2 Samuel 23:1-7
In Monty Python’s movie “The Life of Brian,” the main character (Brian) is repeatedly mistaken for Jesus Christ. He gets sick of all the people continuously following him around, insisting that he is the Messiah. Finally, he loses it, takes off his sandal and flings it at the crowd following him, yelling “Piss off!”. The crowd responds by reverently holding up the shoe, shouting “The Shoe! The Shoe!”
As with most satire, there is a grain of truth to be found in there. The life of Christ was somewhat similar to the life of Brian, in that people were continuously trying to make Him into a king, and He was continuously telling them not to. Today is the Feast of Christ the King in the church year, which is a supreme irony, because the Gospel reading for this week shows Jesus proving to Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea) that He was certainly not.
After His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is taken to the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, interrogated, then handed over to Pilate in the governor’s headquarters. Pilate asks him point blank “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). (Pilate was assessing whether he had a simple rabble-rouser on his hands or a genuine threat to Roman rule.) Jesus does not give a straight answer: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (vv.34). Pilate indignantly responds, “‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” (vv.35). Jesus finally denies that He is a king (at least in the temporal sense): “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (vv.36). When Pilate asks one more time if Jesus is a king, He responds, “You say that I am a king. 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” (vv.37) (in other words, you’re saying it, not me).
While it could be argued that Jesus is engaged in a battle of the wits with Pilate, getting the latter to unwittingly call Him a king, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus admonishes the Disciples not to regard themselves as “leaders” either: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 2o:25-28). For Jesus, kingship was an obsession of the pagan Romans and Greeks, not for Him. This is the same Savior that, when the Devil tempted Him with “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt 4:8), He responded with “Away with you, Satan!” (vv.10).
It baffles me how the Church – in spite of Christ’s insistence on His servant status – insists on using royal language to describe Him. Maybe we’re simply incapable of expressing our supreme joy in Jesus any other way. Maybe our language is so steeped in hierarchy and kingship that those are the words that have always historically come out. But a funny thing happens when we insist that Jesus is king and Lord – those of us who claim belief in Him then begin to feel the right to act as His self-appointed Viceroys, Governors and Generals, lording it over others and “correcting” them in His name.
Is that what we really want to Reign of Christ to look like – a holy police state?
Maybe we could try something else. Maybe we could make Jesus our Brother, instead. He did, after all, teach us to say the “Our Father,” implying that we were children of the same God as Him. Whatever name we may call Him, I don’t think that the Jesus who washed His disciples’ feet (John 13) wanted to be a king.