November 20th, 2016: Christ the King, Year C. 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Luke 23:35-43.
AIM: To show the function & limits of state power, and the nature of Christ=s kingship.
Is the government our friend, or our enemy? During political campaigns there are plenty of people telling us the government is our enemy. We need to Aget the government off our backs,@ these people contend, to stop looking for handouts from Big Daddy, and take responsibility for our own lives. There is much to be said for this view.
Clearly, however, we cannot do without government entirely. Where would we be, for instance, without a police force or Fire Department? In a world filled with terrorism, how could we protect ourselves without a strong military? And though politicians may argue about particular aspects of Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid for the poor, these programs have accomplished much good. The jury is still out about whether that is also true of Obamacare. So if we ask if the government is our friend or our enemy, we=ll have to say: sometimes it=s one, sometimes the other.
The biblical writers were similarly divided about the nature of government. For them the government was usually a king. Sometimes they viewed the king as a friend, sometimes as an enemy.
The author of our first reading clearly saw the king as a friend. The reading portrays God=s people accepting King David as their ruler because he is one of them: AHere we are,@ they say, Ayour bone and your flesh.@ David was anointed king not to lord it over people, but to serve them. That is clear from God=s command to David in that first reading to Ashepherd my people
.@ David was to sacrifice his own
comfort, to guide the flock over difficult ground, to protect the people from
In the generation before David, however, when the monarchy was instituted, the prophet Samuel had warned the people that the king they demanded would be not a friend but an enemy. He would compel people to serve him as soldiers and laborers, enslaving them and imposing heavy taxes on them. AWhen this takes place,@ Samuel warned, Ayou will complain against the king whom you have chosen, but on that day the Lord will not answer you@ (1 Sam. 8:18). >Be careful what you pray for,= Samuel was saying. >You may get it.=
The New Testament is also ambivalent about whether the government is the friend or enemy of God=s people. Paul says that even pagan rulers who are hostile to Christians are to be obeyed, Afor there is no authority except from God, and all authority that exists is established by God@ (Rom. 13:1). Christians, he says, must Abe loyally subject to the government and its officials@ (Titus 3:1) and pray for Akings and those in authority, that we may be able to lead undisturbed and tranquil lives in perfect piety and dignity@ (1 Tim. 2:1f). The first letter of Peter says that Christians must respect even the Roman emperor (1 Peter 2:17). The book of Revelation, on the other hand, reflecting the persecution of Christians that was raging when the book was written, depicts the Roman emperor as the great enemy, making war on God=s people (cf. Rev. 13:1-8).
These two attitudes toward governmental authority are both alive and well today. At the coronation of a king or queen in
the sovereign is anointed with oil, like a priest or bishop at ordination, and
clothed with a stole and other priestly vestments. The ruler is consecrated, as
King David was in our first reading, for the service of the people. The framers
of our American Constitution, on the other hand, had experienced the dark side
of monarchy and regarded the king as an enemy. Hence they drew up a system of
checks and balances to curb government power.
How should we regard government? Our attitude must reflect the truth that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have dual citizenship. We are citizens of our country. But we are also citizens of another realm: the invisible and spiritual kingdom of heaven.
As citizens of our country, we work with those of all faiths and none to see that, as far as possible, the government reflects the picture of state authority in our first reading: that it remains close to the people, serving them rather than lording it over them. At the same time we must never forget that government, even in the hands of people of goodwill, can become the enemy of the good and the enemy of God. When that happens we take our stand with Peter, who responded to the unjust commands of authority in his day: ABetter for us to obey God than men!@ (Acts 5:29).
As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we acknowledge the rule of a king who fulfills the ideal picture of kingship in our first reading as no earthly ruler or government ever can. The gospel reading tells us what this perfect king suffered at the hands of the government of his day.
Over the cross where Jesus freely submitted to a cruel and unjust death, the ruler of
in that day, Pontius Pilate, put up
a sign: ATHIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.@ He intended these words as a warning
that anyone who tried to set himself up as a king would end in the same way. >Mess with us,= Pilate was saying, >and here is how you will end.= To us, however, the words Pilate
placed about the cross are an inspiration. They show to what lengths this
king will go to serve and save his people. Palestine
The brief exchange in the gospel reading between Jesus and the criminal hanging next to him shows that even in extreme agony this king welcomes even the smallest sign of repentance. No matter how great our guilt may be, if we turn to Jesus, our crucified Lord, we shall find welcome and forgiveness. In the same chapter of Luke=s gospel from which today=s gospel reading is taken Jesus forgives his persecutors (23:34), the Roman officer in command at Calvary gives glory to God and confesses that the man he has just crucified was innocent (23:47), and the onlookers return home beating their breasts in penitence and grief (23:48). We are citizens of a kingdom whose fundamental law is welcome and forgiveness.
In extending to us, the citizens of his kingdom his welcome and his forgiveness, Jesus our king asks of us only one thing in return: that what we have freely received, we freely share with others.