Behold, The King of the Jews
LUKE 23: 33-43
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is ‘Christ the King’ Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year—the Sunday we celebrate the culmination of Jesus’ life as the eternal King of Kings. It certainly seems to be the wrong Sunday to be reading about the crucifixion. But Jesus died with the inscription, “Behold, the king of the Jews” posted above his head. The inscription, of course, was meant to ridicule but we celebrate its truth. It was meant to demonstrate the raw Roman power over anyone who would dare challenge their authority. But what they meant for evil, God used for good. Jesus died to say NO to the powers of this world and Jesus died to say YES to a kingdom humans could not imagine. The inversion of images and values is almost too much to comprehend. It is incongruous to think of any king on a cross—much less the eternal king. But Jesus is what happens when God interrupts what we think the world should be.
One of the most human reactions when we feel threatened is to defend ourselves. It can be as simple as asking “How can you possibly think that of me?” or it can be as large as nations protecting borders. We want to preserve our personal and national safety. Kings and the power they represent are supposed to help. But a minimum amount of reflection exposes the limitations of earthly power. Unfortunately, relationships based upon stratification of power and authority are not sustainable. They are very enticing and in some cases seemingly efficient but, in the end, ranking people, assigning a value to them and justifying authority over them will fail. Such authority inevitably results in divisions not cohesion.
Worldly authority is self perpetuating. We start thinking we ‘deserve’ to be listened to because we’re the parent, the boss, the right color or the right political party. Such assumptions (often unconscious) lead to entitlement, a general failure to listen and finally become disregard. We are far more likely to use authority to dominate than to inquire. It may take several hundred years, but almost inevitably, underdogs will defeat the so-called ‘top dogs’. Unfortunately, even though this is a fairly predictable process, the process is far more likely to be repeated than to be changed. Individuals and peoples who have been on the short end of the stick are just as likely to use the methods they protested to keep the power they finally gain.
This is a long way to say that the way of the world is broken and does not work. Our way leads to competition, conflict, entitlement and discrimination. Left to our own devices we continue to seek a king who will protect us and we perpetuate brokenness.
On the cross, Jesus said ’NO’ to that way of living and offers us salvation from our destructive human ways. The beginning of his saving act was to call us away from the kingdoms of this world—which will all fall—and to the kingdom of God which is eternal. Throughout Luke, we have the steady message that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus ignores the hierarchies of this world. He sees and cares for the world’s discards. He challenges the assumptions regarding purity and righteousness. He upsets anyone in positional authority and he offers grace to those who have been discarded and dismissed by such worldly distinctions.
But then Jesus goes a step further. In our world, power seemingly offers the path to self preservation and safety. Jesus turns such definitions of safety on their head. He lives and dies in a way that transforms what it means to be a king. Instead of power and control over others as a sign of leadership and kingship, Jesus offers the willingness to be helpless—the willingness to be subject to the very powers he challenged. His kingship points us toward vulnerability and helplessness instead of power and control.
And he does so without rose-colored glasses or fairy-tale endings. His is a risky way to live. Choosing to affirm helplessness instead of trying to overcome it, is the way to the eternal, but there is a very good chance you will be hurt. And he was. It is shocking to realize that there is nothing about the salvation Jesus offers that correlates with human safety or well-being. The leaders, the soldier and even the criminal mock Jesus because of the worldly assumption that salvation meant increased physical well-being. For them, salvation meant relief from suffering. It certainly could not mean actively engaging such pain. Such a thought was ridiculous. But this is the core of the Good News.
We are all vulnerable creatures and we are loved as broken vulnerable people. Trying to make ourselves more worthy, or more powerful can only fail. Trusting God means embracing who we are as God’s children. This is “the way, the truth and the life”. We may resist this truth. We may not even be able to follow through on what Jesus teaches—but when we worship Jesus on the cross, we literally worship vulnerability. We trust that we can be safe with God as vulnerable and helpless creatures and we affirm that vulnerability is the way of love. (In real life, we admire competent people but we are close to vulnerable ones).
None of us like the reality of our dependency and our limitations. We feel badly about needing—about inconveniencing others but we cannot love or be loved without inconvenience. In real life, we are usually much more willing to offer care than to receive it. No one wants to realize that if we live long enough, we will need others to help us with the most basic life functions.
In even more ordinary ways, most of our attempts to ‘fix’ problems, control outcomes, or give advice (even if well intended) serve as ways to avoid the limitations of life. More times than we want to acknowledge, our knowledge is insufficient. Knowing what is best or right does not mean we can actually do it. We can see trouble coming, we can know the ‘right’ but we keep driving toward the brick wall. And sometimes life’s predicaments are simply insoluble. Unless we are willing to face what we cannot do, we cannot be present—to ourselves or to each other. “Just listening” is a phrase I hate because it is one of the very hardest things to learn in relationships.
We act as if self-sufficiency is the ideal but what we really communicate is that it is not ok to be dependent—which is another way to say it is not ok to be human. Our attempts to say, ‘I’m good, I can handle this’ are often overdone and have the unintended consequence of telling others they don’t really have anything to offer us. We don’t need them. Relying on other people is dicey. They may well be unreliable, unavailable and may judge us as being ‘too needy. But needing is an undeniable and inescapable part of our creation—to think otherwise is to condemn ourselves and others.
Jesus chose vulnerability. When Jesus chose helplessness and death, he affirmed every part of our creation. We cannot be human without knowing such helplessness. Such knowledge is painful but it is not bad. Jesus knew vulnerability was dangerous but he chose love over the powers of this world. All else will pass away.
Jesus said No to earthly powers and showed us the way to love and to life. Long live the King!
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.