November 24, 2019
CHRIST THE KING / LECTIONARY 34
A Ruler’s Power
Rulers are defined by their power over others. They can levy taxes, conscript youth into armies, open or close borders, and enforce policies that direct the daily lives of the people in their realm. When Pilate interviews Jesus, he says to him, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10). It is something a ruler would say. In the outpost of the Roman Empire that is Judea, Caesar’s power resides with Pilate.
As he is crucified, Jesus wields two powers that belong to kings. First, he offers pardon. He prays for the forgiveness of those responsible for his death. As God answers his prayer, those who have meant Jesus harm are absolved. It is just as if a judge, a president, or a monarch had pardoned them. They walk free.
Jesus also exercises the noble power of welcome. Who may come into a country? Rulers of each country decide the answer to this question. In our day, they enact their decisions with paperwork: passports, visas, and the like. Jesus exercises the power to welcome another into the rule of God. He spent his ministry welcoming people into that reign as he shared with them healing, forgiveness, food, and love. On the cross, he welcomes someone else. For the thief who asks, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), Jesus authorizes a visa into paradise.
Christ the King’s pardon is for us. We begin our worship acknowledging our sin and hearing the news that God has forgiven us. The Ruler’s welcome is ours as well. We come to the table, received by Christ himself. Today we join him, the thief on the cross, and all the saints in a foretaste of the paradise to come. The Spirit sends us into the week ahead renewed in the knowledge that we are citizens of the reign of God and that our true Ruler is the one who welcomes and pardons: the crucified and risen Christ.
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The Readings in the Bible
Luke’s Passion narrative, as is characteristic of his entire gospel, stresses the forgiveness of sins that Christ the Savior offers to all people. In this excerpt two solely Lucan details serve this theme. First is Jesus’ prayer for his executioners (v. 34), who although Roman soldiers, are doing their unjust work in ignorance. Jesus’ prayer is the model for Stephen’s prayer, also recorded by Luke (Acts 7:60). This prayer appears in parentheses in the NRSV since it is omitted from some early manuscripts. A second Lucan episode is the story of the thief on the cross seeking the mercy of God. The word paradise comes from a Persian term for a walled garden and occurs only two other times in the New Testament. The dividing of his Jesus’ garments echoes Psalm 22:19 and illustrates how important that psalm was in the Christian narrative of the crucifixion, at which few or none of Jesus’ disciples were present. Jesus’ ostensible crime worthy of Roman execution was sedition: thus the title “king of the Jews.”
The prophet Jeremiah (626–586 bce) is responsible for chapters 1–25 of the book bearing his name. Throughout his lifetime, much of the Middle East was at war, and Jeremiah proclaimed that the plight of Israel and of Judah was God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness. This excerpt, like other ancient Near Eastern texts, likens rulers to shepherds, the metaphor suggesting that kings nourish and protect their people. Such rulers were also likened to the tree of life, as if the king was the center and source of life for the nation. Here, as if God is speaking, Jeremiah promises a future righteous king, a tree growing through David’s line who ensures the righteousness of God for the people.
Because the rhetoric and theology of Colossians differ substantially from that of the uncontested Pauline letters, most scholars judge that this letter was written in about 75 ce by a disciple of Paul. Colossae was a city 100 miles west of Ephesus, in contemporary western Turkey. This excerpt is a magnificent creedal passage, and its description of Christ is as high a Christology as possible without explicitly identifying Christ as God. Verses 15-20 may reproduce or edit an early Christian hymn.