The Sunday Project
Does Jesus even want to be King?
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe |
By Pat Gothman
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, "Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you that led out and brought in Israel; and the LORD said to you, 'You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.'" So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel.
giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Honestly, who cares whether or not Jesus is king?
It's a solemnity, today, sure. But Jesus certainly didn’t seem to have much interest in the role. A king has land, and as a traveling preacher/carpenter Jesus seemed rather uninterested in that. A king has an army to enforce his laws, and as a lifelong pacifist Jesus seemed quite opposed to the idea. Just ask Peter and that ear he lopped off. And Jesus was rather coy with Pilate when asked if he was king of at least the Jews, what with his whole, you say that I am business. Is there any reason to think Jesus even wants to be king?
It’s not even until his resurrection that he finally says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Which is a good bit more royal sounding, but he had to die and come back to life just to say that much. So what changed? Catholic tradition holds that Jesus descended to hell after his death to fulfill his mission as Messiah, to extend salvation to those from all times and all places. What happened down there that had Jesus coming back talking like a king? And does it have to do with us today?
One thing Jesus wasn’t afraid to talk about in his lifetime was the kingdom of God. He mentioned it fifty-six times in the Gospel of Matthew alone. Some Scripture scholars say that “the kingdom of God” may not be the best translation. A kingdom typically refers to a physical place, and that’s not quite what Jesus was talking about. Instead, they say “the reign of God” is better. It’s a bit more active, not easily tied down to a space with borders. Maybe that’s what he was getting at when he came back from the dead and royally decreed that “all authority on heaven and earth” had been given to him. His reign, so to speak, had begun.
Let’s take a step back.
Sometimes I wonder how much Jesus understood his own divinity. How could a person fully grasp that, just growing up a normal carpenter, no matter how holy? He seems to understand it more and more as his ministry progresses, as he sees his Father working greater miracles through him. It unfolds within him, slowly, deliberately.
But maybe it took going down to hell and seeing those souls, saving them, to really get it. Something changed when he got back, anyways. Perhaps changed is the wrong word. Something was fulfilled. Some recognizing the full needs of those he loved, glimpsing the reality of an afterlife without God, that helped him become fully who he was meant to be.
When I was a theology teacher at a Catholic high school I tried preparing a lesson on homosexuality (ahem, same-sex attraction), for my junior-level morality and social justice course. After all, I fully believed the Church could teach that folks like me had desires that were inherently disordered and that we had inherent dignity at the same time. If I could just lay out the full rationale of the Catechism and the Theology of the Body and maybe some Peter Kreeft or Fr. Neuhaus, they’d see. Even if they weren’t convinced all the way, at least they would have to see that the Church wasn’t homophobic right? That’s what I had always been told. That you could be against gay marriage and still love gay people. Right? They would have to see that.
All in all, I was a good teacher. A convincing one. With every lesson I could usually change a good number of minds. But not this time. The handful of my students who were already against same-sex marriages just continued agreeing. And the majority of students who didn’t, well they just disagreed even more by the time I was done. They were furious. Many were hurt. A year’s worth of trust was lost in almost a day.
So the next year teaching I decided to try something else. I listened. I dropped my lesson on homosexuality. And if any student asked about what the Church taught, I just asked them what they thought and why. I started to see how much the Church’s official position was failing my students. Instead of trying to fit them into the only box I had been told they would fit in, I asked where they thought they fit.
The harm I was willing to accept for myself, it took seeing that pain in someone else for me to start rejecting it, if only for them. Even if I wasn’t ready to admit it about my own life, I saw how much my students were being hurt by Catholic Church teaching. And how they were able to intuit a better way where their humanity and the humanity of those they loved could thrive.
That seems to be a key feature of the reign of God. Jesus says it’s like seeds falling on fertile ground and yielding a magnificent crop where elsewhere the seeds whither and die or are choked out. It’s where things are rightly ordered, yes, but the proof of following the plan is how well they do. It’s the fig tree that produces good fruit. It’s the way God’s creation thrives.
One thing every queer person on earth must ask themselves is this question - how do they flourish? Is it faking their way through a heterosexual marriage? Is it trying to change their attractions through conversion therapy and prayer? Is it denying the gender they can sense in their soul in place for the one a doctor assigned them at birth? Is it hiding your bisexuality in shame and trying to fit in because if you disguise things enough, you can? Is it in a life of tortured celibacy though you can see no reason to believe God gave you that vocation? Is that where you are seed firmly planted in fertile ground, God’s plan radiant as the sun?
The Church asks us today to crown Christ as King. This man who had no interest in worldly power or land or titles. Clearly it has nothing to do with politics or influence. It just has to do with you. Finding the way God made you, falling in love with it, and embracing it. Cultivating it. Protecting it. Rejoicing in seeing it grow.
Look around and see how much this world needs the Reign of God in the Catholic Church. An affirming sense of who its Queer members are, and what they can be. One day the Church will fulfill that mission, too. Like Jesus coming back from the dead, a new prophetic spirit will awaken within her. The Church will call us her own in a way it never realized it could.
Until that day, we live it. We search for where we thrive and where we can feel God reign in our lives. Where we can tell he cares.
The Gospel passage says the man next to Jesus asks him, “to remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s a good prayer for all of us, too.
“Amen,” Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”