Christ the King – Br. David Vryhof
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Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. The theme is “kingship.”
From the prophecy of Daniel, we read of one “like a human being” who comes with the clouds of heaven and to whom is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”
In the book of Revelation, John speaks of Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega,” and “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
In John, Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews, to which Jesus replies that “[his] kingdom is not from this world.” His followers do not need to defend him against his enemies and betrayers since his kingdom is “not from here.”
So, Jesus is a king, but in no sense that the world understands. What sort of a king is he, and what implications does his kingship have for 21st century Christians who no longer think in terms of kings and kingdoms?
Even if we’ve never seen or met a king, we know that kingship is about power and authority. And we know what power and authority are about:
being in charge,
having things done the way we want them,
calling the shots,
having our own way.
Think of it. What would you do if you could be king for a day? What would you decide? What would you change or influence? Would you eradicate hunger or redecorate the palace? How would you use your power and authority? How might you be tempted to use your power and authority for your own gain?
Jesus is a king, but Jesus’ kingship is not about that kind of power or authority. Jesus is a very different sort of king – a meek king, humble and compassionate.
“Behold, your king is coming to you,” says Matthew, quoting from the words of the prophet, “ meek, and mounted upon an ass…” (Mt. 21:4-5).
“Meek.” What an unusual word to choose to describe a king! So what kind of a king is Jesus, and what is it that characterizes his rule and his kingdom? Let me mention five things about Jesus, the meek king.
1. Jesus the meek king comes to serve.
His rule is not the rule of a tyrant or a despot. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” he tells his disciples. But this is neither his purpose nor his method. He has come “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (cf.Mt 20:25-30).
Temptations to greatness and power have no hold on him. Pride, ambition and self-glorification are not found in him. In the wilderness he repeatedly rejects the tempter’s suggestions that he use his power to satisfy his own needs, to gratify his own ego, to advance his own cause. (Lk 4:1-15) His only thought is to be the servant of all. He has come “as one who serves.”
2. Jesus the meek king is the agent of God’s compassion and love.
He reassures his followers that they are of great value –
like the birds of the air, God will feed them;
like the flowers of the field, God will clothe them. (Mt 6:25-26).
“Even the hairs of your head are all counted,” he assures them, “so do not be afraid.” Remember the sparrows, those tiny creatures over whom God watches and for whom God provides, he tells them. “You are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:30,31).
Jesus the meek king consistently shows compassion for all people. (Mt 9:35,36) He longs to save and rescue them. (Mt 23:37) He sees them as sheep without a shepherd, and promises himself to be a Good Shepherd for them (Jn 10:1-6, 11-16). So full of love and compassion is he that he is willing even to lay down his life for their sakes.
3. Jesus the meek king eschews anger, violence and retaliation.
He teaches his disciples to turn away from anger because anger leads to violence and murder. He advocates instead the path of forgiveness and reconciliation (Mt 5:22-24). He refuses to return evil for evil or to meet aggression with aggression. He instructs his followers not to resist an evil person, to turn the other cheek, to walk an extra mile, to offer their cloaks to those who sue them. Give to everyone who begs or who wants to borrow from you, he tells them.
Jesus the meek king teaches and practices non-retaliation – not a passive acceptance of evil, but the resistance and overcoming of evil through non-violent means. When affronted Jesus refuses to retaliate. When the Pharisees try to entrap him, he quietly sidesteps their traps and goes his way. When his enemies arrest him, he tells his disciple to put away his sword. He will not appeal to the Father to summon legions of angels to rescue him. He stands silently before his accusers. He leaves judgment and revenge to God. And by so doing, he breaks the cycle in which hatred spawns more hatred, and violence begets more violence. Jesus the meek king exemplifies self-conscious and deliberate non-retaliation.
4. Jesus the meek king teaches his followers to humble themselves, to become like little children, in order to enter the kingdom of God.
“Let the little children come to me,” he says, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Lk 18:15-16). In fact, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mt 18:1-5). Humble yourselves, he says, for dying and rising are the way to eternal life.
What a sharp contrast to the tyranny of Herod the King, who in fear and terror over the prospect of losing his power and authority engages in an act of unwarranted violence, putting to death the babies of Bethlehem. Herod grasps for power, clings to it, employs violence to maintain it. Jesus the meek king exercises a disciplined calmness in the face of evil threats. His rule is characterized by compassion, not tyrrany. And he expects his disciples to follow in his way; refusing to return evil for evil, putting their whole trust in God.
5. Jesus the meek king creates a community of love, of meekness and humility, of patience and long-suffering, of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The common life of those who followed him was to be marked by gentle qualities such as kindness, goodness, humility and love. Theirs is to be a community of justice, holiness and blessing. They are to forbear and to forgive one another, as they have been forgiven.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” this king tells his followers, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29)
Jesus is the meek king, gentle and humble in heart, a visible sign for us of God’s compassion and love. He comes not to rule as a tyrant over us, but as a servant, seeking to lay down his life for us. He is not a hard task master, but one whose “yoke is easy” and whose “burden is light.” He is meek and humble in heart. “Learn from me,” he says, “and you will find rest for your souls.”
Jesus our King, may your gentle and compassionate rule protect and govern us. May your meekness be ours as well. May we resist evil and serve the cause of justice, not in retaliation for wrongs done to us, but with hearts full of compassion and genuine love. Teach us to serve as you served, to forgive as you forgave, to live with one another as you lived with us. May your ways be our ways too, and may we learn to be meek and lowly in heart, as you are. Come and reign over us with compassion and love. May your kingdom come on earth, as it already exists in heaven. Amen.
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Thank you for this reflection. I find it interesting that one instinctively recognizes that true power is not force. A self-possessed person, for example, is experienced as having a special kind of power absent in a combative person–even if the combative person gets his/her way. There is a striking parallel in the Tao Te Ching: the Way of Heaven is likened to water–not a cataract, but a stream.
The other day, discussing the new, nonsexist title for this feast in the RCL, my husband and I commented that replacing “Christ the King” with “The Reign of Christ” somewhat dampens the ironic force. (On the other hand, most of us, certainly in the West, have not experienced such a ruler–and if so, not with the title “king.”)
The terms meek and humble are seen as weakness in the US. The Swedish word for humility ödmjukhet literally means to be “fate-softness”, which demands a very active participation. I believe that we can find greater strength by finding rest in my soul, but I also believe that anger can serve a purpose, like little children often are masters of. The image of Jesus turning over the money changers tables also shows a more nuanced view of meekness and humility I would appreciate if you could further explore.
Anders, thank you for that nuanced concept of fate softness!
Leadership in so many different ways has to embody these goals. Thanks for the reminders, given in the spirit of the qualities called for, ‘opus operandum.’
Br. David, it is wonderful to read your comments from time to time. You were a great inspiration to me at GTS and I think of you often.