Christ the King (Year B)

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

Christ the King of Kings
Christ the King of Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

November 22, 2015

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7

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.