In December 1997, Las Abejas, a group of 48 indigenous communities whose name means “the bees,” came to the world’s attention when 45 of their members, mostly women and children, were murdered. They were killed by paramilitary troops while they were fasting and praying for peace in their rough-hewn wooden chapel in the village of Acteal, Mexico.
The indigenous people of Las Abejas come from the highlands of Chiapas, in the southernmost part of Mexico. They call themselves Las Abejas because they see themselves as a community of equal worker bees, striving together for peace, all serving the queen bee, which is the reign of God. No person other than Jesus and his kingdom can be the center of their hive of activity.
Several years after the massacre, a group of our students and professors were privileged to meet with their community. We asked if they were not tempted to abandon their commitment to nonviolence after they had lost so many of their mothers and sisters and brothers.
Without hesitation, they replied that they must continue to forgive their enemies and pray for their persecutors because that is what Jesus taught. It is a powerful appropriation of the example of Christ given us in today’s Gospel.
Some people in Jesus’ day were looking for a king like David, who would reassert Israel’s independence, rid the land of the Romans and make wise decisions for the people.
There were advantages to monarchical rule: one man invested with authority could carry the weight of governance and make decisions on behalf of the people. But there were also disadvantages. What if the ruler did not keep foremost the peoples’ best interests? What if his judgment was impaired by greed and hunger for power? What voice did the common folk have in decisions that affected their lives? What chance was there that women’s perspectives would be heard?
When Jesus appeared proclaiming God’s kingdom, he offered an antidote to imperial ways. He criticized the way the “kings of the Gentiles” lorded their power over their people and demanded recognition for their benefaction.
By contrast, he urged the leaders among his followers to be the servants of all (Lk 22:25-26), a manner of life he modeled for them, as he took up his itinerant mission with people at the lowest rungs of society. Unlike an offended monarch who imposes harsh punishments for infractions, he instead exercised power through forgiveness and compassion when there were transgressions.
Today’s Gospel paints in stark contrast the power of imperial Rome, which brooks no challenges to its rule, and the “kingly” ways of Jesus that rest on forgiveness and love. Even as it appears that the former may win out, the Gospel makes it utterly clear that Jesus’ merciful rule cannot be extinguished by death.
Even as he is mocked and taunted in his dying moments, Jesus continues to exercise the power of forgiveness both toward his executioners (23:34) and toward one of the criminals who acknowledges his form of power and asks to be included in his realm.
Followers of Christ the King find themselves challenged to form communities of “worker bees,” where the only royal figure is Jesus, where the only kingdom is God’s and where the power of forgiveness reigns supreme.