The liturgical Year C comes to its climax and its close—like every other liturgical year—with the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. This Solemnity is commonly called the feast of Christ the King. It’s the last Sunday…technically, it’s in Ordinary Time...it’s at the end of Ordinary Time. It’s the last Sunday before we begin a new liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent. And so the Church, what she does is, as She’s moved throughout the Gospel—in this year, the Gospel of Luke, looking at the public ministry of Jesus Christ—She brings that journey with Christ to its end by looking (in a sense) upward and forward to His eternal reign as King of the Universe. And so before I look at the Gospel today, what I’d like to do is just give you a little bit of background real quick about this particular Solemnity.
It’s one of those Solemnities that I think we’re all familiar with, right? The feast of Christ the King...but we might not necessarily know the origins of it. And this feast is interesting because it was instituted in the 20th century. It’s a relatively recent Solemnity. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. And in his encyclical on the feast of Christ the King, this is what he says about the feast day. So just listen for a moment, and I want you to hear these words as the context for the readings we’re going to look at today. The pope said this, Pope Pius XI in 1925:
In the first Encyclical Letter which We addressed at the beginning of Our Pontificate to the Bishops of the universal Church, We referred to the chief causes of the difficulties under which mankind was laboring. And We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations. Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ; and that We promised to do as far as lay in Our power. In the Kingdom of Christ, that is, it seemed to Us that peace could not be more effectually restored nor fixed upon a firmer basis than through the restoration of the Empire of Our Lord.
Alright, so that’s how Pius XI begins his encyclical instituting the feast of Christ the King. Now this encyclical was released in 1925, so think about what the world stage looked like in the early 1920s. You have just come out of the first great World War, this massive conflict of nations in which untold numbers of human beings were killed as a result of the strife of the nations of the world, especially in Europe. And so what the pope is saying here is that the chief cause, the reason for all of the evil that you see at the beginning of the 20th century, is that people have thrust the kingship of Christ not only out of their private lives, but out of their political lives as well—out of the realm of politics, out of the realm of the nations of the world, the governance of the nations.
I just want you to think about the beginning of the 20th century and what the pope is addressing here with the spread of atheistic communism and socialism. For the first time in a very long time in Europe’s history, you have nations establishing themselves without any reference to the reign and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So in the context of the conflict of the kingdoms of the world, Pope Pius XI institutes a feast, a Solemnity, to lift up the fact that above all the nations of the world, there stands one King and one King only—and that is Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. And the pope thought that it would be good for the liturgical year to end with this reminder that Jesus is in fact not just the Lord of church or the King of believers, but in fact the King of the Universe. So with that in mind, let’s look at the readings for the feast of Jesus Christ, the Lord, the King of the Universe and see how these readings fit into Pope Pius XI’s desire to lift up Jesus’ Kingship, His Universal Kingship over the whole created world. And so at first glance, it might seem a little counterintuitive because the reading chosen for today on the feast of Jesus’ Kingship is the account of the crucifixion.
Now wait a second. Shouldn’t it be an account of His second coming or His coming in glory? Why do we pick this passage? Well let’s look at it and maybe we can figure it out. In Luke 23:35-43 we read these words:
And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Alright, let’s pause there. Kind of a strange reading for the feast of Christ the King, but upon further reflection, a very crucial one for several reasons. First, notice here the context of the Gospel for today is the passion and death of Jesus on the cross; it’s the crucifixion. And the reading begins with the people watching and the rulers scoffing at Jesus, saying:
He saved others. Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!
So the first point here is that when the rulers of the people look at Jesus on the cross, they don’t see a king. They see a criminal. In order to understand this, it’s important to remember that in the first century AD, crucifixion was used by the Roman Empire not just as a standard method of execution for just anyone. Rather, it was the standard method of execution for slaves. So for example, in the Roman Empire there were different categories of citizenry. If you were a formal citizen of the Empire, like St. Paul, if you were a Roman citizen, then you could not actually be put to death by crucifixion. It was considered beneath a citizen, so the proper form of execution for a citizen of the Empire was decapitation. It was beheading.
Now that might seem more terrifying to you, but it was considered a more noble way of dying. So for example, when Paul (who was a citizen of the Roman Empire) is brought to Rome, and under the reign of Caesar Nero is eventually martyred, is eventually executed, he is beheaded. He’s executed by decapitation. Whereas Peter, who was just a lowly Jew from Galilee, when he ends up in Rome in the 60s of the first century AD, and he is martyred and put to death, his method of execution is not decapitation because he’s not a citizen. He’s a slave of the Empire, therefore he’s put to death by crucifixion. And according to ancient tradition, Peter chose to be crucified upside down so that his death would be even more humiliating.
So in a first century Jewish context, the first aspect of the reading here that’s striking is that Christ on a cross does not look like a king—He looks like a slave. And that’s why the rulers of the people and the crowds are mocking Him, saying:
He saved others. Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!
Now I’ve said this hundreds of times, but I’m going to probably say it thousands more before I die, but it’s really important to remember that the word Christ is not Jesus’ name; it’s a title. Christos
means the “anointed one.” And the anointed one here is a reference to the King, so it’s a shorthand way for referring to Him as a king, if you call him christos
, if you call him the anointed one. So just like presidents in the United States are inaugurated, they’re installed into their office, in antiquity, the kings of Israel would be anointed. That’s how they would rise to the office of king. They would be installed as king through an act of anointing.
So when the rulers look at Jesus and say, “This guy can’t be the christos
. He can’t be the anointed one,” they say that because He is taking the form of a slave. He’s being executed as a slave, as a criminal, not as a king. And so they’re basically taunting him, saying, “Look, if you’re really God’s king, God’s Chosen One, why don’t you save yourself?”
Second, the soldiers here also mock Him. And remember, these are the nations of the world. The soldiers here are Roman soldiers, so they’re pagans. And they’re saying:
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!
And there was even an inscription put over Him, as we know from other Gospels, by Pontius Pilate, saying “This is the King of the Jews.” Now remember, this was meant to mock Jesus. Pilate is not confessing his faith in Jesus’ Messiahship by having the title, the placard, put above the cross. It’s meant to mock Him and say, “Oh, you claim to be a king...well, I’ll show you what kind of king you are. I’ll hang you on a cross and let you asphyxiate to death.”
Now in that context here, there are two criminals that have also been crucified with Jesus. And it says that:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the [cristos
]? Save yourself and us!”
In other words, “If you’re the king, do something here! Kings are supposed to be powerful. Why can’t you save us?”
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”
“We’re here justly.” In other words, we’ve done something that deserves this. But this man is innocent. And at this moment, he says something powerful. It’s one of my favorite lines in the Gospels:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Now I have to point this out here. It’s unfortunate...the Revised Standard Version here makes one of the worst translation mistakes anywhere in the New Testament. It literally says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power.” That’s a bad translation. The Greek word here is basileia
. It just means “kingdom.” But in the early 20th...not really 20th century. In the mid-20th century, when the Revised Standard Version was being translated, the idea had become very popular that in the New Testament, the word “kingdom” did not refer to a place but to a state. You’ll sometimes hear people translate it as “the reign of God”—that was very popular in the 1960s and 70s, because it meant to kind of convey the fact that God’s kingdom is a dynamic state, where He exercises His rule; He exercises His reign. In other words, wherever God is reigning—whether it be in your heart or in a particular country or in a particular place—where He is reigning, there is His kingdom. So there was kind of a resistance of seeing the kingdom as a locale.
The problem with that is—although that is true, sometimes when the verb or the noun is used for kingship or kingdom—in this context, it’s very clear here that the thief is using the term basileia,
kingdom, to refer to a realm into which Jesus will enter after His death. And Jesus actually confirms that because when He responds to the thief, what does He say? “Truly, Amen”—which is like “so be it”—He affirms it!
“I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Now the Greek word there, paradeisos
, is literally the word for “garden.” It’s taken from the Greek translation of the book of Genesis, the description of Eden. So in the Hebrew Bible, it says that the Lord God planted a garden in Eden. In the Greek translation of that, it says the Lord God planted a paradise in Eden—or a paradeisos
. It’s a reference to actually like an orchard. And so by the first century AD, this term paradeisos
(or paradise) was just another way of referring to Eden and to the place of peace and righteousness and holiness in which Adam and Eve were constituted at the beginning of creation before the fall—and which, in Jewish eschatology, would return in the age to come. There was an idea that the end of time would be like the beginning of time. That although we were living in this old creation, this fallen world now, one day there would be a new world, the world to come, in which paradise would be restored.
You might think of Milton’s famous poem, you know, Paradise Lost—or paradise then restored. So the thief here and Jesus are just speaking in two different ways about the same thing. The thief is talking about the kingdom of God that was expected to come at the end of the age. Jesus responds, “...today you will be with me in Paradise.” So why is this important? Well, it’s crucial because it reveals the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. So what kind of king is Jesus and where is His kingdom? Well, it’s not a kingdom of this world. It’s not a this worldly kingdom. You can actually see this really clear in the parallel to this passage in the Gospel of John. It’s not here in Luke, but in the Gospel of John, you might recall, Pilate asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” And Jesus says, “Yes, but my kingdom is not of this world”—same Greek word, basileia
So Jesus is a king, but He’s not an earthly king. He does have a kingdom, but it’s not an earthly kingdom. It’s not a kingdom of this world. So there’s the paradox of the cross, here, and of the kingship of Jesus Christ. On Earth, where does Jesus reign? He reigns from the throne of the cross. This is how He is exalted as king. It’s precisely through His death on the cross; it’s through His crucifixion.
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