Word of God and Salesian Life Fr Juan Jose’ Bartolome’ SDB
Solemnity of Christ the King Year B. Lectio divina on Jn 18,33b-37
In Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus about his kingship, the evangelist is writing at two levels. At the historic level, the claim of Jesus to be King of the Jews amounted to a grave crime of sedition, which carried the death penalty. At the real level, in the evangelist’s way of thinking, Jesus is indeed a King, although not by the laws of this world, nor according to the expectations of the people. He will certainly be king, only when he dies on the cross. Jesus cannot escape his destiny. He will not turn back, just because his life is in danger. He admits his kingship when faced with death on the cross. For the sceptics of yesterday and today, the kingship of Jesus is no more than a vain illusion, since he cannot save even himself. But for the believer, Christ’s death on the cross is precisely his ceremony of enthronement as a real king. We should never forget that Christ reigns only on the cross and from it. If we can accept Jesus as king on the cross, we will not complain about the crosses in our own lives.
33 ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked. 34 Jesus replied, ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?’ 35 Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me: what have you done?’ 36 Jesus replied, ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.’ 37 ‘So you are a king then?’ said Pilate. ‘It is you who say it’ answered Jesus. Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on haw it says it
John’s account of the Passion coincides basically with that of the synoptics. They relate the same events in chronological order (the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, finding the empty tomb and the appearances). The same people play a part (Peter, Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, the women, Joseph of Arimathea). There was no possibility of introducing much change.
The first section of this great story (Jn 18,1-27) tells of the arrest of Jesus in the garden (18,1-12) and his trial before the Jewish authorities (Jn 18,13-27). Throughout all of this, Jesus barely spoke (Jn 18,20.23). Very different to Jesus is the figure of Peter who, with his repeated denials, has an important role to play (Jn 18,10-11.15-18.25-27). The second section concentrates on the trial of Jesus before the Roman procurator (Jn 18,28-19,16). For the evangelist, this is the real trial. In it, the Jewish authorities are seen as the accusers and the Roman governor as the judge.
The long interrogation is reported in detail. It emphasizes the kingship of Jesus (Jn 18,184.108.40.206; 19,220.127.116.11.19.21). Before Pilate, and the world of the Roman Empire that he represented, Jesus proclaimed himself King and messiah, without any silence or hesitation. And he did so in a strange way. Prophetically, the Roman pagan will proclaim Jesus King, and his dignity as messiah will be the cause of his death (Jn 19:19). In this way, the Christian community is helped to bear witness to the Kingdom of Jesus in this world, a kingdom that was born on the cross.
The elements of the narrative are few. It is mainly the dialogue that defines the actors. Pilate, Roman Procurator in Judea from 26 to 36 B.C., appears to treat the accused fairly. He wants to know why the case has been brought to trial (Jn 18,29). Jesus is interrogated first inside the Praetorium, in private, which was unusual in official proceedings. Following Roman juridical practice, Pilate asked for the reason behind the charge. The claim to be the messiah transformed the trial into a political question. Various questions and answers followed, but the real question was always the same: are you the King of the Jews? (Jn 18,33, 18,39, 19,3.14.15).
Jesus replied with a personal question to Pilate, giving him the opportunity of responding, and of asking his own question sincerely (Jn 18,34). Pilate answered with indifference and disrespect (Jn 18,35). He knew he had no reason to proceed against Jesus, so he passed the responsibility to the leaders of the people of Israel. They were the ones who had handed him over (Jn 18 , 35). Jesus responded confirming the reality of his kingdom, but without using the title King (Jn 18,33). Three times he used the term “my kingdom”, explaining that his kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world, maintained by force and violence. Pilate failed to grasp the subtlety of Jesus’ answer and asked again, “Are you a King?” Jesus replied indirectly: “It is you who say it.” The evangelist’s irony is evident. Pilate said it without believing it, since only those who are on the side of truth can hear and believe this testimony (Jn 18,37).
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ, a feast with a certain ambiguity, even though it does respond to a basic Christian conviction. It runs the risk of being misunderstood. Whenever Jesus is proclaimed King, from his own time to the present, there have always been misunderstandings. There is something, then, in our belief in the universal sovereignty of Jesus that lends itself to ambiguity. The gospel passage is very subtle but does little to help to overcome this problem.
Already, while Jesus of Nazareth was preaching in Galilee, the people wanted to make him king. Jesus refused this dignity, however, and escaped from those who were looking for him to proclaim him king (Jn 6,15). Later, he was to die with the accusation that he had wanted to be the king of the Jews and their liberator from foreign dominion (Jn 19,19-21). But Jesus claimed this dignity and title for himself only when there was no possibility of his being misunderstood, during a trial when even his friends had abandoned him, his enemies mocked him and the authorities condemned him to death. It was only in this moment of extreme weakness and supreme loneliness, that Jesus acknowledged, with certainty and dignity, that he was king.
Do we not have to admit that, at times, we have proclaimed the sovereignty of Jesus in order to gain control over others? Has the situation changed even today? In today’s society there are too many doubts, unfortunately justified at times, surrounding our preaching of the faith and our proclamation of the rights and freedom of the Church. In the eyes of many of our contemporaries, the Church is still too interested in privilege and power.
In this age of transparency, the Christian community must pay attention to the criticisms that are made, examine the reasons behind them, and see if they are true. We need to ask ourselves if it is not true that we still seek social privileges, and security for our way of life, while at the same time, we seek to control those who do not accept our way of thinking. It is one thing to ask for or even to demand respect, for our Christian life and the way we express it in public. It is an altogether different matter to seek to impose our views, expecting others, who do not share our faith, to behave as we do, or even better than we do. Why should we get upset, then, when those who do not believe, act contrary to our convictions? We accept, with all its consequences, that the following of Christ and his kingdom, is only for those who want to be his disciples. Jesus himself said, “[those] who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”
It is not enough to proclaim nowadays that Christ is our King. We must declare, with the same conviction and enthusiasm, that his kingdom is not of this world, and that his power is not like that of other authorities and leaders of this world. Only when a Christian community renounces social privileges and positions of power will it be believed when it says it has Christ as its king. Only when Christians work to serve society, will our demand for respect be credible. When we show more respect for the rights of others, then we ourselves will be respected. Our most inalienable right is that of knowing that we are subjects of the one Lord. We claim also the right to celebrate that fact today, without pretence but without apology. We should not be unhappy just because not everybody thinks as we do. And we should never envy those who do not have Christ as their king.
He was king on a cross. Acceptance of this truth requires a formidable attitude of self-emptying that is not found in our society today. We are celebrating the kingdom of a man condemned to death, the sovereignty of a king who was the servant of his subjects, the dominion of a man who gave his life for his servants. His destiny is also to be ours, if we hope one day to share his triumph and his kingdom. We cannot – and must not ¬– celebrate today a kingdom that was established through weakness and suffering, and at the same time seek to secure for ourselves positions of power in the future, or live with nostalgia for the privileges we enjoyed in the past.
Maybe now more than ever before we need Christian witnesses who believe in a kingdom that is not of this world, and are able to make it credible in this world. The world needs witnesses who believe in the possibility of love without instant gratification, who work for a more brotherly world without expecting recompense or benefits in return, who devote themselves to bettering the daily life of others without waiting to be asked. As Christians, we must be the people in society who ask least of others, who are least envious of the powerful, and most committed to solving the problems of the poor. Anyone who believes in Christ the King must become a builder of a new society, which does not depend on power, be it political, economic or religious. We must build a society whose members do not seek to have more than others, and in which greater access to knowledge is not the privilege of a few. Christians must be the people in this society who demand least respect for themselves and show most respect to all others. If we do not strive to build greater fraternity among people, if we continue to ignore those among whom we live, if we want to be leaders who dominate, we are not citizens of the Kingdom of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve.
For our celebration of this feast of the Kingdom of Christ to be credible, we must resolve to believe, without any shadow of doubt, in Christ the King. We must build among ourselves his kingdom of trust and life, of holiness and grace, of justice and peace. Here in the middle of this unjust world, we must start today to proclaim that a more just society is possible and that we are its standard-bearers. In a world torn by indifference and hatred, where there are many who preach war and division, we can begin today to insist that peace is possible and resolve to work it make it happen. The call to fraternity is urgent precisely because we are losing our sense of being brothers and sisters. Solidarity is no longer fashionable but still very necessary.
It may seem paradoxical, but only those who believe that Christ reigns on the cross and from the cross, by the offering of his life in service, will understand that there are still reasons to believe in a kingdom of justice and peace. If we do not work for this kingdom of justice and peace, we have no right to celebrate this feast, for we will have no share in the triumph of Christ and his kingdom. Unless we are seen to work for justice and peace, our faith will remain clouded in ambiguity. Let us pray, then, with all our hearts, as Jesus has taught us, that his kingdom may come among us, once and for all. May we learn that his kingdom comes only through the cross and through service. Christ reigned only from the cross, and by giving his life for all.