Christ the King/Reign of Christ

The Politics of Scripture

Compassion and solidarity make for a powerful bond between God and humanity.

After the ceremonial preparation,
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood,
Erection of the main-trees with their burden,
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day.
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw
The three heads turning on their separate axles
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow
As the pain swung into its envious circle.
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left
Of a death-wounded deer’s great antlers. Some
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked,
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse,
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah
And found the Son of God. What use to them
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail
For what purposes such as theirs?

These lines from “The Killing”, a poem[1] by Scottish poet, novelist, and translator Edwin Muir (1887–1959) throw us into the midst of the Passion Story, and the Gospel assigned this year to Christ the King Sunday.

A bystander (like the one Muir gives voice to) would have experienced an abundance of feelings that day: excitement and disgust, hate and compassion, anger, sadness, fear, even glee. But perhaps one emotion would have stood out in the crowd, one directed at Jesus: disappointment at the fact that he wasn’t the armed Messiah they had prayed for, the one who would have put an end to the Roman oppression. 

People who come to worship this Sunday may feel disappointed as well. In the face of a government that favors the “haves” and seems to take from the “have-nots,” many among the People of God long for a God who would powerfully intervene on our behalf. 

But King Jesus in Luke 23 is different:

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Crucified at a place called the Skull, with a criminal on his left and another one on his right, Jesus is the opposite of what people expect a king to be. Martin Luther provided a hermeneutical key to this mystery by forging a “Theology of the Cross” from his study of Scripture and by formulating it as a small yet powerful counterweight against the “Theology of Glory” espoused by much of the world then and now.  

Douglas John Hall, perhaps one of the best contemporary theologians of the cross, points out five main ingredients of such a Theology of the Cross[2]:  

1. God is present with humanity in compassion and solidarity.  
2. God is committed to the people.  
3. The People of God are honest about suffering and injustice.  
4. Theology is all about the fact that God became one of us. 
5. The People of God know that not all is yet known. 

Despite the cruel spectacle and the incessant mocking, Sunday’s Gospel text provides an intimate view of how Jesus offers compassion and solidarity.  In verse 34 he seeks to connect with those who mock him, by asking that they be forgiven. Then, in verse 39–43, he welcomes the approach of the two criminals who long for a word that helps them make sense of their death. One is parroting the mocking all around them, yet cries out for help all the same: “Save yourself and us!”. The other reaches into himself and then out to Jesus: “we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong . . . Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus responds to the man’s humble request to be remembered by saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Even though this is often understood as though Jesus talks about life after death, Herb Montgomery has suggested that “[t]o a first century Jew, living in the wake of the Maccabees, and longing for a deliverance from Roman oppression, Paradise was a restored earth, where injustice, oppression, and violence were no more” and that “the early Jesus community did not interpret paradeisos as post-mortem bliss” [3]. 

Montgomery goes on to say, “The early Jesus community believed that the work of liberating the world from injustice had been initiated by their Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. They were discovering how this liberation would eventually permeate all forms of oppression, privilege, and marginalization. That process is not finished. It was not completed in the days of the Apostles. Nor in the generation that followed them.”[4]

Indeed, that process is not finished, and it is up to the People of God to take up the mission. As People of the Cross we are all about liberating all people, especially those who have been neglected and pushed to the edges by the powers that be.

Where I come from (Northern Germany), one of the most beautiful cities is Lübeck, and one of the most prominent buildings there is the Dom (Lübeck Cathedral), built in 1137. The cathedral has a lavish entrance hall called Paradies (paradise). In medieval Europe, the vestibule or porch of a church was called “paradise” to indicate that it was a place into which worldly jurisdiction couldn’t reach. Many offenders from Lübeck and surrounding towns fled to the porch; in bowing under the jurisdiction of their bishop, they received sanctuary.

As the People of God, perhaps we can frame our compassion and solidarity that way: that we provide sanctuary, a saving porch, a paradise for those who hunger and thirst for justice.

Compassion and solidarity make for a powerful bond between God and humanity. This bond is expressed in Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Christen und Heiden” (Christians and Heathens), written in the Summer of 1944, here in the translation of Alan Gaunt:[5]

People draw near to God in their distress,
pleading for help and begging peace and bread,
rescue from guilt and sickness, nearly dead.
Christian or not, all come in helplessness.

People draw near when they see God’s distress:
find God rejected, homeless, without bread,
burdened with sin and weakness, nearly dead.
Christians reach out to meet God’s wretchedness.

And God draws near to people in distress,
feeding their souls and bodies with his bread;
Christian or not, for both he’s hanging dead,
forgiving, from the cross, their wickedness.

[1] https://allpoetry.com/The-Killing

[2] Summarized in https://www.google.com/amp/s/thinkingreed.wordpress.com/2010/11/12/on-the-theology-of-the-cross/amp/, paraphrased by me.

[3] Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing, at https://renewedheartministries.com/tag/gender

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://oremus.org/pipermail/oremus/2005-August/000302.html

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