33So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”34Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”35Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”36Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”37So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:5-8
This weekend the liturgical year comes to an end as the faithful gather to celebrate the feast called “Christ the King.” It is telling that our reading is from the passion narrative in John’s Gospel. Jesus is engaged in a forced conversation with the Roman governor about accusations that Jesus is claiming to be a king like Caesar in Rome. I will also focus attention on the first reading in this week’s liturgy. This important text from the book of the prophet Daniel provides insight into the role of Messiah as a divine figure who would rule as king in the name of the Ancient of Days.
At Jesus’s arraignment, Pontius Pilate realizes that he is getting nowhere. The assembled religious leaders are determined to have Jesus sentenced to death. Pilate summons Jesus into the praetorium, his private residence, where he asks Jesus directly if he claims to be “the King of the Jews.” Jesus evades the confrontational aspect of the inquiry and turns the tables back on Pilate with a question of his own. Why do you want to know? Is your interest in my answer genuine, or are you questioning me at the bidding of the religious officials who brought me before you today?
Pilate’s response is unique. “I am not a Jew, am I?” He admits to Jesus that he does not understand why the chief priests are so threatened by Jesus nor why they want Jesus sentenced to death. Pilate needs to know more. He asks Jesus to state in his own words just what he has done to raise their ire. The issue of kingship is raised in response to this question. Jesus indirectly admits that he is in fact a king—but of a kingdom that does not belong to this world. The difference, he assures Pilate, is that subjects of an earthly king would have fought for him. They would have resisted the efforts of the religious authorities to take him into custody. And yet here he is, standing before the representative of Rome’s empire. Pilate knows that there have been no riots, no violent actions attributed to Jesus and his band of followers to date.
Pilate is confused. Perhaps understandably at a loss, he asks, “Then you are a king?” He does not know what Jesus is claiming. What is this otherworldly kingdom, and where is it to be found in the empire? These questions direct our attention to our reading from Daniel. The prophet receives a heavenly vision where a male figure rides the clouds into the throne room of heaven. This “one like a son of man” is presented before God, the heavenly judge, the Ancient of Days. Daniel senses the royal bearing of this figure and watches and records as the “son of man” is given all the benefits of an earthly king, with an additional promise that his royal throne will never be destroyed. His rule will last forever. This vision is the source of the title that Jesus uses frequently of himself. He is telling his followers that he is a divine agent sent by God to claim a throne that will last beyond the end of time. He is in fact a king—but of a kind Pilate knows nothing about.
Jesus informs Pilate that his kingdom does not belong to this world. Elsewhere, Jesus calls it the “kingdom of God.” That kingdom has been breaking forth all over Israel as a result of Jesus’s public ministry. This eternal kingdom is different from all other kingdoms that have come before. Its king has ridden a lowly female donkey, with a young colt trailing behind, down the slopes of the Mount of Olives before entering the holy city. This gesture fulfilled a centuries-old prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). There would be no royal chariot for King Jesus. In his kingdom rulers will not “lord it over” subjects but will serve them. And King Jesus has demonstrated what his kind of leadership means at the last supper when he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the feet of each of the apostles. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).
It is part of our national identity as Americans to resist the rule of tyrant kings. Our first President rejected the opportunity to become a monarch, a king. Our founders knew the perils associated with kings and kingdoms. They wanted no part of kings, present or future. But Jesus is a different kind of king. He is our king, our Lord and Savior, but also our brother and friend. He reminds us in word and deed that he came to serve rather than to be served. He came to lay down his life for the ransom of the many. Take these thoughts to heart as you meditate.
This week we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. Let’s pray with King David in Psalm 24:7-10:
“Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in war. Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up you ancient portals that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory.”
Jesus tells Pilate that he was born to testify to the truth. This is why he came into the world. Why were you born? Why did you come into the world? When I was young, children in the Catholic community were taught the basics of the faith through the questions and answers of the Baltimore Catechism. I will always remember the very first set of questions. They included, “Why did God make you?” The answer is simple, direct and powerful. All persons are created to know, to love, and to serve the Lord—and to be happy with him in heaven. That was the answer we were to commit to memory.
How can we advance in each of the areas listed above? What would it look like to know, love, and serve the Lord more this week? If we want to know the Lord better we need to dedicate time in our schedule to study the Lord in the Word. Recommit yourself to daily Bible reading and to ongoing Bible study. If we want to love the Lord more this week we can embrace the biblical notion of love as attachment and get ourselves reattached to a community of believers who can help us grow. If we are to serve the Lord more effectively we need to find ways to put our faith into action. We need to show up and assist others less fortunate than ourselves. These are three goals worth committing to memory and acting upon this week. They will also give us a head start on enjoying God and being happy with him. Godspeed!