Lectionary Commentaries for November 25, 2012
Christ the King (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 18:33-37

Jaime Clark-Soles

1. It’s an election year in America.

2. Many of us are currently enthralled by the series A Game of Thrones.

Two disparate facts that cohere around this common, crucial question: what makes for a good king?

John’s trial scene is quite different from that of the Synoptics so you will want to lay those aside and immerse yourself in the flow and shape of John’s narrative without distraction. John intentionally and dramatically arranges the trial of Jesus before Pilate into 7 or 8 scenes, punctuated by Pilate’s egress to meet the Jews and ingress to interact with Jesus.1 Each scene — and the whole trial — centers on kingship.

Scene 1: 18:28-32
Jesus is accused; the charge will be sedition — making himself a king.

Scene 2: 18:33-38a
The nature of Jesus’ kingship is raised.

Scene 3: 18:38b-40
The choice: King of the Jews or Barabbas? The people reject the king for a bandit.

Scene 4: 19:1-3
Jesus is crowned King of the Jews.

Scene 5: 19:4-7
Jesus is presented to the people dressed ironically as a king.

Scene 6: 19:8-11
Jesus’ authority as king and Son of God is revealed.

Scene 7: 19:12-16a
Jesus is presented as King of the Jews.

Some add an 8th scene: 19:16b-22
Jesus is exalted on the cross and reigns as King of the Jews.

The issue of Jesus’ kingship is already raised in chapter 6. After he satisfies the bellies of the 5000, they try to seize him and force him to be king; but Jesus slips away. His authority as king originates not from this world but from God and his kingdom has to do with the reign of love, not political expediency aimed at personal aggrandizement.

He knows that we tend to enslave ourselves to cynical rulers for whom power and coercion are synonyms, so long as they satisfy our bellies and require no sacrifice. Jesus also already knows that later in the story the people of God will cry out, with the most devastating irony: “We have no King but Caesar!” (19:15) And how.

Our passage comprises Scene 2. Pilate has just returned from asking Jesus’ accusers about the charge against him. We know from the historical record that Pilate was a brutal man. Assignment to the boondocks of Palestine was not part of his ambitious political career plans. He tries to send away the pesky Jews but they persist. So he comes to investigate whether Jesus is a political threat to Rome: are you the King of the Jews?

Rather than answer Pilate, Jesus becomes the interrogator and judge in this trial. Pilate is not as in control as he pretends to be and Jesus knows it (see their exchange in 19:10-11). This ironic blurring of juridical and political roles is a favorite technique of John’s. Take 19:13, for example, where the text indicates that Pilate “brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench.” The way the verb is used here, it’s not clear whether Pilate or Jesus is sitting on the judge’s bench. But it is clear who the real judge is.

In response to Jesus’ question, Pilate declares, “I’m not a Jew, am I?” Of course he’s not; quite the opposite: he’s a Roman representing the arm of the Empire that is oppressing Jesus’ own people, the Jews. But insofar as John sometimes uses the term “the Jews” as a collective character representing opposition to Jesus, the irony becomes thick.2 John 1:11 declares, “He came to what was his own, and his own people didn’t accept him.” As Pilate remains opposed to Jesus and entirely uninterested in truth for truth’s sake, he does in fact become indistinguishable from those in 1:11 who act out their rejection by handing Jesus over to Pilate. 

In verse 36, Jesus responds, in a way, to Pilate’s king question. But Jesus does not crow about being a king; rather, he immediately speaks not about himself but his community, calling it a kingdom (some prefer the word “kindom”). Here he contrasts himself with Pilate.

  • Pilate uses power and authority for selfish ends with no concern for the building of community, and certainly not a community guided by love and truth. Pilate hoards power and lords it over people even to the point of destroying them, on a cross or otherwise.
    Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to wash the feet of those he leads. He spends his life on them, every last ounce of it; he gives his life to bring life.
  • Pilate’s rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm;
    Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror (John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19-26).
  • Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations.
    Jesus’ followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people, as Jesus does when he says “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32). 
  • Pilate’s authority originates from the will of Caesar and is always tenuous.
    Jesus’ authority originates from doing the will of God, and is eternal.

Jesus places all of this choice conversation material before Pilate, but he hears only Jesus’ possible threat to Pilate’s own authority: “So you ARE a king?” Jesus again pushes deeper to the heart of the matter: this is the trial of the ages. Truth itself is on trial and Jesus is the star witness. Will Pilate side with Truth or Cynicism? What about us?

In the end, Pilate attempts to crucify the Truth. He places a placard nearby mockingly announcing Jesus as The King of the Jews. The irony is thick, of course, because Pilate has unwittingly announced the truth. There on the cross the King is crowned, not with diamonds or a laurel wreath but with thorns. And from that lofty height, he births the church (John 19:25-27), his ally in announcing the truth: Loving Truth wins. Over and over again. Long live the King.


1Do yourself a favor and read Wayne Meeks’ excellent treatment of these scenes in The Prophet-King (E.J. Brill, 1967), 61-81. See also the exceptional resources on Felix Just’s website

2The translation of the term Ioudaioi (Jews, Judeans, etc.) remains problematic and fraught with ethical complications post-Shoah. Please see my entry for John 8:31-36


First Reading

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

Amy Merrill Willis

These verses from the Book of Daniel provide the reader with one of the most graphic depictions of God found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT) (cf. Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1; Exodus 33:17-23).

In this passage, the God of Israel appears as the Ancient of Days (or “the Ancient One” in the NRSV translation); a figure clothed in brilliant white who has hair as pure as wool and throne of fiery flames. Such theophanies, in which God appears in human form, are rare in the HB/OT. Biblical writers were cautious about such portrayals, seemingly aware of the danger of making God too human-like.

More than Meets the Eye
Given this reluctance, the passage invites us to consider what’s at stake in this, and any, portrayal of God. A humorous and relevant example may be found in the cartoons of Gary Larsen who drew the popular strip “The Far Side” during the 1980’s and 1990’s. For him, God is an old man with long white hair and flowing beard and robes.

Larsen’s God is omnipotent and omniscient, but also comic and even a bit ridiculous, like always being a million points ahead of the other contenders on the trivia game show. In one strip, God cooks up the earth in his kitchen, shaking a bottle labeled “Jerks” over it while thinking to himself, “Just to make things interesting.” In another strip, God is sitting at the computer, preparing to hit the “smite” button, while watching a guy walk underneath a grand piano that is being lowered out of an upper story window.

This conventional depiction of God as an old man may seem a little unsophisticated, perhaps a little childish at best. At worst, God is petty and arbitrary in looking after human affairs, a little too much like his goofy human subjects. But for Daniel 7, the intention of the passage is to portray God as anything but! The writer of Daniel 7 is, in fact, trying to illuminate the deity’s justice, righteousness, and commitment to God’s people during a time when justice and righteousness seem to be up for grabs, especially when it comes to governing the world.

Show, Don’t Tell
The claims, intentions, and activities of human kings are often the subject of suspicion in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. This suspicion is front and center in the symbolic vision of Daniel 7, which reflects the events in Jerusalem in 167 BCE when the Syrian Emperor Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” (so nicknamed because he thought he was a manifestation of the gods) outlawed the practice of Judaism and forbade the population from following the Torah.

This event raised important questions, such as, what is God’s response to such dire circumstances? Is God present in the midst of such things and, if so, how is God’s power to be seen? In answer, Daniel 7 shows the workings of the heavenly sphere, a part of reality typically unavailable to humans caught up in the chaos of the mundane world. These verses give the readers a glimpse of a divine courtroom in which angelic jurors (verse 10d) and the divine judge (verse 9) take their places. The divine court consults legal documents (verse 10e) — the scrolls that contain records of past actions (see Psalm 40:7; 56:8) and/or future judgments (Psalm 69: 28) — and renders judgment on Antiochus IV (“the little horn” of verse 11).

The Ancient of Days’ raiment and description are consistent with this courtroom imagery. In this scene, Daniel 7 may be taking a cue from the ancient Canaanite depictions of El, the creator god who presided over the divine courts of the Canaanite gods. El was called “The Father of Years” and “Judge El” and was described as having grey hair, a symbol of his wisdom and experience. Daniel 7 also emphasizes the wisdom and antiquity of the God of Israel, but then goes on to emphasize that God’s appearance is white not grey.

White is the color of purity and righteousness that the prophets associate with God’s actions and intentions (see Isaiah 1:16-18 and Zechariah 3:1-5).1 White hair and clothing are, so to speak, the God of Israel’s judge’s robes. These are visual cues that, despite appearances to the contrary down below on earth, God is indeed meting out judgment and justice against the despicable king.

Where the Wild Things Are
In the verses that come before and after this lectionary passage, the text further contrasts God’s righteous rule with the brutal rule of Antiochus IV and other foreign kings and empires. The biblical writer does this skillfully by depicting these kingdoms as wild, fierce, and predatory animals with unnatural features. They have too many heads, or too many wings, or too many horns. But in contrast, the Ancient of Days resembles a human!

Not only this, but God’s angelic agent and viceroy is also humanlike. The passage describes “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” (verse 13) who will govern all peoples, nations, and languages with the Most High’s power. It is not possible to identify with certainty who the ancient Jewish writer had in mind when talking about this being on the clouds — it may have been the archangel Michael, or it may have been a reference to the entire Jewish community. But what is significant is that God’s features and the humanlike one on the clouds are bound up together with humanity — God has not abandoned the faithful community in Jerusalem, but is identified with and allied with the people.

The Kingship of Christ
Daniel 7 influenced the New Testament enormously. In the gospels, the grammatically indefinite phrase, “one like a human being” becomes the title the “Son of Man” and given new meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. Though the Son of Man suffers now, he is also the chosen one of God who will come again in the future to usher in God’s eternal kingdom (Mark 8:38; 13:26; Matthew 13:24, 37; 16:28; 19:28; 24:30; Luke 12:8-9; see also Revelation 5:11-12). It is this connection that brings Daniel 7 into the lectionary on Christ the King Sunday. And yet as Christians prepare to celebrate Christ’s universal kingship, we do well to remember how the New Testament continues the Old Testament’s critique of kingship and oppressive power. Christ’s kingship is not to be understood in triumphalist terms, but in terms of his radical suffering and service to the outcast.


1Paul Mosca, “Ugarit and Daniel 7: A Missing Link,” Biblica 67 (1986):496-517.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7

Karla Suomala

The narrator of 2 Samuel 23:1-7 tells us that these verses contain “the last words of David.”

What is interesting, according to Professor Ralph Klein, is that this passage is the first of many “last words of David” in the Old Testament.  Klein counts ten “last words” of David; the second and third of which can be found 1 Kings (2:2-4 and 5-9) and the fourth through the ninth in 1 Chronicles (22:7-16,17-19; 28: 2-10, 20-21; 29:1-5, 10-19; 23:27).  Even more intriguing is the fact that David is unique in this regard — there are no recorded last words for any of David’s royal successors! 

So why is David accorded so many chances at having the final word? 

In the legends, if not actual history, of ancient Israel, David’s stature only seems to increase as time passes.  This is not so different than giants of history a little closer to home.  It’s hard to imagine that more can be said about George Washington, but more than 40 biographies on Washington alone have been published since the early 1990s.  The count is comparable for other greats such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.  And these books sell well — they often top bestseller lists.

What is it about these men that fascinate us?  Why do we return again and again to the smallest details of their lives (not always distinguishing history from legend)?  Maybe we hope that combing through the minutia just one more time can elicit some insightful bit of wisdom or a kernel of previously undiscovered truth.  That’s likely what David’s biographers within the biblical text were after in their emphasis on and inclusion of his last words.  Last words, especially in pre-modern times, were significant.  There was a sense that it in that brief moment between life and death, heroes would impart something profound, something to hold onto and to live by. 

With ten different “last words” of David, we also realize that the there is more going on than simple confusion as to what the last words actually were.  As biblical generations passed, and Israel’s power as a nation waxed and waned, David came to be viewed as Israel’s greatest king, unsurpassed in the eyes of both God and humans.  He was the shining memory of Israel’s past as well as the vision of what Israel’s future could be.  His many last words attest to his biographers’ attempts to keep his greatness alive in the present and project it into the future. 

So what do the last words in 2 Samuel tell us about King David?   They point to his elevated status as one who was “set on high” or whom “God raised up (the Dead Sea Scrolls point to this understanding).  They describe David as God’s “anointed” and even as God’s favorite.  David goes on to claim in this poem that he is the one through whom God spoke, who ruled justly “like the sun on a morning without clouds” and whose own house (family) had been similarly righteous before God. 

He goes as far as to say, “Will God not cause to blossom my success and everything I desire?”  This passage concludes with a jab at David’s enemies, showing a stark contrast between him and “the good-for-nothings [who] are like thorns to be thrown away.”  This whole passage provides an exceptionally clear image of a good ruler; there is no gray, no ambivalence, and no uncertainty in this depiction of the great king.

But, as anyone who knows the story of David as it unfolds in 1 & 2 Samuel knows, this picture of David isn’t entirely accurate, or doesn’t paint the whole picture.  From this set of last words, one would never guess that David had an affair with the married Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover up his actions, or that he ignored the rape of his daughter Tamar, which resulted in a war with his son Absalom that nearly ended his reign, to note just a few of David’s lapses in judgment. 

So how do we reconcile David’s life as recorded by the author of the Books of Samuel with this set of last words?  Maybe what we are dealing with here is something that we can all understand — a declaration of what we want our rulers to be, those in the past as well as the present.  We want those who govern us to be a little better than we ourselves are, to have a special connection to the divine, and ultimately to rule justly.   We want to know that they are clearly on the side of good and not evil. 

During this election season, many political ads are not so unlike this passage in tone in their depiction of ideal candidates talking with farmers under clear skies and ripening fields, reading stories to children in classrooms, sitting at the bedside of wounded soldiers, and talking to workers in factories.   The ads go on to contrast the “good” politician with the “evil” one contrasting the records and goals of two dueling politicians. 

So, if we already know that nothing is as clear is it seems, that no politician is perfect and can solve all of our problems, then why are the airways filled with these ads?  Why do they influence us, even when we know that that the claims are being exaggerated?  Because we want more, we want better, we want clarity and justice from those making decisions for and about us.  We want to be able to trust them. 

Maybe these last words of David are a reminder of our longing — a longing that connects us to antiquity — for a world that we know can be better than it is.  But these last words can be more than an expression of how we wish things could be; they can challenge us to be the change we wish to see.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 93

Hans Wiersma

This brief, straightforward psalm is teed up for your Christ the King-themed sermon. Psalm 93 begins by proclaiming that “the Lord is king” (Hebrew: YHWH melek).

The psalm has all the trappings of royal imagery: robes, majesty, thrones, and decrees. There’s definitely a creation angle in the first two verses. The Lord is praised for being robed in majesty — that is, in the splendor of the creation — just as the Lord is praised for establishing the creation (the world) in the first place.

The creation angle is maintained in the following verses, focusing especially on the gift of water in all its noisy abundance. Consider how these images swell and crest and crash:

 * The floods have lifted up their voice

 * The floods lift up their roaring

 * More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters

 * More majestic than waves of the sea…

Insert obvious connection to the Baptismal rite’s “Flood Prayer” here. No, really, do it. We’ll wait. Or, if you don’t want to be that obvious — that is, if you’d prefer to avoid making the connection of all that water with the promises of baptism — then you can simply note that when the psalmist was looking for a metaphor for divine majesty, s/he landed on H2O. Yes, that basic element that makes up 70% of the earth’s surface and a similar percentage of the human body. Without H2O, there’d be no life on the planet — duh!

Slightly more noteworthy than the fact that the psalm features water as the allegorical epitome of the Lord’s greatness is the fact that the psalm proclaims loud water in particular. The psalmist had almost certainly been to the beach on a Big Surf day. If you’ve ever stood on the shoreline meditating on the hugeness of the water as the waves pounded the shore, then you can probably relate to what was in the psalmist’s mind. Even the most poetry-averse person can understand that the big, vast, loudness of the ocean points to the mighty work of a Lord who is big, vast, and loud.

The big, vast, loudness of God has been a theme since, I suppose, Zeus was tossing bolts from atop Mt. Olympus. When the people of Israel are camped beneath Mt. Sinai and Moses is getting that Decalogue, there’s theological thunder rolling the whole time — so much so that the people say to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). 

So, yeah, overwhelmingly loud noise and divine majesty often go hand in hand. That’s why they toot a huge horn when the queen or king enters the room. That’s why, in the Book of Revelation, there’s trumpet sound all over, but especially when the seven angels are revealing the hidden things of God in Christ. Royalty and amplifiers turned up to 11 and loud crashing waves and the majesty of the Lord are all of a piece, it would seem.

Contrast all the regal decibels with the one quietly telling Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, the Gospel appointed for the day). Or “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (verse 37). There’s irony there, right there, where Jesus talks about those who listen to his voice. Within hours that very voice would rasp out the words, “It is finished,” and then fall silent.

Christ the King Sunday is full of possibility when it comes to contrasting what we think of as divine and what we get in Jesus: Deus absconditus sub contrario = God hidden under the sign of the opposite. Or perhaps here we can say “under the sound of the opposite.” It’s a theology of the cross kind of day, so while you can go ahead and begin with Psalm 93 and the notion of an almighty God girded in oceanic loudness, you ought not to end there.


Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 1:4b-8

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson

In the opening of the book of Revelation, grace (charis) and peace (eirene) are given to the churches to which the author of Revelation writes.

The gifts themselves are interesting. Charis recalls the patronage system of the early Roman world, in which a patron displayed generosity to his clients, and expected loyalty in return. Eirene reminds one of the Hebrew shalom, the notion of wholeness and peace that is often associated with a deep and meaningful relationship to God.

Through the mention of these two gifts, the author of Revelation indicates from the very beginning that the gift of peace associated with being a Christ-believer also comes with a sense of belonging to and owing faithfulness to a patron. We will see that in the context of the Roman Empire, the way that Revelation reconfigures the concepts of sovereignty, loyalty and patronage is far from innocent.

The gifts of grace and peace are described as having a triple origin. The reader easily identifies God as the one who is, was, and is coming (Revelation 1:4). God explicitly characterizes Godself in this manner in Revelation 1:8. The gifts also come from Jesus Christ, who is then described with several titles (1:5) and who becomes the focus of the passage in Revelation 1:6-7. Finally, they are sent from the “seven spirits” who are described as being in front of God’s throne (1:4).

Under the influence of Christian trinitarian thought, it is tempting to associate these seven spirits with the Holy Spirit, and to see here a trinitarian formula. In fact, the identification with the Holy Spirit, though probable, is not certain. Because of the number seven, which usually indicates plenitude and completeness, it is possible to see here a reference to the Spirit in its plenitude, perhaps under the influence of Isaiah 11:2, which describes six attributes of the spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and fear of the Lord), to which the Vulgate adds a seventh: piety. In any case, the passage emphasizes the provenance from Jesus Christ, describing him at length and pursuing the description by a doxology.

Jesus at the Center
The author of Revelation uses three titles to describe Jesus: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. All these titles reveal something important about the way the author of Revelation understands Jesus.

He is faithful witness; as Revelation 1:1 indicates, Jesus is the beneficiary of a special revelation, coming from God. He is thus the witness par excellence, who can authentically reveal God’s purpose to the community, enabling it to become witness in its turn.  Jesus’ role as witness (also a messianic title in Isaiah 55:4) empowers the community to be a similar witness in the world.

Jesus is also firstborn of the dead. Literally, this is in fact not the case. There are stories of resurrection before the ones recording Jesus’ resurrection. But the author of Revelation, by making Jesus the firstborn of the dead, insists on the eschatological role of Jesus. Through his death and his resurrection Jesus has begun the new aeon. His resurrection functions differently. It is not just a return to life; it is truly the beginning of something new.

Finally, the author of Revelation describes Jesus as ruler of the kings of the earth. Of all the titles, this one, especially when it is combined with the use of pantokrator to describe God in verse 8, has the most subversive potential of the three. In the context of the Roman Empire the ruler of the kings of the earth, the pantokrator, was the Caesar, the emperor to whom each inhabitant of the Empire owed not only obedience but also loyalty. When the author of Revelation describes Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth, and God as the pantokrator, creating a nation for Jesus and for God (Revelation 1:6), he challenges some of the imperial ideology current in the world of the first century.

The challenge is not only about who truly rules the world, but also about issues of loyalty: to whom should the people of the provinces of Asia show ultimate faithfulness? Imperial ideology, through statutes, coins, inscriptions, buildings, statues, loudly proclaimed that the Caesar was the ultimate patron. More discreetly, the author of Revelation aims to replace Roman imperial ideology with his own hierarchy. The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, working for God, and the people should pay homage to this ruler, and not the emperor.1 The doxology that follows establishes the terms of the relationship between Jesus and human beings.

Relationship to Jesus
If the preceding verse presented who the author of Revelation thought Jesus was, the second half of verse 5 as well as verses 6 to 7 connect the figure of Jesus to humanity, and what this figure means for human beings. The first two statements, “the one who loves us and freed us from our sins,” represent ideas with which contemporary Christians are usually familiar. They depict a comfortable picture of Jesus as the one who displays love, enables freedom from sin and thus effectuates the salvation of the believers.

In the statements that follow, a slightly different picture of the work of Christ emerges. Christ creates a kingdom and establishes priests for God his Father. The dominant imagery here is connected to ruling and to giving proper worship to the ruler. In a way, the author of Revelation creates a new patronage system. It is not to Caesar that the Christ-believers owe their allegiance. It is not around the emperor that they should unite. Rather, they are a nation composed of various tribes who recognizes first and foremost the authority of the Pantokrator God, the one who is beginning and end, and to whom they dedicate their worship.

In contrast to the message carried by Roman imperial ideology, the Christ-believers are called to become united under the rule of Christ. Today this reminds us that empire and Christianity do not always align, and that we might find ourselves in a situation where our allegiance to Christ may lead us to resist a political regime, an economical organization, or cultural systems.

 


1Interestingly, the author of Revelation does not seek to put into place an alternative to Roman hierarchy. The imperial ideology in a way suits him as long as one understands that the true emperor is in fact Jesus and not the Caesar. Despite his severe criticism of Rome, thus, the author of Revelation in fact reproduces an imperial organization, with a different ruler.