Commentary on the Readings
34th Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 24, 2019 – Year C
A Cross for a Throne
When Emperor Tiberius governs Rome, John the Baptist appears along the Jordan River. What he says causes excitement, awakens expectations and raises hopes. The political and religious authorities were worried because they consider his message subversive. He says: The kingdom of heaven is near (Mt 3:2). After him, Jesus begins to travel through towns and villages announcing everywhere: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is imminent (Mk 1:15). At times he says: The kingdom of God is already in your midst (Lk 17:21). The kingdom is the center of the preaching of Jesus: in fact, the New Testament mentions the theme of the kingdom of God 122 times and Jesus says it as many as 90 times himself.
A few years after his death, we find his disciples announcing the kingdom of God in all the provinces of the empire and in Rome itself (Acts 28:31). We would like the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles to explain to us the meaning of this expression, but none of them does. However, we notice that Jesus distances himself from those who politically and nationalistically interpret his mission (Mt 4:8). Nevertheless, his message contains an undeniable subversive load to the existing structures in society. Those in political and religious power considered him dangerous.
Starting as a small seed, the kingdom is destined to grow and become a tree (Mt 1:31-32). It is gifted with an irresistible force and will provoke a radical transformation of the world and of the people. The kingship of Jesus is difficult to understand. It has sent Pilate’s head in a tilt (Jn 18:33-38). It’s too different from those of this world. It has been misunderstood many times over the centuries!
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Thy kingdom come!”
David was a poor shepherd from Bethlehem. From his youth he has a very adventurous life: he puts himself as head of a band of misfits; he takes refuge in the desert and begins to fight against the Philistines and against his own king, Saul.
Impressed by his ability—his intelligence, strength, and courage—the members of the tribe of Judah proclaim him king. Initially, the kingdom is comparatively small: it covers a small area to the south of Israel. Other tribes who remain loyal to Saul occupied the whole northern part.
Today’s reading tells how that one day the elders of the northern tribes presented themselves to David in the city of Hebron and say to him: we understand that God has chosen you as a leader not only of a tribe but of all Israel. Even when Saul was the king over us, it was you who led us out against the enemies and you made us emerge victorious from all the battles. Now consider us as your subjects; we are like “your bone and your flesh.” David agrees and is anointed king over all Israel. Thus begins the reign of David, a great and powerful kingdom to which the peoples of the world looked up to, for some ten years, with admiration, awe, and respect.
Then David dies and is succeeded by his son Solomon. He manages to keep the kingdom of his father united, but soon the tribes separate again and Israel returns to be an insignificant people, derided by the big neighboring countries. To rebuild the great kingdom of David one day and become the rulers of the world: this is the dream of the Israelites of Jesus’ time. For this, they pray every day to the Lord to send his messiah.
How come this story is presented as first reading of the feast of Christ the King? It is simple: it is because Jesus is God’s answer to the prayers and expectations of his people. He is the messiah, the king who “will rule from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8).
Why, then, the Israelites did not accept him? Why did the elders of the people have him killed, instead of anointing him king, as was done by their ancestors, with David in Hebron? The reason will be explained to us in the Gospel.
Paul is in prison (Col 4:3,10,18) when, from the valley of Lycus, in Asia Minor, Epaphras arrives to visit him. He is a great apostle who founded and keeps alive the communities of that region. The news that he brings is alarming. The Christians have been seduced by strange doctrines: they believe that the heavens are populated by powers, spirits that move the universe. They consider that these spirits are endowed with a mysterious force that can affect people’s lives. They are scared and are convinced that they are superior to Christ. Paul writes to the Colossians and recommends them to circulate his letter also in the neighboring communities (Col 4:16).
It starts with the hymn to Christ and that is proposed to us in today’s reading. In the first part (vv. 12-17) it celebrates the primacy of Christ over all creation.
In the second part (vv. 18-20) it proclaims that Christ is the first in the new creation because he is the first to conquer death and to open to all the way to God. So he submitted to his power the Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, and the Power (these were the names with which the Colossians called the mysterious spirits that instill fear in them). The fear of evil spirits, spells, the evildoers, the belief in magical rituals, superstitions, are not compatible with faith in the victory and dominion of Christ over all creatures.
The Israelites were expecting a great king. They dreamed of him wrapped in precious vestments, strong, sitting on a golden throne. They wanted to see him rule over all peoples and humiliate the enemy, forcing them to fall prostrate at his feet and lick the dust (Ps 72:9-11). They harbored the hope that his kingdom would be eternal and universal.
In the Gospel passage, God’s response is presented to these expectations. We are on Calvary, and Jesus is crucified, two bandits at his side, and above him, an inscription was written: This is the king of the Jews (v. 38). Would he be the expected son of David? No, it is not possible: he is just an unfortunate one. Where are the signs of kingship?
He does not rule from a golden throne; he is nailed to a cross. He does not have servants who pay him homage and who stoop at his feet; no soldiers ready to take his every order. He stands in front of people who insult him and laugh at him. He does not wear luxurious trappings but is completely naked.
He does not threaten anyone and uses words of love and forgiveness for all. He does not force his enemies to lick the dust. It is he himself who drinks vinegar. He has no ministers, army generals at his side but two criminals.
One day, James and John would ask him: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left” (Mk 10:37). Had they known what they were asking for….
What a strange kingship Jesus has! It is the opposite of what people are accustomed to imagine. Unfortunately, many Christians have not grown hopes different from that of the Jews. They identified the kingdom of Christ with victories and triumphs and with respect to what the church leaders instill in the minds of the people of this world.
The inscription on the cross proclaims the king of the Jews a defeated person, unable to defend himself and devoid of any power. This kind of king destroys all our projects. Then the question insistently comes back: how could he be the promised messiah? Let us look closely at the three scenes that are described in today’s Gospel.
In the first scene (vv. 35-37), three groups of persons at the foot of the cross, at the foot of the “king”, are introduced.
First of all, the people present: How do they behave? They do nothing, neither good nor bad; they are observing (v. 35). They are amazed; they seem not to realize what is happening. They do not understand how a man who dies without defending himself may be the long-awaited king. He is a righteous person, but then why does not God intervene to save him?
We noticed several times during this liturgical year that Luke has great sympathy for the poor, the last and the simple people. This evangelist presents to us the silent and perplexed people at the foot of the cross. He wants to tell us that they are not responsible for the death of Jesus. A few verses later he notes: “All people who had gathered to watch the spectacle, as soon as they saw what had happened, went home beating their breast” (Lk 23:48).
The amazed people represent all those well-disposed people who would like to understand the plan of God but they cannot because the one who should enlighten them, in turn, is blind.
Besides the people, there are the leaders at the foot of the cross. They are the real culprits! They, like the elders of Israel, who have anointed David king at Hebron, should recognize in Jesus the promised Messiah. Instead, they laugh at him: he is not the king that they like; he is a loser, unable to save himself and does not come down from the cross (v. 35).
Why does Jesus not give the proof that they ask for? Why does he not descend from the cross? Why does he not accomplish the miracle? If he did he would convince all and would avoid a huge crime. If he came down from the cross, everyone would believe. But in what would they believe? In a strong and mighty God, in a God who defeats and humbles the enemies, who answers tit for tat to the provocations of the wicked, who inspires awe and respect, and does not joke… This is not the God of Jesus.
If he came down from the cross he would betray his mission: he would be supporting the false idea of God that the spiritual leaders of the people have in mind. He would be confirming that the true God is that which the powerful of this world have always adored because he is similar to them: strong, arrogant, oppressive, vindictive and armed.
This mighty God is incompatible with the one revealed to us by Jesus on the cross: the God who loves everyone, even those who fight him, always forgives, saves and lets himself be defeated for love.
God is not all-powerful because with his immense power he can do what he wants, but because he loves so immensely, he puts himself without limits and conditions to the service of persons. His is not the omnipotent of domination but of service. We have seen it in Jesus who stoops to wash the disciples’ feet: that is the authentic face of the omnipotent God, the King of the universe.
The third group at the foot of the cross is composed of the soldiers. These are poor men, snatched from their families and sent, for little money, to commit violence against a people of different language, custom, and religion. They are far from their wives, children, friends, and have lost all human feelings and unleash themselves against those weaker than them. They are not perpetrators but victims of the folly of others superior to them.
They only know how to follow orders. They cannot express their opinion; they repeat the words they have heard uttered by their leaders: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself ” (v. 36).
For fear, for very little money, out of ignorance they sold themselves and their conscience. They collaborate in injustice, abuse, and violence against the most vulnerable. They have been brought up to believe in the strength and power of weapons, to respect the winner and mock the loser. Now Jesus is on the side of the losers.
The second scene (v. 38) occupies the center of the passage. It presents the inscription placed above the head of Jesus.
Luke seems to address an invitation to the Christians of his and our communities: contemplate the king nailed to the cross. In front of him, every lust for glory, will to rule and desire to reach the top, is ridiculous. From the cross Jesus points out to all, who is the king chosen by God: he is the one who accepts humiliation, who knows that the only way to give glory to God is to choose the last place to serve the poor.
We have contemplated the two scenes of what happens at the foot of the cross and then the inscription posted above.
The third scene (vv. 39-43) takes place at the sides of Jesus, where two criminals are crucified. Like the people, the leaders, the soldiers, one of the two does not understand anything. The only thing he expected from the Messiah is freedom from torture he was subjected to. Jesus does not help him; he shows himself unable to meet his request.
The second thief is the only one who recognizes in Jesus the expected king: “Jesus, remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” He calls him by name. He understands that he can confidently call him this way. He considers him as a friend, the friend of someone who has had a devastated life. He does not consider him a “gentleman” but a traveling companion, someone who agreed to undergo, despite being right, the fate of the wicked.
He does not expect a miraculous deliverance from Jesus. He asks only to accomplish with him the last steps of life and the life that has been a succession of mistakes and crimes.
Jesus promises him: Today you will be with me in paradise.
The history of this criminal is that of every person: who has not acted like him? Who has not panned sometimes the life of a brother with hatred, slander, and injustice? Who has not provoked small or big disasters in society, in families, in the Christian community?
At heart, many continue to think that, on the cross, the kingship of Jesus is not well celebrated. That was just only an unfortunate moment. The real manifestation will take place later, at the end of the world, at the moment of reckoning. Then the glory of Christ will shine: he will come with his army of angels and will show to all, especially to those who crucified him, his power.
Before he died, Jesus gave a judgment of acquittal to his executioners. Will it also be valid at the end or is it a provisional statement, susceptible to revision? Is it true that those who condemned and killed him did not know what they were doing (Lk 23:34)? Maybe someone believes that Jesus on Calvary was not in the ideal conditions to objectively assess the responsibilities of those who were crucifying Him, still less, to manifest all his glory.
Well, if we still cultivate such thoughts, we have not captured the face of God that Jesus has revealed to us.
The trial against those who killed Jesus—let it be clear—will not be reopened: there will be no revision of the judgment. Jesus gave his final judgment: he absolved his executioners, saved them in the most glorious moment of his life when, on the cross, he showed the utmost of his love. For us, a king triumphs when he wins, defeats, humiliates. We try in every way to conform the image of Christ the King to that of the kings of this world. We do not want to believe that he wins in the moment in which he loses, in the moment he gives his life. This ruler who reigns from a cross disturbs us because he requires a radical change of the choices in our lives. He requires, for example, that we offer an unconditional forgiveness to all those who do us harm.
In this perspective, the final judgment too should not be feared, but expected with joy because … it will occur with roles reversed. In the end, it will not be God who judges us, but we to judge him.
Stripped of miseries, meanness and pettiness that have burdened our minds and hardened our hearts, cured of spiritual blindness that prevented us to understand the Scriptures (Lk 24:25), “they will see his face” (Rev 22:4), “see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Then we will be able to deliver an objective judgment on him. Amazed, we will be forced to admit: God is bigger than our hearts (1 Jn 3:20).
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.