CHRIST THE KING - PROPER XXIX - C - 16 LUKE 23: 35-43
How strange it appears to end the Church’s year with the crucifixion? As if that were the end of the story. But in a way it is the end, at least of Jesus earthly ministry. But isn’t the story of Jesus’ death on the cross more appropriate at the end of Holy Week to be followed by the resurrection?
Yet we have Luke’s report of Jesus’ dying on the cross before us as we close out the Church’s year with our celebration of Christ The King. The cross appeared to be anything but a throne, especially to those who watched him die. But to one, who died alongside him, Jesus is King.
Like each of the gospels Luke has his own unique contributions to make to the story of Jesus. His greatest contribution to the Passion Narrative is the penitent thief. In addition, his gospel is the only one to report that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. In doing so Luke reminds us of life’s two ways: the way of fearing God, with a Holy fear that is, and the way of taking care of self.
Think of some of the stories Luke has shared with us through this liturgical year beginning with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem where the people turned their backs on Mary and Joseph, but the shepherds rejoiced and believed.
More recently the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, but only one returned to give thanks. Or that of the two men who went into the Temple to pray; one lauded his achievements before God, while the other asked for mercy.
All the way through Luke many ignore God and court disaster, but a few heed God and find mercy. Even at the cross this pattern of human choices, of alternative paths, continues. The rulers scoff, the soldiers mock, the people standby silently watching. Even one of those dying with Jesus joins the clamor.
They are being played by Satan in his continuing temptation to deter Jesus from his mission whether they realize it or not. You may recall that after Satan’s failed attempts to deter Jesus while he was fasting and praying in the wilderness in preparation for his earthly ministry, Satan withdrew until “an opportune time.” The cross was such a time. At the cross the temptations all began with that little word “if,” just like they did in the desert.
The rulers sneered saying, “he saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ, the chosen one of God.” The soldiers mocked him saying, “if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” But the temptation did not end there, the unrepentant thief who was dying next to Jesus blasphemed him saying, “if you are the Christ, save yourself and us.”
But there was another voice that day, one who issued a request to be remembered by Christ when he came into his kingdom. Tradition has named him Dysmas; the repentant thief who was crucified alongside of Jesus. He admitted his guilt and placed his faith in Christ. He joined the ranks of every other unprejudiced person in the gospel who acquitted Jesus of any crime against the civil power.
Dysmas becomes the only person present that day to comprehend and confess that Jesus, though he seemed to be dying and rejected, is in fact the true and righteous king. How did he come to think of Jesus as king?
Perhaps he had been present at the trial awaiting his turn and heard Pilate present him to the people as their king; in any case he would have seen the inscription, “This is Jesus King of the Jews,” over the cross. However the thief reached his conclusion Jesus welcomed it.
Even from the cross, Christ reached out to a member of fallen humanity and granted salvation with the same divine authority as with his prayer of intercession. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus has stood the meaning of “kingship” on its head. He has celebrated with the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. Now he is hailed as king at last but in mockery. What was intended as an accusation and a mockery, however, became instead a triumphant symbol that all nations would come under the reign of Jesus the King.
His true royalty shines out in his prayer and his promise, both recorded only in Luke. Unlike the traditional martyrs, who died with a curse against their torturers, Jesus prays for their forgiveness. The intercession was not only for those who sentenced and crucified him, but for all humanity, a people who have no insight into the profound mystery of God’s salvation.
Like a king on his way to enthronement, Jesus promises a place of honor and bliss to one who requests it. The prayer shows that the promise is not to be taken as meaning that the only hope is in a life after death, vital though that of course is. Forgiveness brings the life of heaven to earth, God’s future into the present.
As we close out the Church year and stand on the threshold of another where do we stand with Jesus? What path are we choosing to walk? And where will it lead us? The promise to the repentant thief is ours if we chose to acknowledge our guilt and place our trust & faith in Him as Lord of Lords and King of Kings and live our lives accordingly.
Throughout the gospels Jesus redefines kingship. He is our king, but we have to accept him as king who reigns from the cross, and who calls us not to sit upon thrones, but paths of caring for the hungry, the sorrowful, and the persecuted.
With that said it is appropriate that we end the Church’s year with the crucifixion of Jesus as the focus of our celebration of Christ the King. We pledge our allegiance to Him as King, as we begin another year of life in His service and under His most gracious rule. For He is the Christ, the chosen one of God, who in refusing to save himself, saved us all. AMEN+