Royalty, for most of us these days, is the stuff of tabloids and cartoons. Our last collective focus on the matter of kings and queens occurred during the media attention given to the death of Princess Diana and its aftermath. On that occasion, royalty provided an awkward backdrop and, once again, raised the question of whether monarchy and its trappings serve a useful purpose in these times. How, then, do we approach the feast of Christ the King with anything like the appreciation this title deserves?
The fact is, the language of Near Eastern kingship and kingdom sit at the core of Christian revelation. The reign of God was the centerpiece of Jesus' preaching; proclaiming Jesus as the Christ (the expected royal Anointed One of the “age to come”) lies at the heart of our creed. Dismissing or thoroughly recasting that symbolism is simply not an option. Our only choice is to retrieve the meaning of biblical king-talk and discover afresh how it applies to the living of our faith today.
The difficulty of properly applying king-talk to Jesus already appears
during Jesus’ own public ministry. While Jesus easily and
enthusiastically proclaimed the kingship, or reign, of God, he was
reluctant to accept for himself the royal title of Messiah
(“Anointed One,” for which the Greek equivalent was
Christos). This reluctance seems linked, at least in part, to
the image of king that most of Jesus’ contemporaries associated with
the expected Anointed One. Many first-century Jews appeared to be
looking for a Messiah who would lead the people in the manner of King
David, which at that moment of history seemed to entail leading an
armed revolt against the Romans.
Though Jesus did not aspire to that kind of messiahship, still his challenge to the Temple leadership led them to use his talk of the kingdom of God as a hook to catch the attention of the Roman prefect Pilate. A person who constantly spoke of a kingdom and was treated by his followers as the Anointed One must, his opponents insisted, surely pose a threat to Roman law and order.
The relationship of Jesus to kingship is, of course, the main issue of the Jewish hearing, the Roman trial, and the military mockery on Good Friday. The way that issue is shaped in John’s account of the interview between Jesus and Pilate in this Sunday's reading is of particular interest. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” After a brief exchange about the course of Pilate's question, Jesus responds, “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.”
Two things emerge in the exchange: Jesus does not reject the title king, but neither does he accept the ordinary political implications of the title. His is another kind of kingship entirely. And his authority derives its power from a source other than this world.
“My kingdom does not belong to this world.” This is the translation most of us will hear this Sunday, and it is a good one. What many will think they heard is the translation that has dominated the English-language version of this saying for nearly four centuries: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Rheims, 1582; King James Version, 1611). How one translates ek tou kosmou toutou is not simply an academic question. “My kingdom is not of this world” has long been a kind of proof-text for Christians who would thoroughly separate religion from politics. When our bishops, for example, call their flocks to greater political responsibility, their resisters sometimes say things like, “What has religion to do with the economy? Didn't Jesus say, 'My kingdom is not of this world?'”
Here the very literal rendering of the New Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition) may be a helpful antidote to that misunderstanding. “My kingdom is not from this world. … But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” That version makes it clear that the point is the source of the kingdom's authority (divine not worldly), not the location of the kingdom's presence. It is in that sense that Jesus' kingship “does not belong to this world” and “is not here.”
The whole of the New Testament makes it clear that response to the reign of God and the kingship of Jesus has everything to do with how we live out our earthly citizenship—how we work, pay, buy, sell, and vote. In this we honor Jesus (to use the words of today’s reading from Revelation) as “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.”