The Feast of Christ the King (Thirty Fourth Sunday) (22 November 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:33-37 – NRSV)
Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, is found in all four Gospels – see Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2 and Luke 23:3. “Apparently the rage of the Sanhedrin was roused by the theological threat they perceived in Jesus—a point made clear in the Synoptics and implied throughout John’s account (e.g. 18:35; 19:7). Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God; their problem was how to formulate this claim in a manner calculated to impress Pilate with how dangerous Jesus was, and therefore to bring down the death penalty. The solution lay ready to hand. In Jewish expectation, the Davidic Messiah was necessarily the promised king of Israel (cf. 1:49). Thus is introduced a theme of controlling importance to chs. 18–19 (cf. 18:33–37, 39; 19:3, 12, 15, 19–22). (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 592.)
This question provides the opportunity for John to something about the kingdom and thus clarify the identity of Jesus. Thus: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. .... For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth’.” This goes to the very heart of John’s understanding of Jesus.
The true identity of Jesus and the truth of the kingdom, were problematic for both the Jews and the first disciples – and for Christians throughout history. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be! I am reminded of G K Chesterton’s observation: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” (See Chapter V, “The Unfinished Temple” in G K Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, Start Classics. Kindle Edition. Kindle Locations 360-361.)
Jesus bears witness to the truth in his very being. His being is expressed in his words and ‘signs’. The act of listening, on the part of those who would be his disciples, must therefore be at that same level of being. Listening is an existential act. It is much more than the physical or even the intellectual act of listening. We have come across this before in John’s Gospel, in the section on the good shepherd – see John 10:3–4, 8, 16. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” – not included in the text here – is not a philosophical inquiry but a contemptuous dismissal.
Who is the real interrogator and who is the interrogated in this drama? The sheer this worldliness of Pilate’s position and the ‘kingdom’ he represents, is exposed. Before a word is spoken, we know who represents what has ultimate value. The direction of the questioning confirms what we already know.
But before we can give ourselves to the truth here, we must contend with our own superficialities, our misplaced values and self-centred concerns. For we also know who is about to ‘win’ here. Do we go with what is true and real and ‘lose’? Do we go with what is not true, not real, and ‘win’?
Jesus had warned his disciples of this: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains but a grain of wheat; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest”. (John 12:24)
Every encounter with God reminds us of this choice. In the story of Genesis, God asks humanity: “Where are you?” That question remains for each of us to answer – repeatedly. What is on offer is the kingdom.
What do I want?
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
[Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” (1920)]