Lectionary Commentaries for November 21, 2021
Christ the King
Commentary on John 18:33-37
Commentary on Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
What is your spatial metaphor for heaven? Many of the Christian depictions of heaven draw inspiration from these verses from the book of Daniel. God is a wise, old but vigorous, male king, enthroned above the host of heaven. He defeats monsters and delegates a regent to rule over all of humanity. That regent now adheres to Jesus as celebrated in the Christian liturgical calendar on the feast of “Christ the King.”
The image in Daniel is grounded in political, colonial discourse. It is, in fact, the discourse of empire. The “Ancient One” functions as emperor who has conquered various nations and peoples. The battle with a “beast” represents this emperor’s defeat of another empirical power and the re-assignation of those conquered territories to his own chosen rulers. For the author(s) of Daniel, this scenario equally mirrors Persia’s defeat of Babylon and Greece’s defeat of Persia.
In its historical context, the “one like a human being” or “son of man” functions as a colonized king, who has been put on or left on the throne of a conquered nation and serves as the conduit between the emperor and his vast lands. Because in Daniel this emperor is divine, his sub-regent is also a divine being, although certainly one of a considerably lower rank. This is why the text does not describe him as a human but as a being that resembles one. Later in the book, this figure is identified as “Michael,” who is considered to be an archangel in the Christian tradition.
I don’t know about you, but my metaphor for heaven would not be that of a colonizing empire. I suppose if one is going to have an empire, it is best if God is the emperor, but even my cognitive associations with the word “emperor” do not match well with my experience of God. Even more, I find the metaphor rather unsuitable for Jesus who seems to have openly rejected the title of “king.”
The political imagery permeates this whole passage, including the heavenly sentencing court with its written records of judgment. Later in Daniel, the “books” seem to be already written, so that the fate of the accused is determined before a transgression is committed. Such a judicial system does not seem wise to me; it feels punitive and unfair.
What do we do with Daniel 7 in the contemporary world, where our own communal biases that have led to an unfair judicial system have risen into plain view? And what in the world do we do with a Jesus cloaked in absolute power, whose main activity is that of dominion? It makes me want to walk out the door. I mean, a benevolent dictator might sound theoretically blissful, but frankly, I don’t trust it.
No, I would rather read Daniel 7 as an invitation to use our imagination. It is not a decree to follow slavishly their historically contextualized metaphors. They wrote as a people who had been colonized by the Persian and Greek emperors. For them this vision subverts the earthly power by co opting the images used to push them into subservience and transferring them to their God, the “Ancient One.” That God’s co-optation of empire in this dream sequence will be accomplished through defeating the human emperors and taking over their claim to worldly power. It might be their version of storming the Capitol (which we now realize has very different meanings depending on who is doing the storming).
When I was a very young girl, I asked my Mom what heaven is like. She said, “It is the best place you can imagine.” I thought about that, and having recently returned from vacation, I responded, “Is it like Disneyland?” Lucky for this budding theologian, she smiled and said, “If that’s the best thing you can imagine, then that is what it is.”
Daniel 7 does not require us to stay stuck in its images of a perfect world. Instead, it is in an invitation. What kind of space would be our metaphor for heaven? What kind of social structure would it have? Certainly, that reimagining clings to traditions about Jesus, where the kingdom is one of radical hospitality. Maybe we should even start thinking about changing this feast day from “Christ the King” to “Jesus the Welcomer.” It is not that we want a weak God; I certainly appreciate divine otherness! But the political metaphors have become so tainted by the history of our own human sinfulness that for many of us, they cannot be redeemed.
The Bible does not expect us to stay stuck in the ancient world. This amazing ancient fantasy literature invites us to engage our own metaphors that capture God’s goodness and otherness.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7
Growing up in a rural, black Baptist Church, one of the songs I heard often was a spiritual, “Little David, Play on Your Harp.” That is the song that came to mind as I began to think about these purported “last words” of the idealized king David, son of Jesse. I think of this song because in the King James Version and the New American Standard translation of this pericope, one of the throne names David (or the editor of 2 Samuel) assigns to himself is “Sweet Psalmist of Israel” (23:1), translated in the NRSV as “The Favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” The range of meanings in the Hebrew can allow for the “Favorite of the Strong One” and for “The Sweet Psalmist.”
Part of why I have decided that the throne name that David chose is the Singer/Psalmist is because he is credited with the bulk of the psalms by most scholars, and it is through the psalms that we are made privy to David’s worship and worries, his praise, complaints and laments. Such a throne name would be in line with the expected anointed one. Because David is the prototype or the exemplar of the anointed one to come, in other words, the deliverer for ancient Israel, we see the other throne names in this first verse, “The One God Exalted” and “The Anointed of the God of Jacob,” connecting David at the end of his life to the beginning of ancient Israel’s history. The throne names are important as the biblical texts testify that God makes an everlasting covenant with the house of David (2 Samuel 7; see also 1 Kings 13:2; 2 Chronicles 21:7; Psalm 122:5; Zechariah 12:8).
Let’s assume that David is reminiscing and singing about what the spirit of God has spoken to and through him (verse 2). He makes the claim that he has ruled justly and in the fear of God. The description is of a ruler, beloved by God and people, for who wouldn’t love a just king? An astute scripture reader would have to remember that David’s reign and personal life has its blemishes. But, as a former hospice chaplain, I know that when people come to the end of life, their memories often soften to “clean up” the messiness of their lives.
I have no need to disabuse David or the people of this elevated view of his reign, one David describes as “like the sun rising on a cloudless day.” But I think the preacher has to be aware of the distance between our cleaned-up version of our actions and the lives we actually live. Another way of saying it is that we are all editors of our regrets in the end and hope that the good we did outweigh the sins that haunt us. Perhaps this last song affords David an opportunity to look back and reclaim the covenant God made with his house (though as Ralph Klein pointed out when he wrote on this passage, these “last words” are among ten “last words” recorded for David).
Since this text is for Christ the King Sunday, I know that those who added it to the lectionary are reading David as the once and future king, the ancestor of Jesus who is the ultimate anointed one of God. As Christians we are invited to read the text through that lens. This song points to a righteous ruler, which gives preachers an opportunity to think about what it would mean to reflect on governments, here and elsewhere and what just leadership would be in our times, one that reflects God’s desires. “Justly” is always to point toward material justice, what it means for people to eat, be free of violence, have what they need to survive, regardless of whether they are among the mighty or not. We see this reality reflected in the prayer for the king in Psalm 72.
This text is not in a vacuum as the rest of this chapter describes the warriors who worked for and with David. Ruling in the ancient world was always a bloody proposition. We must be careful not to make one-to-one correlations between the text and our times but look for the very human emotions that carry across the years. David’s song is a prelude to securing his kingdom for his house, even as he sings of an enduring covenant God has established.
There is no dissonance in the text between David’s behaviors and David’s question, “Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” (verse 5). What David’s question points us to is the reality that no human rules well without God’s help. History doesn’t make David look good, even as a ruler. Perhaps that’s the work of the Deuteronomist editors who were disappointed with Israel’s and Judah’s kings, believing them to have abandoned the King of Heaven. Perhaps they were disappointed with the kinds of deals that such rulers believed they needed to strike in order to have rest from war, a claim David makes in 2 Samuel 7.
Reading and reflecting on this pericope might lead preachers to think about how dishonest it is to act as if compromises don’t sometimes pull us away from God’s desire, but that compromises are necessary if nations are going to live in even a tenable peace. What must that mean as we go into Advent remembering the first coming of the Christ, anticipating a coming that will gather up our ragged history and bring into focus God’s shalom?
As the “favorite of God,” David looms large in the history of ancient Israel and throughout Jewish and Christian history. But thinking of David allows us to imagine a different world and even a different anointed one. That ability to imagine a different Christ is part of how this text leans us into Advent. As we prepare to sing of that first and future coming, we are reminded that David points to a desire for his progeny and is not the ultimate representative of God’s justice. But even as we note that truth, we have to hold ourselves accountable to our own softening of our sins, to our need for help, and to our longings.
The last verses here (verse 6-7) are typical to a psalm, where the ones “not like David,” in other words, “the godless,” are relegated to destruction because they do not desire the Holy One of Israel; they are thorns for a fire, like the chaff that the wind drives away (Psalm 1:4). In the Psalms (and though this text is in 2 Samuel, it is a psalm), what happens to the ungodly is in contradiction of the godly. David’s song here is making a distinction we see throughout the biblical texts between the godly and the ungodly. As preachers take up this text, we are invited not simply to distance ourselves from the ungodly, to name call, but to build a community where a just environment brings the ungodly in, rather than delight in their destruction. But we must confess that we have a propensity toward destruction, or, as this text suggests, that godlessness leads to destruction.
As the preacher struggles with this text and what it could mean this last Sunday before Advent, I would hope she would grapple with the fact that life has nuance to it, that nothing is as clear cut as David sings here. I’ve already mentioned that David’s remembrance of his reign leaves out the rough edges. But coming off All Saint’s Day and this last feast day of ordinary time, we are invited to God’s vision of the coming and present Immanuel, a reality that does not require a revised history.
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.”1
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.
- Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 22, 2015.
Commentary on Revelation 1:4b-8
Jews mark the end of the yearly Torah cycle with the wonderful holiday of Simchat Torah, “Joy in the Torah.” They take the huge Torah scrolls out of the ark and dance with the scrolls. I wish the Christian lectionary’s end of the church year focused more on the joy of dancing with the scriptures‒‒rather than on kingship, dominion, triumphalism, and judgment.
At least three challenges confront liberation preachers today:
First, Christ the King Sunday’s recent and imperial origins, dating only to 1925. As Lucy Hogan describes, Pope Pius XI instituted this observance because “followers of Christ were being lured away by the increasing secularism of the world”.
Second, we preach in a time of fear and despair, when people’s experiences feel increasingly apocalyptic. One in three Americans have felt the direct effects of climate disasters this past year, while political tensions and the COVID pandemic rend our communities.
Third, the lectionary itself saturates people’s imaginations with doom and gloom for several Sundays in late November. Last week brought us Daniel and Mark 13; next week we will start Year C by reading from Luke’s apocalyptic discourse.
As preachers, our calling must be to counter all three of these challenges by offering a radical message of hope, not doom and gloom! Fortunately, Revelation offers the hope and joy in this week’s wonderful imagery.
Hope: the world is about to turn!
I recommend Rory Cooney’s joyful “Canticle of the Turning,” in the hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship #723, to proclaim the message of hope at the heart of Revelation. Revelation’s message is not that the world is about to end, but that the world is about to turn.1
My students love to sing the “Canticle of the Turning,” with its Irish tune and text from Mary’s Magnificat. Reminiscent of Simchat Torah’s dancing with the Torah scrolls, we can end the church year by dancing and singing the liberating message of hope in Revelation, in the heart of our scriptures: The world is about to turn!
Christ is King over against the Roman Empire and all kings of the earth
Revelation’s subversive political challenge, like Daniel’s, is unmistakable. Jesus is “the one ruling the kings of the earth” (1:5)‒‒a rule proclaimed already in the present tense.
John in effect says “no” to Roman propaganda’s hegemonic claims that Emperor Augustus’s reign had ushered in a new eschatological golden age of peace for the whole world. John also reclaims Roman political values of “glory” and “dominion” (1:6) for Jesus‒‒values claimed by Rome in its imperial propaganda, hymns, and celebrations.
When we say the creeds, we are in effect saying “I believe in God … and not in Caesar.”
The purpose of Revelation’s apocalyptic story is to empower an alternative community as followers of the Lamb Jesus (Revelation 14:4), and to strengthen people’s witness to God’s reign of love and hope in the face of evil. The preacher’s job—whether preaching on Jesus’ apocalyptic discourses, on Daniel, or on Revelation—is to strengthen community and inspire that testimony.
Throughout the book, John continually shapes the Christian community as a countercultural community. God’s people are called a “kingdom of priests” (1:6; a theme that will recur in 5:10 and 20:6). John draws this imagery from the Exodus story in which God liberated Israel from Egypt to be a “priestly kingdom” (Exodus 19:6), and from Isaiah’s description of God’s people as priests in the return from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 61:6).
In the sixteenth century, reformer Martin Luther drew his doctrine of the priesthood of all the baptized from the proclamation of God’s people as a “kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:6), similar to the “royal priesthood” of 1 Peter 2:5 and 2:9. Luther’s notion that “we are all priests” (Babylonian Captivity of the Churches) became a central tenet for Protestants.
John’s use of language and imagery subverts Roman imperial theology
Note John’s use of peculiar Greek grammar in 1:4. This is probably deliberate, suggests Allen Dwight Callahan. Literally translated, the greeting from God is “from He the Is and He the Was” (incorrectly using a nominative case following the preposition apo). John often defies grammatical rules in ways that would have sounded strange to Greek ears (see also Revelation 1:11, 13, 15; 2:13, 20; 3:12; 4:1; 8:9; 14:7, 19; 19:6, 20). English translations that smooth out his Greek may do John a disservice, since his use of non-standard Greek appears intentional. He may be calling attention to scriptural allusions, or more likely he may be subverting grammar rules of the dominant culture as a form of protest or resistance.2
Revelation’s imagery is evocative, not propositional
Apocalypses persuade not by logical proofs or arguments, but by creating a “world of vision,” as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza argues. Some words that shape that world of vision in this text include:
“Witness” (1:5): Jesus is the faithful “witness,” introducing a term of crucial importance throughout the book. The Greek word “witness” (martys) can also mean “martyr.” John has a high view of the power of the community’s witness to change history—even saying we conquer Satan by our witness, in Revelation 12:11.
“Behold” is one of my favorite words in Revelation, idou in Greek, in Hebrew hinneh, translated in the NRSV as “see” or “look” —directing us to pause to see something important, usually something wonderful. I wish the NRSV had not done away with “behold”.
“Coming” (1:7) is present tense, suggesting a coming already underway. John switches freely among past, present, and future tenses throughout the book in a manner typical of the visionary language of apocalypses.
A traditional view has seen Revelation as primarily referring to Jesus’ supposed future “second coming” (a term never used in Revelation or anywhere in the Bible!). Recent scholars emphasize Jesus’ sacramental coming‒‒as evidenced by numerous “Amens” and other liturgical acclamations, as well as the setting of the book within the Sunday worship service (“on the Lord’s day” 1:10). The antiphonal call-and-response invitations to “come” in Revelation 22:17 may be part of a eucharistic dialogue. In worship, the book sweeps hearers up into a dramatic experience of apocalyptic transformation, leading to a new way of life, bringing the future into the present.
If the focus is on Jesus’ future coming in judgment, Revelation pronounces God’s judgment against the unjust Roman Empire, much more than the end of the world. The world is about to turn!
Alpha and Omega
Only twice does God speak directly in Revelation (1:8, 21:5-7). “I am the Alpha and Omega” uses the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to underscore God’s all-encompassing presence, from A to Z. The Alpha and Omega of Revelation 1:8 have inspired visionary art and music. This is a wonderful image with which to end one lectionary year and start another.
- See my chapter “The World is About to Turn: Preaching Apocalyptic Texts for a Planet in Peril” in Lisa E. Dahill and James B. Martin-Schramm, eds, Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril (Eugene: Cascade, 2016) pp. 140-159.
- Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Language of Apocalypse,” Harvard Theological Review 88 (1995) 453-70.
What kind of king was Jesus?
Some commentators have opined that the writer of John presents Jesus as one who ultimately exercises authority. I have a different view of this passage as I simply see Jesus responding to a person with societal power, from the perspective of the underside of history, which has a very different set of values than that of the dominant society.
Perhaps the view that Jesus is the one who exercises ultimate authority is a view that emanates from this worldly kingdom in which we live, a society in which success is associated with “winning” at all costs. Despite that it is widely embraced, this perspective has proven to fail in every sector of society.
Even when considering “military might,” we can see that despite all the military power held by the U.S., this country has not been able to secure most of its political objectives, as has been demonstrated in the recent example of the withdrawal of armed forces from Afghanistan.
This passage, in which Jesus speaks to power, shows how the powerful do not like it when they do not control the discourse. The powerful elites of Jesus’ day were accustomed to controlling the ideology and the discourse, just as the powerful elites are accustomed to determining/controlling the ideology and the discourse in our day. Does Jesus respond to Pilate with “authority” or does he just respond with honesty based on his experience as a marginalized individual? Why would Pilate ask Jesus a question he already knew the answer to?
Jesus posed the questions: Are you asking me sincerely or are you prejudiced because of what people have told you? Did you already make up your mind? In other words, Jesus called out Pilate for his feigned neutrality in their conversation. Pilate’s question is one that he was asking for others—a question that was full of biases.
A modern-day example would be one where police officers ask a group of young black and brown men on a street corner, “What are you doing?” That question is neither neutral nor innocent. The racist ideas about black and brown people come into play. When Jesus questions Pilate’s motive for asking him if he was king, Pilate said, “I am not a Jew, am I?” This is akin to the police who question young men of color and then defend their questions, saying, “I am not a racist!”
Pilate wants to act as though he is innocent of his prejudiced notions about Jesus, while playing along with the lies and corruption of his constituents. Jesus does not fall for that; he instead unmasks the demonic forces of his society that engage in such egregious abuse of power.
Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world!” Many have interpreted this to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is somewhere in heaven and not relevant to this world. To me, Jesus is saying that the values of his kingdom are different from those of the current system. In other words, Jesus does not have to exercise the type of authority that seeks to be on top, which results in oppression, corruption of the judicial system, and precisely the kind of hypocrisy that Pilate exhibited in the interaction between him and Jesus. Jesus tells him: “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
The values of Jesus’ kingdom are so vastly different from those of this world that often we Christians fail to understand them. The church, which purports to—and should—represent Jesus’ kingdom, is here to serve in humility rather than to seek earthly power. Jesus is the king,1 yet he does not arrive in a chariot, but on a donkey! Jesus is a king who is killed by those with societal power, not a king who is victorious over his enemies by defeating them in war.
However, in allowing himself to be killed and physically defeated for the sake of truth, he engages in the ultimate demonstration of the power of love. This gospel lesson that leads us toward the cross should remind us that, in the words of Jürgen Moltmann, our Christian faith has a God that was crucified.2
Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves and our congregations that we serve a king like no other—a king who is not seeking power and glory, but humble service to others. Consequently, we who identify as the Church should seek to engage in humble service to others. Everyone interested in seeking the truth will embrace the values of this other kingdom, which contrasts sharply with a society that attempts to win at all costs. Those who seek power and prestige at the expense of others will reject the true kingdom represented by Jesus.
Christ the King Sunday offers an opportunity for the church to assess its values and evaluate how it operates in our society. This can lead to a clarification of mission and point us in the direction Jesus intends for us, so that we may truly be the real church that our world so desperately needs.