For Jesus, leadership was about self-sacrifice, not earthly authority
Many in the first century expected a Messiah, but few agreed on the specifics. Their ideas converged, however, on one important point: The Messiah would be a descendant of David. God had promised David an eternal kingdom over which his offspring would always rule. In Jesus’ day, however, this was not the case. Herod and his sons were foreigners who controlled Israel on behalf of another foreign power, the Romans. Many in Israel expected a new king from among David’s descendants who would renew Israel’s independence.
2 Sam 5:1-3, Ps 122, Col 1:12-20, Lk 23:35-43
How has Christ led you?
How has the Gospel helped you experience divine love?
How have your own sacrifices led someone else to God?
That Jesus appeared in Galilee as a carpenter was not a significant stumbling block. David had many descendants, who lived all over the Jewish world. A bigger problem was that Jesus never exhibited any royal traits. As this Sunday’s first reading makes clear, David’s primary job was to be a military commander. Not only did Jesus fail to do this; he preached a message that made such a role impossible. Jesus never confronted the foreigners who ruled Israel, unlike David and the other ancient kings who guarded Israel’s independence. Jesus’ ignominious death at the hands of those same foreigners made it impossible to believe that he was the expected descendant of David who would liberate Israel.
Nevertheless, early Christians called Jesus their king and believed the kingdom he had established was the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. Jesus was their leader because only he knew how to show them the way to the Father. His strategic vision was not a plan of invasion but rather the conquest of death itself. His tactics, shared in his Gospel preaching, were generosity, forgiveness, care for the poor, healing the sick and calling sinners to repentance. His overall doctrine was love. He had an unalloyed experience of the Father’s love, and any who believed in him and lived according to the Gospel would experience the same. This was what led many early Christians to believe Jesus was truly their long-expected king. He led them not to some transient earthly victory but into eternal life.
Jesus died rather than repudiate his belief in God’s love. Luke especially stresses Jesus’ single-hearted obedience to the Father. Even on the cross, Jesus trusts the Father so completely that he can promise paradise to one of the thieves crucified with him. By contrast, Luke makes sure that his readers get a good look at the “rulers” of Israel. They sneer at Jesus, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” What they fail to grasp, and what utterly subverts their authority, is that love demands sacrifice. David risked his life against a lion and a bear when shepherding his father’s flocks; he risked it again against Goliath and repeatedly in battle thereafter. Just so, Jesus laid down his own life for his flock, and thereby reveals himself as David’s offspring and the true king of Israel.
Love is a foretaste of paradise. Jesus experienced it completely and gave us his Gospel so that we can do the same. This is why he is our king. Only one so completely in tune with divine love is a guide trustworthy enough to lead us through the doors of paradise.