In the modern world, few kings have much governing power, but the liturgy doesn’t see Christ as a just ceremonial figure head. It asks us to consider: What kind of king is Jesus? What is his power?
2 Samuel 5:1-3
The reading does not show the complex situation in which David became the King. At this point, he rules only over Judah, the southern of the two kingdoms into which the country divided. Leaders from Israel, the northern section, have come to him at Hebron, which was his capital before the move to Jerusalem. They use ‘Shepherd’, which was David’s youthful occupation (See 1 Samuel 16) After political disorder and some fighting, comes a peaceful pact between peoples.
A reason for hearing this text on the kingship of Christ is that the prophet Nathan had told him his royal line would not die out (2 Samuel 7:1-7.) When events led to the end of the Jewish kingdom, the promise was re-interpreted and became a ‘messianic hope’ that the earthly kingdom would someday be restored with a new kingly ‘Son of David’. Jesus was seen in the New Testament as the heir to that promise. At that time, some Jews wanted him to restore the nation and free them from Roman rule and Jesus had to insist he was bringing a different ‘Kingdom of God’,
The psalm is one sung by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple, built by Solomon, David’s son. It also served as the political capital, and the ‘thrones’ and ‘judgment’ suggest that theme.
The letter opens with thanksgiving to God the Father making a place for us in his kingdom of his Son. The next part is set in the Hebraic poetic form and may be quoting an early hymn. It picks up one topic of today’s feast by stressing the ‘universal’ – the cosmic – nature of Christ’s dominion. It starts with the present, knowing we are called to a place in God’s Kingdom through forgiveness. It moves outside time into eternity, showing Christ as central to the whole of creation. The hymn draws on the language and imagery of the Jewish Wisdom literature, especially Wisdom’s role in creation in Proverbs 8:22ff.
‘Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers’ – these words represent beliefs of that time in angelic or spiritual intermediaries controlling the world. Since the author of this Letter has warned his listeners against excessive reliance on such intermediary spirits rather than putting their trust in Jesus, the hymn stresses that all including any other spirits is subordinate to Christ from the beginning before time. The hymn then moves back to us and our times, with the belief in the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’. As Jesus was the beginning of creation, in his human life he is the first born of the Resurrection, with the solemn reminder this was achieved by his reconciling death on the cross. That will be taken up in the Gospel.
When our selection opens, Jesus has already been raised up on the cross, and Luke is describing the reactions of people watching him. The ‘leaders’ are the Jewish authorities who had asked Pilate for his death. That he is being so punished proves in their judgment that he cannot be the Messiah/Christ of God, nor ‘the Chosen One’. This second title appears only in Luke who used this once before in the words from heaven heard at Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountaintop (9:35) where it is combined with ‘This is my Son’. At that time, the only witnesses were Peter, James and John. The ‘chosen’ title comes from Isaiah 42:1 and while the Jewish leaders are sarcastic, it also a shorthand way for Luke pointing to the truth about Jesus. The Roman soldiers join in the mockery, but they were not likely to have known the religious claims. Living under Caesar’s authority, they taunt him as not a real King, even of such a petty kingdom as Judea would seem to them. At this point in his gospel, Luke first mentions the words inscribed over the cross which were meant as a mockery – both of Jesus and the occupied land of Israel.
The irony or paradox for Luke and for his readers is that all these titles – used sarcastically by Jesus’ enemies – are really true. Although Jesus appears powerless, defeated, and dying, it is through his freely offered death that he becomes the victorious Messiah and King. This is a kingship that owes nothing to politics, conquest or human endeavour – it is a totally a gift of God.
Only Luke’s gospel has the account of one of the criminals also being crucified protesting in favour of Christ. He recognizes Jesus’ innocence of any crime deserving death, and also acknowledges his own sinfulness and repents of his past. His understanding of Jesus takes another step – an astonishing act of faith when we realize that he is looking at the physically helpless, battered and bleeding body nailed on the cross next to him. He realizes that not only is Jesus innocent, he is actually what the mockers have said and truly the one who brings the Kingdom of God. In a prayer of total simplicity and humility, he asks only to be ‘remembered’ and trusts the rest to Jesus. That personal name, Jesus, means ‘Saviour’ an identity Luke has noted from the first part of the gospel
Jesus’ promise steps out of time into the eternal ‘Today’. While both the thief and Jesus himself will go through more suffering and die on their crosses, they will then go together into the everlasting Kingdom. ‘Paradise’ was a word borrowed from the Persian first used for the condition of the Garden of Eden in its innocent and unified state, and then later as the ‘ideal’, or everlasting and perfected, world. We are given no further hint of what this ‘today’ consists of, but it is something for which we are also destined.
These two readings call for meditation to better understand Jesus – the fully divine who takes on human nature and is subjected to a criminal’s death. Paradoxically this brings a ‘kingdom not of this world’. The words may be more evocative that defining, for we have to use earthly language when speaking of what is beyond our realm of time and space. Metaphors can be as the best insights we have.
This is our last selection from Luke in Year C, and can be seen as a summary of this Gospel’s emphasis on faith, forgiveness and prayer, showing us Jesus as the one in whom we are saved and given everlasting life in the Kingdom of God.