Unmasking Kingly Power

There’s something about royalty that fascinates us. Princess Diana and Prince Charles repeatedly captured the world’s attention. In the United States we watch with interest the doings of Queen Elizabeth, even though our founding ethos is grounded in overthrowing monarchical rule. It may be that the lives of kings and queens represent a fairy-tale-like imagining of the good life that we just can’t help dreaming about. For peasants in biblical times, the notion of a benevolent, kindly king who has the good of the people at heart and who would hear their cries for justice and act upon them may have held just as much attraction. When one’s life is a constant struggle, believing in a powerful king—who could with a pen stroke or a wave of the hand make everything go well for the little ones—fuels hope and gives a reason to keep plodding on.

It is not surprising then that Christians would think of Jesus as such a king, or of God in royal terms. Today’s feast has a double edge to it, as is brought out in the readings. Jesus is king, but in a most anti-imperial way. In the Gospel we see Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate, who is the extension of the imperial arm in Palestine.


Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, in John Jesus does not remain silent before the Roman governor. Rather, Jesus seems to be the one in power, as though he were conducting the trial of Pilate. Throughout their exchanges, Jesus does not directly answer Pilate’s questions. Ironically, the latter ultimately condemns himself by his own responses to Jesus. Pilate takes on a mocking tone as he jibes at Jesus about being a king: What kind of king is handed over by his own people and doesn’t have an army to defend himself? Pilate also ridicules any nationalistic hopes of the Jewish people for self-rule. This mockery continues in a subsequent scene as Pilate’s soldiers drape a purple cloak over Jesus, place a thorny crown on his head and imitate the greeting given the emperor, “Ave Caesar!”

When Pilate queries, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus shifts the discussion away from himself as king and speaks instead about his “kingdom.” By using imperial language to speak of God’s realm where love and fullness of life reign supreme, Jesus subverts kingly expressions of power that exploit and abuse others. By his actions and words he has undermined monarchical systems of authority and obedience. He calls his followers “friends” and invites them into a community of beloved disciples in which the leaders are the first to wash the feet of those least regarded.

Later in his interrogation of Jesus, Pilate boasts of his power to release Jesus or to crucify him, but Jesus reminds the Roman ruler that he would have no power over him unless it was given to him from above (19:10-11). Moreover, Jesus already has declared to his disciples that no one has power over his life, he himself lays it down freely (10:18). Pilate has no desire to hear about this kind of “kingdom,” and does not understand the anti-kingdom message of Jesus. Pilate is fixated on forcing Jesus to admit his claims to being a king so that he has ground on which to eliminate this supposed rival with pretensions to his own throne. Jesus will not give him that satisfaction and simply points out that it is Pilate who is using that kind of language, not Jesus. Jesus speaks of his mission not in terms of a conquering king, but as one who testifies to the truth. All it takes to belong to this kingdom where truth reigns is to listen to his voice.

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