Church of the Nativity
Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentecost)
November 24, 2013
I think a helpful way to unpack Christ the King Sunday is to talk about a scene from the movie Schindler’s List. Have you all seen it? Well, whether you have or not, there is a scene in the film where Oskar Schindler--the German Gentile who was so instrumental in saving countless German Jews during Hitler’s awful reign--is talking about power with an an SS officer. You see the SS officer had been brutally murdering countless Jews--showing no mercy at all--in order to demonstrate to them and his fellow soldiers that he was powerful. Schindler--a reputable and powerful businessman--tells the barbaric and power-hungry--yet ultimately insecure--official that real power “is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor… pardons him. This worthless man, [the Emperor] lets him go… That’s power. That is power.”
The similarities between Schindler’s advice to the SS officer and what happens in this morning’s Gospel lesson are very interesting. For in Luke 23 we have something of a parallel story. We have that famous scene where Jesus cries out on behalf of his murderers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” We have a king, albeit not in a traditional position of power, granting pardon to the worthless--those who reject, mock, and murder an innocent. Like the insecure, power-seeking SS officer who later does indeed take Schindler’s advice, Jesus essentially says to the truly worthless, “I pardon you.”
Don’t forget that he does this after he has been tried and scourged. His own people have borne false witness against him, and the religious leaders have identified him as a seditious blasphemer. It is also important to note that only the worst criminals were crucified on the place called Skull. And here he is, the religious leaders and government authorities conspiring together to have him killed in the most inhumane of ways--naked on a cross of wood.
All of this makes his request for forgiveness on their behalf seem implausible. I don’t know about you, but I am always profoundly touched when I get to this part of the gospel narrative. I get what some people call “warm fuzzies”; I get the sense that all of us were made to forgive like this. But then a few days go by, someone wrongs me in a semi-significant way, and I forget all about those fuzzies--I’m no longer interested in radical forgiveness. How could anyone? And yet, here’s Jesus, praying for pardon for those not even remotely interested in repentance. In fact, if you take a look at the text you’ll notice that his cry for forgiveness on their behalf does nothing for these victimizers. It does nothing to touch the hearts or still the contempt of the religious leaders or the soldiers. The leaders scoff at him, “He saved others;” they say, “let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” The soldiers also also mock him offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Finally, there is a third. One of those being crucified with him says the same, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
The religious leaders, the Roman soldiers, and a heinous criminal are all lumped together. They are on the side that opposes Jesus--the Messiah, “the chosen one”, the “King of the Jews.” The side that Jesus pardons. But in Luke’s account there is someone else. Another man being crucified for an unspecified--though likely equally heinous--deed who says to his co-criminal, “we indeed have been condemned justly… but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then, turning to the Messiah he says those words we sometimes sing, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds with that famous saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It is interesting to keep in mind that the “good criminal” next to Jesus never actually repents of his sins (Raymond Brown, New Testament). He simply stands up for the unjustly treated Messiah and asks to be remembered. The “repentant thief,” as he is sometimes called, is a sinner and, don’t forget, the Skull--the place where he is sentenced to die--is reserved for the worst of them.
So what do we make of all of this? Jesus asking his Father to pardon his enemies because of their ignorance, his victimizers nevertheless continuing in their mockery, and a criminal who sees Jesus for who his detractors mock him to be...
First and foremost Luke is showing us that Jesus is King. He puts the words right in the mouth of the victimizers themselves. In their mockery of Jesus they are--ironically--declaring his true identity as Messiah, King of the Jews, “chosen one.” It’s even right there on the inscription above his head: “This is the King of the Jews.” A very fitting text for Christ the King Sunday, indeed.
But more than telling us that Jesus is King, the text reveals to us just what kind of Messiah that Jesus is. We are provided with a more complete glimpse of Jesus’ identity not only in his call for the forgiveness of his enemies, but also in the ironic taunts of these enemies. The religious leaders, soldiers, and his mocking co-cross bearer all tell him to save himself. By focusing on that word “save,” Luke is showing the reader--you and me--just what Christ the king is in the business of doing. He is in the business of saving. He is interested in mercy. And by not saving himself, by taking the sins of the world upon himself instead, he saves those he prays for. More explicitly, in the response to the request from his co-cross-bearing defender, Jesus is revealed as a king who saves criminals--who saves the ungodly. As the Prayer of Humble Access puts it which we will pray momentarily, he is revealed as a king “whose property is always to have mercy.”
In the book of Romans, Paul tells us that “While we were yet sinners, [and not before we got our act together] Christ died for the ungodly.” Notice, the “ungodly” according to Paul is you and I. We are lumped in with the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the criminals who died with Jesus. But thanks be to God that like the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminals, Messiah Jesus prays for your forgiveness and mine. You see he is no ordinary king, he is a ruler who saves victimizers, dregs, and everyone in between.
In their positions of power, both Jesus and the SS officer in the movie Schindler’s List pardon the “worthless.” The major difference is that the SS officer is brutal, barbaric, and ungodly. A tyrant who craves power and loves to lord over “lesser people.” A man who pardons, not out of love, but so that his own prominence will be puffed up. So that his power and esteem might become greater. Jesus, on the other hand, appears to have no power. That is why the leaders, soldiers, and the criminal mock him. He is a king without a kingdom. A ruler who gave up power so that he could save. He pardons out of his poverty because he loves. He is innocent man dying a public, naked, shameful death. But with this death he is vindicated and is now seated in splendor at the right hand of his Father.
On this Christ the King Sunday, know that Jesus is a ruler worth putting your whole life behind, and this is because he is no tyrant. He is not a brutal, power-hungry, image-conscious ruler uninteresting in the well-being of his subjects like the SS officer. He is a king who had the power to give up power so that he might have friendship with you and me.