At the end of the liturgical year, the faithful hear the promise of the Reign of Christ.
The last Sunday of the liturgical year is called the festival of the Reign of Christ (until recently it was called “Christ the King”). It anticipates the coming season of Advent, with its paradoxical message of strength in weakness and good news in secrecy.
The theme of the Reign of Christ views Jesus Christ in terms of royalty, which leads to prophecies about the kings of Israel. The book of Jeremiah has a whole collection of prophecies about kings—kings of Judah, since the kingdom of Israel was long gone (Jeremiah 21:11-23:8). Our reading is the concluding part of that collection.
Using a wide-spread convention of the ancient world, God speaks of kings, good and bad, as shepherds and of their people as sheep. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord” (verse 1, NRSV). The disasters of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are blamed on their kings. These kings were responsible for the policies and governance that led to defeat and exile—allowed by God as punishment for the sins of the whole body politic.
Now the judgment has been carried out, however, and the Lord looks ahead and plans to gather the sheep from their places of scattering and to “bring them back to their fold,” where they will increase and prosper. In the new days they will need a new king, and as the first great king loved by God was David, so a “branch” of David is now promised as a new king bringing justice and righteousness to the land. “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (verse 5).
This new king will have a special name, loaded with its own meaning. “And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (verse 6). This is an ironic name. In Hebrew the new name is yahwēh zidqēnu, Yahweh (the Lord) is our righteousness. The irony is that this name mirrors, but reverses, the name of the actual king of Judah in Jeremiah’s last years. That king’s name was Zedekiah, zidqiyyahu, Righteousness is Yahweh. This may have been a good name, but it was borne by the wrong man! Zedekiah was anything but a great and righteous king. He vacillated and resisted the prophet’s words from Yahweh; he yielded to those who opposed the prophet; and finally he rebelled against Babylon and brought final destruction upon Jerusalem and its kingdom. The name of Yahweh’s Anointed king of the future, Yahweh is our Righteousness, was an exact reversal of the name of that last ragged king of Judah. That king with the new name would bring in a new era of God’s reign.
The Psalm reading comes, not from the Psalms, but from the Gospel of the year that is now ending, Luke. It is the song of blessing sung by Zechariah, the father of that John who would become the Baptizer.
The song blesses God for raising up a savior from the house of David, that is, a king who will fulfill the promise of welfare to the descendants of Abraham (verses 68-73). The blessing glides into a prophecy—appropriate for an elderly father blessing his son—and declares that this first new-born child will be called “the prophet of the Most High, / for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (verse 76, NRSV). The final words of the blessing speak of these coming events as a “dawn” that will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. The people thus enlightened will have their feet guided “into the way of peace.”
The blessing-prophecy sees ahead to the magnificent transformation hidden behind a couple of modest births in and around Jerusalem.
The dawning of the light for a people in darkness is also the opening theme of the Epistle reading. This passage, with its hymn about the Christ of the cosmos who overcomes all alien powers, we have read not many weeks ago (8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 18th), among the selections from the smaller letters of Paul. Its appropriateness to the theme of the Reign of Christ is the declaration of what God did in Christ. God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (verses 13-14, NRSV).
In this particular passage, the role of kingship is to rule, to overrule destructive and oppressive powers in the whole cosmos, powers that work for death instead of life. Thus this king rules, he rules over “things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,” from all of which we are delivered. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (verses 19-20).
That is, this rule over the demonic and destructive forces that threaten us came at a cost. The king born as a baby died as a criminal on a cross, with the sign over his head, “the King of the Jews.” The divine power and redemption comes through the divine weakness and hiddenness.
The selection from the Gospel for this Sunday emphasizes this hidden character of Christ the King (or Christ Who Reigns). It is Luke’s account of the crucifixion itself! Our first surprised response to this passage is, “This is no way to treat a king!” Since this is the last selection from Luke’s gospel in the regular cycle of readings, let’s step back and try to catch the long view he is presenting.
Luke was presenting the “inside story” on this notorious Jesus business, “the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4, NRSV). He presents Jesus as the one anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Jubilee to the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-21). He reports Jesus proclaiming that the poor, the hungry, and the depressed are blessed now, and the rich, the full, and the laughing are in trouble (6:20-26). When Jesus is finally recognized by his disciples as the Anointed One (the King) and is manifested to them in his heavenly glory, he immediately begins to predict his disgrace and death in Jerusalem (9:18-39). Then, during his long “journey” from Galilee to Jerusalem (chapters 10-18), Jesus is constantly setting the way of faith in sharp contrast to the way the world works. For those who truly have faith, the world is not what it seems. There is a hidden kingdom on hand in relation to which one may live.
When presenting Jesus’ crucifixion, Luke does not dwell on the agony and pain; he dwells on the mocking of the king. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And from one of those dying with him, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But from the thief who has caught a glimpse of the truth, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The crucifixion in Luke IS the mocking of the King (rather than agony, blood, and flagellation).
Throughout, Luke presents Jesus as the veiled embodiment of an alternative reality. The message of Jesus, the apostles, and the gospel writers is designed to work a transformation in the hearers, so that they can apprehend this reality and orient their whole lives and beings by it.
The final angle on this alternative reality is, of course, the last word, the resurrection. In the resurrection Jesus truly becomes Christ Who Reigns!
Added Note on Luke 23:34a. This Note is not pertinent to the Reign of Christ theme, but it bears on how early Christians evolved their pictures of Jesus.
The NRSV reads this half verse as follows: [[Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] The translators put this half verse in double brackets, and supplied a footnote telling us that some ancient authorities omit this sentence. (Double brackets, instead of single, means this material is REALLY doubtful, as a part of Luke’s original writing.)
What the text evidence really shows us is that some Christian instructors of the second century CE sought to enhance the picture of Jesus as the Suffering Servant even more than Luke had done. As the power of the Passion narrative grew on them, they became convinced that Jesus, as soon as he was crucified, must have bestowed the forgiveness of God even upon his own enemies, those who crucified him. He must have uttered this profoundly selfless prayer—“forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Later readers feel that this is exactly what Jesus should have said, and once we hear it we feel it must be true. Once it was attributed to him—probably in oral retelling of the story—it found its way into the written text of Luke’s story long after Jesus’ death and was then widely copied in the later manuscripts and codices.
The meaning of Jesus’ passion kept growing in Christian devotion, until its later versions finally became holy writ for the rest of the Christian ages.