earthly dominion. Given the liturgical moment, we will concentrate on the message of Christ as “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) — and what Christ’s royal identity means for the status of believers.

Revelation unites the rule of Christ with the status of believers, and it does so in fascinating ways. Within this passage itself, we encounter Jesus as “the faithful witness,” “the firstborn from the dead,” and “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Christ’s identity as king directly shapes the identity of his followers. Loved by and freed from their sins by Jesus, believers form his kingdom, in which they enjoy the exalted status of priests. His people serve within this “kingdom,” where Jesus enjoys “glory and dominion” forever.

Preachers might note how this passage connects Jesus’ exalted status with that of God. All the high-flying language we encounter here ultimately points back to God. Yet Revelation has ways of blurring the identity of Jesus with that of God, indeed suggesting a very high Christology. The passage begins with a blessing from the one who sits on the throne, and it concludes with the Lord God proclaiming, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). Remarkably, this Alpha and Omega passage returns at the end of Revelation, apparently applying once to the one on the throne (21:6) but once to Jesus himself (22:13). Moreover, Revelation 7:9 portrays a multitude standing “before the throne and before the Lamb,” thus linking the Lamb’s authority with God’s. While Revelation’s throne language usually applies to God, Revelation 7:17 identifies the Lamb “at the center of the throne.” Indeed, Revelation 1:8 identifies God as the “Almighty,” in Greek the Pantokrator. Jesus as Pantocrator represents a prominent subject for Eastern iconography.

Revelation also identifies Jesus with his followers, and in ways that resonate well beyond this passage. For example, Revelation 1:5 identifies Jesus a “the faithful witness.” After all, Jesus demonstrated his faithful testimony to the point of death. Yet Revelation also calls believers to be faithful to the point of death (2:10), even pointing to a particular believer, Antipas, whose martyrdom meets that standard (2:13). By identifying Jesus as a faithful witness and as “firstborn of the dead,” Revelation ties Jesus’ glorious reign to his most inglorious death. If Jesus reigns through his faithfulness, so will his followers inherit his kingdom through their own faithful testimony (12:11).

This passage stands as the second stage in Revelation’s two-part self-introduction. Revelation 1:1-3 identifies the book as a revelation (apokalypsis) and as prophecy: that is, as inspired literature. But Revelation 1:4 presents the book as a letter, written to very specific groups of believers at a particular and challenging moment. The entire contents of the letter — and therefore the book — are ascribed to God and to Jesus.

Some who hear our sermons may consider Revelation out of step with the rest of the Bible. Several years ago a well-known theologian invited me to lunch. His question was, “What’s the matter with Revelation?” These verses certainly pack the potential for scandal: “on [Christ’s] account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (1:7, NRSV). Without question, Revelation gives voice to a desire for vengeance against those who reject the gospel and oppress Jesus’ followers. We may or may not be able to justify the desire for vengeance. From his own experience of political suffering, Allan Boesak claimed that the South African Apartheid government had “declared war” on its own people, recalling Revelation’s claim that the Beast had made war against the saints (Revelation 13:7; 12:17).1 Boesak famously proclaimed, “If [Christ’s] cloak is spattered in blood, it is the blood of his enemies, the destroyers of the earth and of his children” (124). Contemporary readers may debate Boesak’s comfort with divine wrath, but we can all acknowledge that serious moral and spiritual dangers attend the desire for vengeance.

I believe it is essential to take account of Revelation’s context when preaching this passage. In addition to Revelation’s desire for vengeance, modern hearers may struggle with the language of kings and kingdoms. To quote Boesak again, “Apocalyptic works reflect in the most dramatic way the response of the people of God to the pressures of their time” (17). Revelation’s audience knows all about kings and kingdoms — or emperors and empires — which they consider a mortal threat. Condemnation of the Roman empire, its ruler, and its practices permeates the Apocalypse. John describes the empire as beastly because it blends idolatry with domination (chapter 13), and he characterizes it as a prostitute (a disturbing image) because it so effectively turned diplomacy into economic exploitation (chapters 17-18). In contrast to empires that dehumanize, dominate, and exploit, Revelation offers a king who actually raises the status of his followers.

Was Bob Dylan correct in his assessment that “You gotta serve somebody”? Ancient people could imagine no alternative. Modern believers are wise to take that testimony seriously. In proclaiming Christ as a king whose very blood creates a new kingdom of priests, Revelation imagines an alternative to the powers that lay claim upon us. Christ’s lordship judges all other would-be authorities. It also marks Christ’s followers as holy people within a new community.


Notes:

1 Comfort and Protest: The Apocalypse from a South African Perspective (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1987), 37.