Saturday, November 23, 2013

Homily for Solemnity of Christ the King

Homily for the Solemnity of
Christ the King
Nov. 24, 2013
Luke 23: 35-43
Iona College, New Rochelle
Ursulines, Willow Drive, N.R.

“He saved others; let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God” (Luke 23: 35).
(from Free Christ Images, unattributed)
Today’s gospel presents to us 2 interrelated themes:  kingship and restoration.  The Collect also referred to both of those themes.  The gospel passage is one of the most ironic in the Bible.

The rulers of the Jews have condemned Jesus for blasphemy and turned him over to the Romans for execution.  On Calvary they “sneer at Jesus,” literally “turn their noses up at him,” and mock him as a false messiah, a Christ who saved others—they acknowledge his healings, it seems—but who is powerless in his own regard.

The Roman soldiers are carrying out the execution ordered by Pontius Pilate on a charge of sedition, of “stirring up the people all over Judea,” of “opposing payment of taxes to Caesar and claiming to be Christ, a king” (23:5,2).  The soldiers join in the mockery, calling Jesus a fitting king for the Jews, echoing the official charge nailed to the cross (23:37-38).  The Romans’ charge means to insult the Jews:  this fellow, utterly degraded by torture, mockery, being stripped bare, being nailed to a cross, and hanging there in agony—this fellow is a fit king for you Jews!  We Romans are your masters, and you’d better acknowledge that, or you could wind up like your “king”—as indeed many of them did in the futile revolt of 66-70 A.D., which was alluded to in last Sunday’s gospel (21:8-10).

The irony of all this is that Jesus has truly saved others and is in the process of saving the whole human race; of carrying out his role of Messiah, the Anointed One, and establishing his authority as a king—thru his passion and death.  The irony is that he doesn’t need to save himself, and by his apparent powerlessness and his humiliation he is saving the world.  In the verse immediately before our reading, Jesus prayed to his Father to forgive his accusers and his executioners, “for they don’t know what they’re doing” (23:34).  In this sneering and mockery, neither do they know what they’re saying.

What kind of a king was Israel expecting?  What kind of a royal claimant did Rome fear?  One who would restore the house of David and the kingdom of David:  Jewish independence, Jewish glory, Jewish power over at least Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (sounds like the aims of contemporary Zionists—but David’s kingdom had extended across the Jordan into Moab and Ammon and north beyond Damascus).  The Jews would owe allegiance—and taxes—to no one but themselves and their own God.

On that score, of course, Jesus of Nazareth was a complete failure.  Which is a cautionary note for Christians today whenever we enter the political arena.  To establish the kingdom of God on earth is not our goal and isn’t within our competence.

All the gospels record that Jesus was crucified with 2 criminals, that he was between them or “in the middle.”  Thus the story places Jesus “in the midst” of sinful humanity, suffering torment, humiliation, and death right alongside the sinners whom he’s come to save, whom he alone can save.

Matthew and Mark call the 2 criminals “robbers,” whereas Luke uses the more generic “criminals,” which might also be translated “evildoers.”  Perhaps they were the sort of common highwaymen who preyed upon travelers going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, as in the parable of the good Samaritan.  Perhaps they were burglars or just petty thieves.  Maybe, as generic “evildoers,” they represent you and me, sinners.  What matters is they were “justly condemned” sinners (23:41) with whom Jesus has let himself be associated or identified—with whom he stands in solidarity, we’d say today.

One criminal joins in the mockery of Jesus, for which his comrade chastises him.  The 2d criminal exemplifies Samuel Johnson’s famous 18th-century aphorism, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”[1]  This so-called “good thief,” to whom one of the apocryphal gospels gives the name Dismas, who’s already hanging on a cross, has indeed concentrated his mind, examined his state before God, and resolved to act—like the “dishonest steward” in Jesus’ parable, our gospel a few weeks ago (16:1-8)—resolved to face his personal crisis and do what must be done to save himself.

Here, saving oneself means throwing oneself into Jesus’ hands.  “He saved others”—we don’t know how Dismas knows this.  He calls upon Jesus to save him, not from his just earthly punishment but from the eternal punishment his crimes merit.  He invokes Jesus by name—the only time in the gospels this occurs (that’s astonishing, isn’t it?), making this an unusually personal encounter.  When should we be more personal with our Lord Jesus than when facing death and judgment?  So he pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Unlike anyone else on the scene, he recognizes what sort of a king Jesus is.  Here is a king who rules not with armies but with mercy; a king not of raw power but of justice—in the sense of turning sinners into just people, into saints.  The “good thief” becomes good by Jesus’ word.  As one commentator puts it, “It is a perfect example of salvation through faith without achievements.”[2]

Dismas is the last of Luke’s line of repentant sinners and tax collectors welcomed and saved by Jesus, a line that includes the notorious woman who anointed his feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee (7:36-50); Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus drove out 7 demons (8:2); and Zacchaeus the tax collector (19:1-10); as well as the younger son in the parable of the lost sons and even the shepherds in the Nativity story (shepherds were despised because of their lax practice of the Torah).

What all of these repentant sinners receive—most evidently our “good thief”—is restoration.  The kingdom is restored thru the Son of David—not David’s kingdom of an independent and powerful Israel, but the kingdom of God—when men and women are restored.  Jesus promises the criminal who has acknowledged him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43).

“Paradise” is the word used in the Greek version of Genesis for the Garden of Eden. Paradise is where human beings lived in perfect harmony with their Creator, with each other, and with all of creation—all of which was destroyed by Adam, “the man,” the prototypical human being.  Now the New Adam, from the tree of the cross, is restoring paradise, not in some distant future but “today.”  From the cross Christ enters his reign as the founder of the New Creation, and his subjects are all those sinners who have turned to him to be made new, to be saved, and to start living, as long as life remains, by the teachings of their king.

“Today you will be with me.”  The story of Adam and Eve’s fall suggests that God used to walk with them “in the garden at the breezy time of day,” i.e., in the cool of the evening (Gen 3:8).  In Genesis’s account, that’s when he comes looking for the man and the woman and can’t find them.  They’ve destroyed their companionship with the Creator by their sin and in their shame hide from him (3:10).  But Jesus restores the relationship between God and man.  Dismas will walk with his king, be his companion and friend, in paradise.

Not Dismas only.  “He has delivered us from the power of darkness” (Col 1:13)—all of us whom, in Christ, “the Father … has made fit to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (1:12).  Thru Christ everyone and everything has been reconciled to the Creator; “in him all things hold together,” the entire universe (1:20,17).  The chosen one, God’s Anointed, our king, has restored creation—and us.

                [1] Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, Sept. 19, 1777.
                [2] John P. Kealy, CSSp, Luke’s Gospel Today (Denville, N.J.: Dimension Books, 1979), p. 438.

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