Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord… The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Luke 1:68-79 – The Song of Zechariah: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.
Psalm 46 – God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, we will not fear.
Colossians 1:11-20 – He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. He is the head of the body, the church. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Luke 23:33-43 – The Crucifixion. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
Christ the King
Christ the King is the last holy Sunday in the Western liturgical calendar. It is the newest of Christian festivals. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to counter the rise of secularism and the rise of secular dictatorships in Europe. Pius hoped:
- That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state
- That leaders and nations would give respect to Christ
- That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast
It is also the last Sunday we will spend in the Lukan lectionary this year. As we read this last text from Luke chapter 21 and prepare to embark on a journey through Matthew’s Gospel beginning next week, I find myself profoundly grateful for Luke’s gospel.
Luke lifts up the universality of Jesus’ message to a greater extent than the other three canonical gospels. Jesus’ teaching that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, was of itself nothing new. What was new was Jesus’ wider interpretation of the word “neighbor.” It was commonly understood that your neighbor was your fellow country person. A Moabite or an Ammonite was not strictly understood as neighbor. Pagans were not neighbors. Samaritans were not neighbors. The neighbor laws had to do with how you treated your fellow country person. You do not charge interest to your brother Israelite, but charging interest to Egyptians? That is perfectly appropriate. The debt of love you owed to your neighbors was owed to your fellow Israelites, and so the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” is a fair question and quite to the point. Luke is the only gospel in which Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with the story of the Good Samaritan. After the story, Jesus responds with a question of his own. “Now, you tell me who is neighbor: Who do you think was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Jesus reframes our understanding of neighbor from that of race and religion, to basic human compassion and decency. Even a stranger can be the neighbor. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus moves from a nationalistic obligation to one’s fellow citizens, to a universal obligation to all humanity.
I will miss Luke. Without Luke we would not know the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or Zaccheus, the height-challenged tax collector of Jericho, whose life was changed spiritually and economically through an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.
On this last Sunday of the church year, the lectionary takes us to the place called the Skull, (Κρανίον) possibly named for all the skulls that littered the site from thousands of previous crucifixions. (We don’t know where the place of the skull actually was. Some claim it was named because of this peculiar rock formation, but it was likely in a more open and public place.) I recently learned that many people were killed before they were crucified. While crucifixion was a form of torture, it’s primary purpose was deterrence. The many crosses outside cities along frequently traversed roadways sent a warning: this is what happens to anyone who defies Roman authority.
It doesn’t take much to imagine how humiliating and dehumanizing crucifixion was. To be publicly stripped of your clothes, mocked, then beaten senseless was to be completely dominated by laughing, well fed, well-dressed, well-paid soldiers. For them, this is just another day on the job. You are nothing. You will now be taken to the place of execution. You know this is what is happening, but there is nothing you can do about it. They will crucify you on a cross, making you carry that cross to the place where they will end your life. Once at the place of the skull, the soldiers may execute you in any number of ways or crucify you alive. Apparently this is what they did to Jesus, along with two others.
Matthew and Mark call them thieves/bandits (lestai). Luke calls them criminals (kakourgoi), literally, bad-doers. Lestai were bandits who robbed Romans and wealthy Israelites who had caved in to Roman rule, and even profited from it. Lestai is the word Luke uses for the “robbers” who beat the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan. These were not run-of-the-mill bandits, but organized criminals that were trying to destabilize the collusion between the Roman occupation and the Jewish aristocracy. Their crime was more than theft. It was defiance of the Pax Romana, and therefore sedition.
Jesus’ crime is most likely also sedition. After all, he has heralded the destruction of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem. He has announced the coming of a new kingdom and taught his disciples to pray for it to come. He has ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem with shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” He has caused a riot in the Temple during Passover, chasing out the moneychangers with a whip. He is called the Christ, which means “anointed.” Only kings get anointed. He thinks he is a King. Treason. His crime is nailed above his head on the cross: “King of the Jews.”
One of the lestai/kakourgoi says, “Hey you, Messiah, Christ, Anointed One, yeah you, so if you’re all they say you are then save yourself. And us too!” Isn’t it nice when others are thinking of us? Save myself. Gee, why didn’t I think of that? Hey, thanks for the advice.
The other criminal says, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus extends salvation freely to an unworthy thief, evil-doer, who has not even repented. This is a stunning act of grace.
And just like that we learn that while the kingdom may be breaking into our world, it encompasses more than this world. The line between heaven and earth is blurred. There is more to life than meets the eye. This kingdom that Jesus preached, where even strangers are our neighbors, where we turn the other cheek, where we share the shirt off our back, where we love our enemies, is a universal kingdom. For now we see only in a mirror dimly. The kingdom is eternal. Now is only a small portion of eternity. Trusting in the reign of God, of Christ, is to be in the moment, but also to see beyond this moment. It is to say at the same time, “The kingdom of God is among you,” (Luke 17:21) and “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)