Long live the king.
"HOMEWORK IS like a dungeon, dark and deep." This observation from my 5-year-old niece, accompanied by an oceanic sigh, would have provoked laughter if she were not so prematurely grave.
In kindergarten she has already learned the oppressive role authority can play in her life. The freedom of childish ways is behind her. The luxury of unstructured living is gone. From now on, she has responsibilities dictated by higher powers that control and curtail her desire to play and just be.
Don't we all just hate that? Not only for the 5-year-olds, but also for the 5-year-old inside each of us, the lithe spirit that wants to run and jump and dance and have fun without restraint. That spirit doesn't want to hear, "You're too old. You can't do that here. Your body can't take it anymore. You have to produce something practical with your time. People are depending on you. You have to make money. You mustn't be ridiculous."
Where do all those voices come from that stifle our play and restrain our sense of being? Collectively speaking, we can call it the Voice of Authority, which is a pretty dirty word in bumper sticker creeds that flash our defiance everywhere: Question Authority. Challenge Authority. Be Your Own Authority!
Small wonder that one of the first words in every child's vocabulary is no. It hurts like heck to be controlled at age 2, and it doesn't get any better after that.
And controlled we will be, by the countless voices of authority in a long parade over a lifetime. First and foremost is the voice of our parents, which won't cease to speak to us until the day we die, whether they themselves are living or deceased. The authority of teachers both formal and informal also will Continue to speak, and the power of their lessons remains in us.
Add to that the voices of religious leaders, local and global, gracious or scarring. The authority of each and every boss who bosses us, until we ourselves get to the top of the heap, weighs in on us. The expectations of others, relatives and friends, spouses and children, hold sway over us. "What others may think"--often called image management by psychologists-exercises great power in many lives. Cultural norms, civil laws, the shared history of a people, and most of all our personal histories wield remarkable authority over us. The past may be the mightiest authority of all, the one that we fork over our fortunes for therapists to break.
No wonder, when we consider the mountains of outward authorities through which we trudge in a lifetime, that few Catholics are wont to throw enthusiastic parties on the feast of Christ the King. God is the mother-of-all-authorities over us--or Almighty God and Father, as He is most popularly known. The feast of Christ the King sounds triumphalistic and archaic at once, a monarchical feast hard to embrace in a country that made history by denying the authority of its king. We're more likely to throw a Boston-style tea party in the name of revolution than in honor of the throne.
SO HOW DO WE GET A HANDLE ON CHRIST THE KING? SHORT hand for the feast is the popular cry of the charismatic renewal movement and Philippians 2, "Jesus Christ is Lord!" For those squeamish about such things, we can begin at a more sedate pace with the issue of sovereignty.
Judeo-Christian Theology 101 teaches that God is sovereign: It's God's world, and God's in charge. Even sandbox theology gets this one right: Ask a child who made the world and who's in charge, and he or she will patiently explain how God made the sun, moon, stars, animals, trees, dinosaurs, and us, and how God keeps it all spinning in place somehow. God's sovereignty is basic to theological understanding. What makes God God is the divine authority over all that is. Divine authority, in fact, is the very definition of divinity.
In the same way, basic to Christian theology is the sovereignty of Jesus. Jesus Christ is Lord, Paul put it simply and emphatically. God has delivered over "the kingdom," the metaphor of divine authority, to Jesus. At the end of the ages, all of creation, and heaven too, gets rolled up like a carpet and laid at the feet of Jesus. Because Jesus participates in the very life of God--he's kin to sovereignty, God's own son--what belongs to God belongs to Jesus. The kingdom of God is ruled by Christ the King. Or, if you prefer, all authority is given to Jesus, who will be "all in all" when heaven and earth pass away. And they are, by the way, passing by, even as we speak.
Theology, too, can be a dungeon dark and deep, so we move to something more user-friendly, like story. The showdown between Pilate and Jesus is a classic tug-of-war about authority. Who's in charge? At first glance, one is tempted to say Pilate. As governor of Judea, he has the power to give life or destroy it, to grant pardon or to condemn to death. He represents Rome, the mother-of-all-earthly-authorities at that time. Pilate is holding all the cards in view. Jesus the prisoner, before a foreign court, doesn't have a prayer. Even his own feeble leadership does not represent him but is the very force that seeks his destruction.
Pilate asks Jesus to respond to the charge against him that intrigues the governor the most: "Are you the king of the Jews?" After all, there is no king but Caesar in all the lands controlled by Rome. Of course there are the puppets--like Herod, impotent in the eyes of Jews and Romans alike. But a new, self-proclaimed authority is always a curiosity. If a madman and harmless, he amuses for an hour. If he is sane, and dangerous, naturally something must be done.
Pilate has no respect for the Jewish people. It is evident in the way he distances himself from the suggestion of collusion with the high priests: "I'm no Jew, am I?" The idea of the Jewish community producing any leadership with backbone, much less a royal figure, is entertaining to him. Herod is a jellyfish. The temple crowd seems willing to devour its own to save itself. Pilate finds the citizens of Jerusalem distasteful.
BUT JESUS IS DIFFERENT. HE SHOWS NO FEAR. HE WON'T play the game of subservience required for survival. Jesus doesn't answer any of the questions Pilate puts to him, as if he doesn't acknowledge the governor's right to this interrogation. The scene is cool and icy, each man trying to stare the other down. What amazes Pilate as the minutes creep by is that this man is no jellyfish. He may be the king of nothing, but he has remarkable dignity for someone this close to extinction.
"What have you done?" Pilate asks at last. For some reason, his mouth is going dry. If this man is not claiming sovereignty, what exactly does he claim that makes him so hated?
And now Jesus is talking about a kingdom, "his" kingdom, which is not here. Not in the world--or of the world? Pilate is not a metaphysical sort. He's never gone for the mental gymnastics of the philosophers. He finds it all tiresome, like the ramblings of the religionists, always talking about some god or other. Like the Jews, always claiming that their god is bigger than others. Pilate is a practical man. He cares about the business at hand, the power of Rome, and whether or not this man is setting himself above it.
"Then you are a king?" A straight question, deserving of a simple answer. Yes or no. Either one is or is not a king. Unless the man is mad, surely he can see that the matter hinges on this. And now Jesus is talking about the truth. By all the gods--Pilate fumes indignantly--he's worse than mad, he's Greek! What kind of Jew, what kind of man, what kind of king is this? And what does something as meaningless and insubstantial as truth have to do with power?
The irony is, of course, that truth is the authority that Jesus wields. Jesus is the truth of God; that is his claim. And it's not his love, nor his compassion, that has led the temple authorities to drag him before the pagan courts. It's his claim to the truth that counters the teaching of the temple. Those who belong to the truth listen to Jesus. That's what he dared to say. The religious leaders refused to listen. Pilate isn't listening. Are we?
If we accept Jesus as the source of truth, then whatever is contrary to the voice of Jesus is a lie. If Jesus is our Lord, then no other power can be stronger in our lives than his. If Jesus is our sovereign king, then he alone is the authority we obey. This is mighty serious stuff. Declaring allegiance always is.
If the voice of our past tells us that things are hopeless, we have to turn from that lie and embrace the hope of Christ. If our parents told us we'll never amount to much, we have to denounce that authority and accept our value as the beloved of God. If our families, friends, or coworkers tell us we are not free to change and grow, we have to shake loose from that bondage and celebrate the freedom of the children of the light. If any person, circumstance, or power draws us into servitude of a world that will only rust and decay, we must listen to the voice of life and leave the dead to bury their dead.
If Christ is our king, the stakes are high. The usual controlling bodies--media, public opinion, the quest for security, the lifestyle of acquisitions--have no sovereignty for us. The authority of Christ is not just another voice; it is the only voice to which we need respond. And Christianity is not just more "homework," a dungeon-like oppression to suffer; it is the only authority that liberates those who subject themselves to it.
Not to embrace Christ the King is to continue to bow before the countless sovereigns of the world and to light sacrifices at too many altars. Not to listen to Christ is to face the schizophrenia of voices beckoning, demanding, cajoling our obedience, all the while spinning their web of half-truths.
The voice of true authority does not crush us. It lifts us up into the delight of being the person we are in our sweetest dreams.
By ALICE CAMILLE, writer and adjunct faculty member at the Franciscan School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of Seven Last Words (ACTA, 1999) and a collaborator on the homily series "This Sunday's Scripture," available through Twenty-Third Publications.
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|Title Annotation:||Jesus Christs as ruler|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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