On the feast of Christ the King, we are called to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact our King. It is one thing to say that He is our King because the song in Church says that, or the preacher says that, or the Bible says that (yes, faith does come by hearing). But it is quite another for us to personally say that Jesus is our King. There comes a time when we must personally affirm what the Church has always announced: “Jesus is Lord, and He is King. He is my king. He has authority in my life.” This must become more than just lip service. It must become a daily, increasing reality in our life.
Kings take care of us, but they also have the authority to command us. Can Christ command you or me? Or are we more like the typical modern person who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Or perhaps we suffer from the more mild form of this attitude in which we reduce Jesus to being a “harmless hippie” who just says pleasant things about peace and flowers but would never rebuke us or command us to repent.
And so, again, here is the question: “Is Jesus Christ your King?”
That brings us to today’s Gospel. Now the Gospels are not theater; we aren’t in the audience watching a story unfold that took place 2000 years ago. No, we are in the story. We are not just supposed to sit back and observe what Peter, or Pontius Pilate, or James, or Mary Magdalene does. They are we and we are they.
This means that when Jesus asks one of them a question, we cannot merely wait to see how he or she will answer. No, we have to answer the question.
In today’s Gospel the spotlight moves to Pontius Pilate. The Lord asks the critical question of him (i.e., of us). We cannot simply wait to see how Pilate answers. We have to answer. Let’s consider this Gospel in three stages.
I. INDECISION – In a remarkable display of literary artistry, John and the Holy Spirit vividly depict the vacillation of Pontius Pilate. For in this Gospel passage of the trial of Jesus, Pilate goes in and out of the praetorium (the governor’s palace) more than a bellhop through the revolving door of a hotel! Indeed he goes in and out seven times. Here is the text, with the portions describing his motions highlighted in bold:
29So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” …..33Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus…..” 39After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him…..1Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him…… 4Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him….8When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; 9he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus….12Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend…When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat (John 18-19 selected verses).
Did you count them? Seven times, Pilate goes into or out of the praetorium! Such a picture of indecision and vacillation! He’s trying to please the crowds. He’s trying to please his wife (who had warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)). He’s trying to help Jesus. But he can’t decide, so in and out he goes!
Pilate is just like us. We say that we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others and we want to please God, but we cannot do both. We have to decide. But instead we vacillate; we are Pilate. We are often locked in indecision, trying to please the world and God.
Is Pilate really so different from many of us? Faced with a crucial decision, he weighs the consequences that choosing Jesus will have on his career, his family, his loyalty to country and Caesar, and his access to power. And while we may rightfully criticize Pilate for his choice, is it not easy for us to make compromises with the world for the sake of similar things? How often does Jesus our King take a back seat to career, politics, convenience, and so forth? So easily do we stay rooted in vacillation, compromise, and indecision.
II. INQUIRY – And now, in the midst of all this indecision, comes the question.
Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) But Jesus, who is on trial, turns the tables on Pilate. Jesus effectively puts Pilate on trial by asking him the crucial question:
“Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34)
It’s a remarkable question! And guess what … You have to answer it. I have to answer it. Do not wait for Pilate; he already gave his answer and faced judgment long ago. How do we answer it?
Notice what the Lord is getting at with his question. He is asking you if you call him a King merely because you’ve heard others say it or because you personally know him to be a King. Is he really your King, or this just a slogan you’ve heard in church before? Do you believe that He is King or do you merely parrot what you’ve heard others say?
There is an old gospel song that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” But is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: I think or suppose (that is, I infer) that Jesus is Lord because my mother said so, or my pastor said so. This is a good beginning, for after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17).
But there comes a moment when you have to say so. It is not enough that your pastor says so or your mother says so. And thus Jesus is asking you and me right now, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or merely because others have said so?
Answer him! It’s a crucial question, isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative, and determinative. But at some point you have to step up and say that you personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is yours, and then declare, “Jesus is Lord and King.”
What does it mean that Jesus is King? A king has authority, doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in my life? Do I have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base my life upon His will?
A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do I allow the Lord to feed me with the Holy Eucharist? Do I allow Him to protect me from the poison of sin by the Sacrament of Confession and the medicine of His Holy Word? Am I willing to live within the protection of the walled city of His Church?
Is the Lord really my King? How do I answer? Is it just a slogan or is His Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one more time,
Are you saying [I am King] on your own or have others been telling you about me?
III. IMPLICATION – You have to answer. To refuse to answer is to answer.
A fascinating and wondrous literary device is employed by John and the Holy Spirit in this Gospel passage. We have already seen how Jesus, who was Himself on trial, has turned the tables and effectively put Pilate on trial. Pilate, who has the duty to question Jesus, is now being questioned by Him. It is Pilate who must now make a decision, not so much about Jesus, but about himself. He has been asked a question that he cannot ultimately avoid, and now it is time to answer. Here is where the ingenious literary device comes into play. Look carefully at this passage from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange about it.
Upon this [the shouting of Crucify him!] Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha (John 19:12-13).
So what is strange here? Well, notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, it says that “he” sat down on the judgment seat. Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? You might say, “Pilate, of course!” And historically, that might be true. But the text is ambiguous as to exactly who “he” is. Most Scripture scholars argue that the line is supposed to be ambiguous.
From the standpoint of historical facts it was likely Pilate who took that seat. But from the standpoint of divine justice it is Jesus who takes it.
Jesus has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be revealed. Pilate seals his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified; his vacillation is over. Pilate has made his choice; he has answered the question.
In this context it is Jesus who sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. In deciding to hand Jesus over, in deciding to favor himself and the crowds over Jesus, Pilate has brought judgment on himself.
Too many of us have cartoonish notions about our final judgment: a benign Jesus giving us a great big hug, or an angry one gleefully passing judgment on His “enemies.” Perhaps there is also some notion of a review of our deeds, both good and bad, and then the pronouncing of some sort of verdict while we cringe and wait. But Jesus is not a King who imposes His Kingdom. He invites us to enter into His Kingdom. Ultimately, judgment is about our choice, not His.
Judgment is finally this: The Lord, who suffered for us, quietly and respectfully sits on the judgment seat and accepts our final choice, a choice that is the cumulative sum of all the choices we made in life, a choice that is now and forever fixed. Isn’t that what really happens?
The Lord has asked the question of Pilate, as he does of us. The choice is for Pilate to make and the judgement is one he brings on himself. His choice is either to accept the Lord’s kingship or to reject it and watch Jesus led away while he (Pilate himself) stands alone, the judgment having been rendered by virtue of his own choice.
Yes, there are implications to whether we accept the Lord as our King or not. Today, the Lord asks us all if we will let Him be our King. And to those of us who say yes, the Lord has this further question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Is He really our King? Think hard about it. There are implications.
The question that we must answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer? What is mine?