A Different Kind of King
Solemnity of Christ the King
Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine
they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The most self-contradicting element in the crucifixion is the inscription that reads “This is the King of the Jews”. Wishing to shame the Jews, Pilate had it installed on the cross. Unknown to him he is prophesying on behalf of the one who is hanging on it.
The human understanding of kingship, of authority, and of power naturally revolves around the concept of being able to exert influence and to compel others to follow our will. Sometimes we honor our leaders, our kings, not because we truly honor the way they are but we do it out of fear. We always have the tendency to submit to someone who is more powerful than us.
The word “Jews” have been used in the Gospels in two ways: one, pejoratively, when it refers to that band of men who oppose the teachings of Jesus; and two, generally, when it refers to the ethnic group to which Jesus belongs and to whom He addressed the Gospel first. The Jewish people pride themselves of being descendants of Abraham and the patriarchs, of having been set apart by God as His “chosen people” before the world. Circumcision and the Law are the binding elements of Jewishness.
To put that label on the cross, for Pontius Pilate, was to mock the Jewish leaders. For him, here is a man who they say claimed to be king. Now, that king has just been meted out with capital punishment by the superior power of Rome. The Jews are not special. They are a people subjugated by the Roman empire.
Yet that is how Jesus Christ overturned human ways of thinking. He was there hanging seemingly powerless. The soldiers jeer at him and test him. The two thieves find a misguided consolation that they did not go punished alone. Someone, worse than them, someone who claimed to be Messiah, was also there dying with them. At least all they did was steal. This one claimed to be from God.
Loud as they were, the silence of Jesus was deafening. And the other thief noticed this calm submission was in fact a display of power – a different kind of power. Here before them is indeed a king, but a different kind of king. He is the King who wields not human power but godly power.
Obedience is the key to understanding the power to Jesus displayed on the cross. Through His obedience to the Father, that He must suffer and die, He willingly submitted Himself to the Cross. True, it would have been easy for Him to move heaven and earth to save Himself from death. But He forego of control in order to submit to the Father out of love. This is the true form of divine power, something that we too often do not understand considering our natural tendency to want control.
The second thief in Luke noticed this and he began to understand who Jesus really is. Jesus obedience must have been very perfect that the thief instinctively understood that Jesus did nothing to deserve such punishment. He did not see a make-believe king. He saw Jesus’ humility. He perhaps saw in Jesus the Lamb silent as it is being slaughtered. He saw beyond the politics of Pilate. He saw beyond the narrowness of mind of the Jews. He saw the True King in Jesus.
In that moment of recognition Jesus did something that transcends His vulnerability on the cross. Jesus commanded. In that position of vulnerability and weakness, the True King pronounces a decree. He is not seated on a golden throne, he was hanging on the cross. But even in that dark hour, Jesus gave out a decree of mercy: “Amen. I say to you, you will be with me in paradise.” In an atmosphere of blood and sadism, Jesus still was able to show mercy.
That is the King who we honor today.