Year C: Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ The King
The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
- Why do you think the Church has chosen to focus our attention on “Christ Crucified” on the feast of Christ the King?
- How does this passage challenge your understanding of the true nature and use of God’s power?
- When you pray “thy Kingdom come” what do you understand yourself to be praying?
- When have you forgiven or prayed for someone while they were mistreating you? Tell the story
- In what ways might you be rejecting God’s love and mercy in the day-to-day of your life?
Jesus’ Theology on trial
There is no other part of the gospels as visually suggestive and dramatically presented as the events of Jesus’ passion. Certainly, the authorities who staged it had no idea that the scene would be remembered for thousands of years. Yet Luke, like his fellow evangelists, narrated the story for the very purpose of passing it on to posterity. One of Luke’s special touches is that here, as throughout his entire Gospel, he emphasizes the lowly and the outsider. Already in the Passion Narrative we have seen Simon the African conscripted into carrying the cross and the wailing women who lined Jesus’ path to Golgotha. Then, following Mark and Matthew, Luke reports the sneering and jeering of leaders and soldiers. At the moment of Jesus’ death, Luke’s rendition comes closer to John’s than to Matthew and Mark’s. Depicting Jesus’ willful participation in the drama, Luke records his last words as the trust-filled prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Luke’s unique contribution to the passion story comes through the two men crucified with Jesus. Luke weaves this, the third incident of taunting the crucified Jesus, into a final dramatization of the offer of salvation. As the last public response to Jesus during his lifetime, this incident sets up the stark option of acceptance or rejection of the type of kingdom Jesus made present through his life. Jesus is depicted in the weakest, most scandalous depths of his incarnation, dying as an innocent, impotent victim of evil. It is impossible to portray a more profound solidarity with the human condition.
The two criminals of the story symbolize the human plight, they represent every sinner in the world. There’s hardly a figure in history more appallingly helpless than a criminal on a cross. That someone in those circumstances could still play the part of an insolent bully staggers the imagination and yet, one of those cocrucified with Jesus used his dying breath to mock the blameless one who shared his fate. He was determined to die as he lived. This convict maintained unshaken his belief in violence, persistently and deliberately remaining a stranger to the humility of vulnerability.
The other criminal, in the defeat of his dying day, indicted himself and admitted his guilt, his mistakenness about life. Unlikely to have had any theological formation to guide him, he was still able to perceive the goodness of the man being crushed beside him. Something about Jesus, perhaps his willingness to forgive the ignorance of his persecutors, was revelatory enough to make all the difference. This criminal, alone among all the people attending the event, looked at Jesus with faith. His focus was not on himself, but on the one who was there for him.
The one we call the “good thief” understood God as the one who comes to save. The world had no more need for judgment: The guilty and the innocent had both been condemned. Absurdity and injustice seemed to reign. The only thing that could give meaning to that moment was God’s love and solidarity with the needy. In capturing that, the thief understood all he would ever need to know of Jesus. He asked to be remembered when Jesus would finally become victorious, and Jesus replied, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
The church has given us a harsh and beautiful icon to contemplate on this Feast of Christ our King. When we plumb it’s meaning, it reveals that nothing overpowers the love of God. It shows the God who is with every suffering creature offering compassionate, everlasting love, the only salvation that makes a real difference. This feast invites us to meditate on Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In the first beatitude we hear, “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God.” Only when we appreciate that, will we be ready to celebrate this feast.
God’s Calling Card
“This is the King of the Jews.” Lk 23:38 Throughout the Middle Ages, the church adopted many of the trappings we associate with people of power. As a consequence, little by little, the church began mimicking the dress, titles and palaces of the princes and lords of Europe.
These developments were intended to serve as a constant reminder to secular authorities that the rule of God was more important and more commanding than any human rulers. The thinking went something like this: If a king wears a crown, then the pope should wear a triple crown. Hence, the creation of the tiara, which was eventually retired in the late 20th century.
But in the course of making those changes, many in the church failed to remember the scene so powerfully depicted in today’s Gospel.
Here, there is no jeweled tiara. Only a crown of thorns. Here, there is no goldplated throne. Only a wooden cross. Here, there are no trumpets blaring, no choirs chanting, no drums booming. Only a stark inscription claiming, “This is the King of the Jews.”
And yet, today the church celebrates the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
In doing so, the church attempts to emphasize the kind of kingship that Jesus represents … a kingship that redefines what true authority in this world really is.
It’s a kingship that refuses all of the riches common to leaders of the world. It’s a kingship that uses language like mercy and forgiveness. It’s a kingship that can be summarized in one word: servanthood.
That virtue of servanthood is on full display in the crucifixion scene as found only in the Gospel of Luke featuring two criminals hanging alongside Jesus. One of the two recognizes that he is in need of forgiveness. He says to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, amidst excruciating agony while undergoing the cruelest and most degrading form of death imaginable, remains true to his identity as the face of God. He not only forgives, but embraces the man as one “who will be with me in Paradise.”
The idea of “paradise” is also richer than we usually think. “Paradise” not only refers to a blessed life hereafter, but also to the reality of a God who enters into the pain, hurt and heartache of people suffering throughout the world; a God who embraces a world immersed in the consequences of violence, homelessness and despair.
Paradise is there for all if they can be reached by the power of love so overwhelmingly demonstrated by the God of the cross.
Mercy has been designated as the defining virtue to this Year of Faith that Pope Francis declared last December. Mercy, he told us, is “the name of God; it is his calling card.”
Luke’s gospel is replete with examples of the boundless nature of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He demonstrates this endearingly, beginning with the story of Mary who in the poverty of a stable praised God for knocking the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. The story of Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead or the father welcoming his prodigal son. Finally to today’s story of the cross where Jesus is mocked and spat upon and nailed to a piece of wood.
All of it tells a story with one overarching theme: our God is the Lord of the universe – a God who comes to live with us as a merciful and infinitely loving Servant.