The one who rules humbly serves

  • November 19, 2007
Christ the King (Year C) Nov. 25 (2 Samuel 5:1-3; Psalm 122; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43)

Words can communicate with precision and unite people. But they are sometimes divisive, as when groups of people use the same word but have profoundly different understandings of its meaning. Throughout the Bible, “power” and “king” are two such terms.

In the passage from Samuel, the people of Israel recognize David as king and they ask him to shepherd the nation. But Samuel also tells an interesting story. Saul was the first king — and not a good one — and was anointed when the people approached Samuel and asked that a king be designated for them like the other nations. The request was not received kindly by either Samuel or God, for they both saw it as a lack of faith and trust in God. The original intention was that the people be governed by God through anointed prophets and judges. The prophet outlined what having a king would mean: taxes, wars, oppression and power struggles. But they were unconvinced and they got their king. They were willing to hand over both their own sovereignty and that of God to an individual.

Everything that the prophet described came to pass. Centuries of civil war, corruption and oppression followed. Even the reign of the great King David was not unstained by corruption and murder. Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely is verified by history.

This misunderstanding concerning power and dominion is evident in the crucifixion scene in Luke’s Gospel. Seeing the accusation of kingship affixed to the cross above Jesus, bystanders begin to taunt Him to use His powers. After all, they suppose, power is to be used for one’s protection and benefit and to punish one’s enemies. But throughout the Gospels, Jesus has given a very different spin to power, kingship and messiah.

The suffering and death of the Messiah was in accordance with His divine mission. This was a shock and scandal to the very first Christians. The one who rules — the “greatest” — is the one who humbly serves others. And the only legitimate power is that which comes from above, usually in the form of the spirit. For Jesus to suddenly use His power to come down from the cross would negate everything He stood for. The contrast between the two power models is made even more graphic through Luke’s dialogue between Jesus and the two bandits. They represent another model of power.

The term “bandit” was applied by the authorities to those whom they would designate insurrectionists or terrorists, and in fact crucifixion was a political punishment rather than the penalty for being a pickpocket. Violence and confrontation is their mode of operation, while force and domination is that of the Romans who are crucifying them. One of the bandits “gets it” — he understands what Jesus is about and the nature of his kingship. He makes no excuses, begging merely to be remembered in that kingdom.  

That kingdom is not a place, but a sphere of power and a way of living. Colossians recognizes Jesus as the ruling principal of the world. He binds everything together in His own person, and has superiority even over death itself. Our inheritance as believers is to be transferred from the power of darkness to the kingdom of light that is the kingdom of Christ. To live in that kingdom even while we are on Earth is to walk by different lights and principles. We cannot have it both ways: we cannot belong to the kingdom of light while buying into earthly power principles such as force, manipulation, inequality and domination.

The model of power and dominion to which Jesus bears witness is very subversive of the status quo. To call Jesus a king  is to undermine all earthly power structures, for His dominion is that of love, mutuality and interdependence. So often that is not recognized or applied for the simple reason that it is either not understood or understood all too well and feared. In fact, often Christian symbols have been invoked to support unjust social, political and economic structures. To belong to the Kingdom of Christ is to identify and empathize with the poor, oppressed and suffering everywhere and to do whatever is in one’s power to ease their burdens and create a just and peaceful world.