Ask a group of boomers who pops into their minds when they hear the word king. Some candidates might be simply The King (Elvis) or the King of Pop or, more soberly, some might remember The Boss singing: Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain’t satisfied/ Till he rules everything.
King suggests someone at the top, exercising power and receiving adulation from all quarters. Even today, when kingship seems out of kilter with modern culture, as I write these lines the tragic and troubled land of Afghanistan may place its hopes for peace on an aging king.
The first reading depicts the origin of the Davidic dynasty, when David is anointed to shepherd and command the people of Israel. The king was God’s vice-regent on earth, and Psalm 72 offers an idealized job description for the king. He is to govern the people with justice, shall defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the poor. Though rarely realized in practice, this mandate was part of the continuing hope for a messianic, royal figure from the Davidic line.
The Gospel on this feast of the Messiah king, Jesus, turns the royal ideology on its head. He reigns not from a throne but from the gibbet of the cross. God, who was to be the protector and bulwark of the king, seems to have abandoned him as he faces a cursed death (Dt. 27:26). Like the servant of Isa. 53:3, he is despised and rejected, as the bystanders ridicule the image of the saving king, challenging him to prove his kingship by coming down from the cross and thus betray his command to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.
As the last selection from Luke in the C cycle of Lectionary readings, the crucifixion is an epitome of Lukan themes. Announced to the shepherds as savior, Jesus does this from the throne of the cross. The good thief (Luke calls him simply a criminal) calls him simply Jesus, a gesture of intimacy but also the promised name given at birth for the one who would reign as king (Lk. 2:31-33). The criminal asks to be remembered by Jesus, but receives much moreintimacy with him in Paradise. Jesus, who took on the mantle of Isaiah to proclaim salvation to the poor and the marginal (4:18) and came to seek and save the lost (19:10), promises salvation to one like himself, marginal and rejected. Luke’s Jesus preaches reconciliation and love of enemies, and as he is led to execution, he heals the ear of the hostile high priest’s servant, breaks down the hatred between Pilate and Herod and dies with a prayer to his Father for forgiveness of his executioners (23:34).
The salvation of the good thief, later known in Christian tradition as Dismas, reminds me of those heroic people who have tried to bring hope and saving concern to criminals in our society. I remember especially Jack Hickey, O.P., a dynamic and charismatic chaplain at Vanderbilt University. Despite reservations from many quarters, but with help from dedicated lay partners, he founded Dismas House. Unlike other Dismas houses, recent parolees would live and work with college students in the hope that mutual understanding and healing would take place. In the last years of his life, Jack fought virulent cancer and exercised his royal priesthood from his personal cross. Since his all too early death from cancer in January 1987, the movement has blossomed into 10 such houses.
Our lives are filled with such horrible instances of the abuse of power that royal imagery seems best retired. The reign of Jesus from the cross is based on a different vision of power. Paul tells us that now we are brought into the kingdom of God’s son, who reconciled everything in his person, everything I say, both on earth and in the heavens, making peace through the blood of the cross (Col. 1:20). Yet Jesus as king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything. His rule, however, consists in seeking the lost, offering salvation to those who call out to him and making friends of enemies. Today Jesus’ rule is our task.