Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church liturgical year, before the beginning of Advent, next Sunday, when themes of expectation and birth start us off into a new year, in the church’s way of keeping time. I always like that this is a little off-kilter from our other way of keeping time and our other new year. It’s just enough out of step to be a reminder that there’s something different about this particular way of being in the world that we’re trying to live into. It’s a way that doesn’t quite fit. Alongside the regular calendar year, we have this alternative way of ordering our days, of marking endings and beginnings, of celebrating what is important.
Our off-kilter year ends with Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in John’s Gospel. If you haven’t read the end of the book yet this is a spoiler alert: Jesus makes some excellent rhetorical points about truth and power, but in the end it’s Pilate who holds the power to acquit or condemn, and he sends Jesus off across town to be crucified. It’s unfair, bloody, and typical. The innocent man Jesus of Nazareth dies a violent death, and Pilate flips a sheet of paper on his desk and moves on to other business.
But today isn’t called “Pilate the King Sunday.” And for all of its history, it’s not Pilate or Herod or Caesar that the church has exalted as the sovereign of the universe. It’s Christ. We are, indeed, off-kilter-people.
The Bible overall shows a raised-eyebrow skepticism toward the dangers of kingship. Pharaoh is the first truly powerful king that we meet up with in the Bible. And although there are a number of different Pharaohs from the time Joseph is taken away from his brothers into Egypt to the time all those brother’s great, great, great, many great grandchildren cried out to God under their slavery and walked with Moses and Miriam toward freedom out of Egypt, scripture doesn’t take the time to differentiate between any of the Pharaohs. It’s always just Pharaoh. Walter Brueggemann says that, in the biblical imagination, the idea is that if you’ve seen one Pharaoh, you’ve seen them all.
When the grandchildren of all those great great grandchildren are getting settled in the land of Canaan, working out what kind of people they would be, how they would order their lives, and who would lead them, different leaders or judges would rise up at different times as the people faced challenges. One of them, Abimelech, tried to rally his family and the city of Shechem around the idea of himself being king. They agree this is a pretty good idea and give him gifts of silver. Abimelech returns the favor by having them all killed, supposedly so none of them will take away his kingship. But one brother escapes, the youngest one, Jotham, and runs up to the top of the tallest hill in the area, Mt. Gerizim, and tells this parable for all in the area of Shechem to hear:
NRSV Judges 9:7-15 “Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. 8 The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ 9 The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ 10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 11 But the fig tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?’ 12 Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?’ 14 So all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ 15 And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’
The point of the parable seems clear enough. In order for the olive tree or the fig tree or the vine to become king, they would have to give up their true self, what makes them most useful in the world. But the worthless bramble is more than willing to accept this great power, the one ring to rule them all, to reference another, slightly longer parable, and already starts threatening them with fire if he doesn’t get his way. The bramble is Jotham’s not so veiled reference to his big brother Abimelech, and after uttering this parable, Jotham does the only logical thing he can do – runs away as fast as he can and hides, while Abimelech proceeds to self–destruct over the following years.
This is in the book of Judges, which, as a side note, if you ever think that the Bible is too boring and dry, you may want to read to get another perspective. Although I would give it a solid R rating, so if you’re under 17 years old you should have your parent with you. It could make for a good family event, which also proves that the Bible encourages strong family values like reading together.
Eventually the people do, of course, have a whole series of kings, some better than others, but they end up getting conquered by other, more powerful kings. First Israel is conquered by the Assyrians, then Judah is conquered by the Babylonians, who are conquered by the Persians, who are conquered by the Greeks, who are conquered by the Romans, who appoint a guy by the name of Pontius Pilate to govern a small territory in their vast empire.
Unlike the other gospels telling of the time when Pilate met Jesus, there’s a fair amount of dialogue that happens in John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus refusing to play the interrogation game by being almost completely silent. But in John Jesus has plenty to say.
Over the course of these verses, Pilate asks Jesus four questions. His questions are direct. Jesus’ answers are indirect. Surprise. Perhaps the first question was the only one Pilate was really interested in getting answered. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies with a question of his own: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate is playing his part as the interogator, but, Jesus asks him, is this all he is doing, just playing out a role that others have assigned him? Jesus is under arrest, but is Pilate really as free as he may think he is, asking the question on his own, or is he just one more prisoner confined to his narrow role given him by someone else?
Pilate is not deterred. His next question is “What have you done?” Jesus answers this by pointing out what he has not done. What he has not done is call on his followers to fight for him, to protect him, to prevent him from being arrested. Jesus has not used violence. Even though this kingdom that he has been speaking about occupies the same time and space as the kingdom that Pilate serves, Jesus’ kingdom “is not from this world.”
Pilate skillfully jumps on the mention of a “kingdom” as a way of bringing it back to his original question: “So, you are a king?” The closest Jesus gets to answering whether or not he is a king is his response to this question. Jesus says, “You say that I am a king.”
One of the compelling aspects of this conversation is that we have some freedom in how we hear the questions of Pilate and the responses of Jesus. Whether they’re harsh. Whether or not Jesus is being sarcastic, ironic, speaking boldly or softly, looking Pilate in the eyes or at the ground or off in the distance, smiling, expressionless.
This flexibility of interpretation is no more present than Pilates’ fourth and final question of this exchange. Pilate had been asking questions about power. Jesus comes out and finally says what he is all about. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And there we have it. Pilate, the man of power, and Jesus the man of truth. This prompts Pilate to ask a very different kind of question than the previous ones. “What is truth?” Which prompts us to wonder just what kind of question this might be.
Does Pilate has an admiration for the Greek philosophers and wish to hear Jesus’ take on the much-debated question? What is truth? Has something Jesus said, or the way he said it, leapt into a deeper part of Pilate’s humanity and caused him to ask this question? – the world-weary Roman governor seeking spiritual insight from the mystical Jew? What is truth? Or is this the cynical question of a powerful ruler who knows that the answer is plain as day? What is truth? Truth is what Pilate says it is – nothing more, nothing less. The truth is that Jesus will soon be dead, and Pilate will soon leave Jerusalem after the Passover festival, back to his base in Caesarea, one more successful episode under his belt of keeping the peace.
If the latter is the case, a cynical remark, it’s certainly not the first or the last time it will go like this. A book I’m currently reading is called Tomatoland. It’s a piece of investigative journalism about where our fresh tomatoes come from during the winter season. The short answer is Florida. The longer answer is that the Florida tomato industry has been one of the most abusive industries for decades when it comes to treatment of workers, including situations that police in different Florida counties have called ground zero for modern day slavery. Because federal labor laws exempt farmworkers from basic legal protections like the forty hour work week with overtime pay, sick leave and vacation, and no child labor, the system lends itself to all kinds of abuses. Workers are exposed to immense amounts of dangerous pesticides, are paid by the amount they pick rather than a guaranteed wage, making the average salary between $10-12,000 per year, and, for years, lived under the threat of physical violence from the more vicious field bosses. The town of Immokalee hosts Florida’s largest farmworker community and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers came into existence when workers started meeting together in a local Catholic church to start discussing their working conditions and poverty. One of the workers noted in an interview that his field boss told him that in the field, he was the law. What is truth?
But I also like to hope that Pilate wanted to know the answer to that question. That there was some part of him, perhaps only in his unconscious self, that was searching for a better way.
He at least put the question out there, and we have it in print, in scripture, with a bit of flexibility for how it is interpreted. What’s more important than Pilate’s motivations, which we can’t know for sure, are our own. Is this a question that we’re willing to live with? If Jesus came to witness to the truth, are we ourselves also willing to witness to the truth, and what of the truth have we witnessed? What, in your brief walk on this earth, do you know to be true? Or what do you hope to be true? In what ways has truth found you, and held you, and been a light to your path?
The truth is…it’s easy to blame Pilate or the Jews or whoever, and much harder to look at the darkness in one’s own heart.
The truth is…we’re all capable of great evil and great good.
The truth is…being a parent is hard. Your child will make you angry, lonely, awe-struck, exhausted, and grateful all within the course of a day, or an hour.
The truth is…being right isn’t always as important as being kind. There’s a deep truth in kindness. And there’s a falseness to always having to have the answer. And love may be the deepest truth there is.
The truth is…the first casualty of war is truth.
The truth is…11 corporations have signed on to pay one more penny per pound for all the tomatoes picked by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, bringing their earnings up to a living wage. Taco Bell, McDonalds, Subway, Chipotle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes are all now a part of the Fair Food Coalition. The next campaign is focused on getting Kroger to sign on, paying one more penny per pound of tomatoes, which means we’ll have plenty of opportunity in Cincinnati to participate.
The truth is…the last time I checked, the trees were doing just fine without a king.
The truth is…being off-kilter is really the only way to stay sane.
The truth is…Christ never claimed to be a king, which is all the more reason to believe that it’s true.
The truth is…if you keep asking the question, the question will guide you.