Gospel for the Feast of Christ the King (21 November 2021)
Gospel 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).
In John’s Gospel Jesus has already been referred to as “King” in 1:49 and 12:13. In today’s Gospel – John 18:33-37 – Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” In 1:49 Jesus avoids addressing Nathaniel’s acclamation and in 12:13, Jesus does not respond to the cry of the crowds as he enters Jerusalem. However, when Pilate asks him directly, Jesus affirms that he is “King”: “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.”
Ironically, the truth of Jesus will be finally affirmed when Pilate crucifies him.
One commentator contrasts this account of the kingship of Jesus with that which is found in the Synoptic Gospels: “The synoptic tradition had already used the trial of Jesus before Pilate and the sign on the cross to proclaim Jesus as ‘king’ (cf. Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32; Matt 27:11, 29, 37, 42; Luke 23:2, 3, 27, 38), but in the Johannine story the theme of Jesus’ royal status dominates the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate (cf. 18:33, 37, 39; 19:3, 12, 14, 15) and continues into the scene of the crucifixion (cf. 19:19, 21). …. The decisive issue is how Pilate and ‘the Jews’ respond to Jesus’ royal status” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 493).
King of the Jews: Kings and kingdoms were well-known to the people of Jesus’ time. Kings were all-powerful. They also lived with the possibility that someone would want their power. The Jews would remember Judas Maccabaeus. He “had established his dynasty, two hundred years before Jesus met Pilate, through military revolution against the Syrians, winning for the Jews their independence, and for himself and his family a royal status they had not previously aspired to. Herod the Great, thirty years before Jesus was born, had defeated the Parthians, the great empire to the east, and Rome in gratitude had allowed him to become ‘King of the Jews’, though he, too, had no appropriate background or pedigree” (N T Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004, 113). We could reasonably conclude that Pilate might have been fearful of Jesus leading a revolution and thus disturbing the Pax Romana – potentially, at least, a capital offense. We could also reasonably conclude that perhaps Pilate sees no threat in Jesus. It is entirely possible that he thinks Jesus is a poor deluded but harmless peasant. If this is the case – and that is what I choose to believe – we must at least suspect that Pilate is playing some other game here. He would in fact have seen the threat coming not from Jesus but from the religious authorities. In which case, there is a profound if ironic truth being played out here: Jesus’ death on the Cross is instead of the religious authorities, to save them …..
My kingdom is not from this world: The “Kingdom” referred to in all four Gospels is not a worldly kingdom. One commentator writes: “No: the point is that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from ‘this world’. Of course it doesn’t. ‘The world’, as we’ve seen again and again, is in John the source of evil and rebellion against God. Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality. He is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. That’s why he has come into the world himself (verse 37), and why he has sent, and will send, his followers into the world (17:18; 20:21). His kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but it is for this world. That is the crucial distinction” (ibid).
Kingdom: “Best understood as the kingship, or sovereign and saving rule, of Israel’s God yhwh, as celebrated in several psalms (e.g. 99:1) and prophecies (e.g. Daniel 6:26f.). Because yhwh was the creator God, when he finally became king in the way he intended this would involve setting the world to rights, and particularly rescuing Israel from its enemies. ‘Kingdom of God’ and various equivalents (e.g. ‘No king but God!’) became a revolutionary slogan around the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own announcement of God’s kingdom redefined these expectations around his own very different plan and vocation. His invitation to people to ‘enter’ the kingdom was a way of summoning them to allegiance to himself and his programme, seen as the start of God’s long-awaited saving reign. For Jesus, the kingdom was coming not in a single move, but in stages, of which his own public career was one, his death and resurrection another, and a still future consummation another. Note that ‘kingdom of heaven’ is Matthew’s preferred form for the same phrase, following a regular Jewish practice of saying ‘heaven’ rather than ‘God’. It does not refer to a place (‘heaven’), but to the fact of God’s becoming king in and through Jesus and his achievement. Paul speaks of Jesus, as Messiah, already in possession of his kingdom, waiting to hand it over finally to the father (1 Corinthians 15:23–28; cf. Ephesians 5:5)” (N T Wright, op cit, 178).
How many divisions does the Pope have?
The Tehran Conference, involving principally Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, was held from 28 November to 1 December 1943. They had extremely weighty matters to address. Yet, it seems that not all the exchanges were weighty. Jan Christiaan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa and close personal friend and confidant of Churchill, reported an exchange between Churchill and Stalin. He said Churchill suggested to Stalin that the Pope might be involved in some of the Conference’s decisions. To which suggestion, Stalin is supposed to have said: “The Pope, how many divisions has he?”
The fact that Smuts’ report has been told and re-told many times in different versions over the years since, suggests an intuitive recognition that there are powers at work in the world other than military might. It implies a question: What other forms of power are available to us?
In today’s Gospel – John 18:33-37 – we have a moment that prompts us to contemplate that very question. All four Gospel accounts tell us of Pilate’s words to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” They are the first words spoken by Pilate directly to Jesus. We have good reason to accept them as historical fact. It is also reasonable to read the words as a statement of contempt and mockery. Read the words out aloud. Lean into the personal pronoun, “you”. It easily becomes mockery of Jesus and any claims to kingship he might have or others might have on his behalf. The similar tone of contempt may be heard in Pilate’s response to Jesus: “I am not a Jew, am I?”
Even his closest friends distanced themselves from this . . . carpenter pretending to be a king? Again, all four Gospels tell of a very tentative, fearful Peter who would rather deny Jesus in this horrible moment than stand by him. But who among us would pass judgement on Peter? The power of this world can at times be terrifying and/or seductive.
But Peter is already aware – somewhere in the depths of his being – that there is much more to this man and this moment than his “betrayal” suggests. This is poignantly evoked in Peter’s encounter with the risen Lord – see John 21:15-19. Indeed, the awareness of the truth of that moment and that man was to give birth to many “followers of the Way” – see Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14 – then and now. Central to the awareness is a whole new possibility for humanity. The first Christians call it “the kingdom”. They know it is “not of this world”. It is a challenge for us to cut through the threats and promises and seductions of the various “kingdoms” that are “of this world”. The ultimate Source of all power can be easily obscured.
John tells us how to be in touch with this ultimate Source of power. He does that in his parable of the vine – see John 15:1-11. Several phrases there say it all really: “Abide in me as I abide in you. … Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing”.