This is the last Sunday in the Western Church year — the celebration of “The Reign of Christ” or, as we used to call it, “Christ the King.” Thus ends our hopscotch sojourn through Luke. It’s been fun. I’ll be back with Monday Meditations Mostly on Matthew in the wink of an eye.
At first glance (and maybe second as well) the Revised Common Lectionary’s choice of Gospel text may seem surprising: On “Christ the King” we have Luke 23:33-43. It looks like Jesus’ most singularly non-royal moment: Christ is on the cross, only three verses before his death.
He has been stripped by his executioners and they are gambling over his clothes as he watches from above. He gets mocked and ridiculed by each group in turn: leaders (v. 35), soldiers (v. 36-37), and even one of the criminals crucified beside him (v. 39).
Did the committee behind the lectionary make a grand mistake? Or did they have a particular insight?
To me this scene in Luke’s Gospel has the kind of drama you experience if you go to the opera. I’ve been to quite a number of them, though I’m not a big fan. The cast is often placed around the stage in a kind of tableaux, all to frame the singing of solo and group pieces, which are stitched together into a semblance of dialogue.
Walk. Pose. Sing. Gesture. Sing.
But nothing against opera. I bring up the topic because it gives me a way to envision the scene.
- Upstage center, Christ on the Cross.
- On either side, convicted criminals on their own crosses — surely a bit lower than that of Jesus.
- There are little groups of leaders and soldiers artfully placed.
- We, the audience sitting in the house, are the crowd standing by, watching the action. We know that this is a big event. Jesus has made lots of waves. Now he’s vulnerable.
Luke stages it all carefully.
One by one, the singers step downstage toward the audience to sing their arias. They glance back at Jesus but they are really playing to the crowd.
He identifies each singer:
- A criminal.
He names each one’s attitude:
He quotes their words:
The scoffing leaders say,
He saved others;
let him save himself
if he is the Messiah of God,
his chosen one!” (Luke 23:35 NRSV)
Then come the mocking soldiers:
If you are the King of the Jews,
save yourself!” (Luke 23:37 NRSV)
Finally from his cross, the deriding criminal:
Are you not the Messiah?
and us!” (Luke 23:39 NRSV)
The speeches are sarcastic. Thought they say “king” and “messiah”, the words declare the opposite: this man on the cross is, for all eyes to see, powerless, condemned, doomed.
But then, as we sit in our comfortable seats in the opera house, between the solos we notice an element of the set we had previously missed — the sign.
It was right there all the time, on the top of Jesus’ cross. Each time a singer looked back to him, our eyes were directed right toward it:
There was also an inscription over him,
‘This is the King of the Jews.’” (Luke 23:38 NRSV)
You know how people are always looking for a sign? This is it.
That proclamation of the reign of Christ is firm and fixed, a declaration without an insinuation. It was put there by the waffling Pontius Pilate, who earlier in the chapter declared Jesus innocent but lacked the courage to deny the crowd the blood they begged for.
(That was us. Don’t forget that we are the crowd in this production.)
Once we see it, we read the whole scene through that sign. That’s why this is our text for Christ the King. The whole text tells us that he really is — no matter how many mockers say otherwise.
Because it is really a text rather than an opera, we can stop and ponder the scene. We do best to sort of read it backwards.
Start with the final moment, where the penitent thief chastises the critic hanging on the other side of Jesus, and begs, prays really, for Jesus to accept him
…when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42 NRSV)
Note whose eyes are opened: it’s the one who admits his guilt who sees that the one on the center cross really is the king.
And note that Jesus doesn’t quibble for an instant.
Truly I tell you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NRSV)
That’s the statement of a king who knows he’s about to be back on his throne. He’s confident without a moment of bragging. He’s generous — he knows it is fully within his power to reward this man’s kindness.
So by the end we know that Jesus is truly kingly — despite the cross and the mockery.
And perhaps we begin to wonder if his true kingly character is shown even in and because of his willingness to endure these things.
Then we look back a few verses and we see that sign. Pilate knew and declared Jesus to be king before Jesus was nailed to that cross. We should have noticed it too.
Then we go back all the way to the start, when the nails had just pierced Jesus’ hands and feet. What did he say when they lifted him up to die?
Father, forgive them;
for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NRSV)
The opera might have left us thinking only the truly penitent one can receive Jesus promise of grace. By reading backwards, knowing from the end that he is truly the gracious king, we can finally see the good news that was there from the beginning: Our king, whom we as the crowd demanded to be executed, forgives even us.
We had no idea at the time. We were being jerks. We went along with the others. We were blinded — maybe willfully so. But our king is so very full of grace, so very generous, that even in his darkest hour he welcomes us, even us, into his kingdom.
My online course for Advent, exploring the ancient prayerful approach to Scripture called lectio divina is now open for registration! Click here for full info or to sign up.