Sunday 22 November 2020
Luke 23: 33-43
Reflection by Andrew
It has to be said that Jesus, as we see him in today’s Gospel, stripped and crucified, makes an unlikely kind of king. But he was an unlikely kind of king from the very start. Kings, generally speaking, surround themselves with useful people, powerful people, people with the right kind of background.
When Bonny Prince Charlie returned to Scotland and set up his standard to claim his throne, he summoned the chiefs – the men of power who bring their people with them. If you want to be king you look after the people at the top, the crème de la crème of the aristocracy or the people with money – maybe even the religious hierarchy (pharisees and bishops, people like that) to prop up the legitimacy of your claim to power.
But this very human approach Jesus clearly subverts from day one. He comes to claim his kingdom, to set up his standard if you like. But who does he choose? Fishermen and tax collectors and women. This is not starting at the top. This is starting at the bottom. Having been responsible for selecting new candidates for ministry at various times over the years, I’ve often found myself wondering whether the disciples Jesus chose would have made it through our selection processes. And I have to say they almost certainly wouldn’t. Would Peter be deemed stable enough? And what about James and John who still seem to have attachment issues with their mother? – you know, they wouldn’t be allowed to bring their Mum to a selection conference.
So why is it that this unlikely king with his ragtag retinue has the House of Herod running scared? Right from curtain up when the Wise Men make the not very wise move of paying a visit to Herod to ask where they might find an infant king. Which is a bit like asking the wolf for directions to Red Riding Hood’s granny’s cottage. Well the reason the Herods, both the father who tries to kill Jesus and the son who finishes the job, are running scared, is because they are not the real deal. And they know it.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” doesn’t even begin to describe the insecurities of the House of Herod. For one thing they’re not real Jews. They had neither Jewish blood nor royal blood. And not even Herod’s building of that wonder of a temple which earned him the title of “The Great” fooled anybody. Herod, with his ten foreign wives and the blood of forty-five members of the Sanhedrin and even some of his own sons on his hands – not a “people person” this Herod – he wasn’t even allowed to enter it. These are fake Jews and fake kings. Roman puppets. One ancient writer says that Herod “stole to his throne like a fox, ruled like a tiger and died like dog.” You can see the Herods really were a hit with the locals.
But enter this Galilean Carpenter and suddenly everyone sees in him all that kingship should be and all that people are hoping for. Many, of course, will get it wrong – even among the disciples – and be disappointed because this king wears no armour, summons no army. But everyone sees in him a Son of David. “Son of David have pity on me”. People clamour for what would one day be known as the royal touch, the healing touch of a true king. On Palm Sunday the people give a royal triumph to a man on a donkey. You almost have to pinch yourself and ask what were these folk seeing? Kings do not ride donkeys. It almost begs for Hans Christian Andersen’s little boy to run out of the crowd and shout: Look at the king – he’s naked!
But in fact it’s the nakedness of worldly power that really gets exposed. The naked king on the Cross, the unlikely king on the donkey splits open reality to show us how it all looks from God’s perspective. And the courtiers of the king are dying criminals, lepers and beggars, tax collectors and prostitutes, Roman soldiers and fishermen, children, women, the sick, the lame, the hated Samaritan, the outcast. These are not people whose names will ever appear in the Court Circular or in the photo pages of Country Life. But they are the aristocracy of the Kingdom of God.
And this we need to know because the knowing of it allows us to know that we are invited too. As you look at the brokenness of our King we can own up to the fact of our own brokenness. This is the Jesus who invites me to Paradise, just as I am; to come to a royal banquet, just exactly as I am. If a naked criminal can come, then maybe I can come too.
I wonder whether James and John who once asked Jesus (through their mother of course) if they could have thrones, one on his right and one on his left when he came into his kingdom, saw that scene on Golgotha and now saw what it would mean to be on Jesus’s right or left. But this is his royal throne from which he reigns and makes all earthly thrones look like worldly pomp. Jesus is enthroned on a Cross, on the dungheap of the world’s pain – a dying and living sign from God that our pain matters. This king comes not really to claim a kingdom but to reclaim us. Paul puts it explicitly: to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness (from our own darkened hearts and minds) and transfer us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. It’s a bit like your passport which still says something like: “Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires all whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…” This is our passport into a new freedom – and no-one is to take that away from us, least of all ourselves.