34th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
on the Solemnity of Christ the King
John 18: 33b-37
“THE COMPLETE JESUS, MOST HUMAN AND YET TRANSCENDENT”
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
34th Sunday in Ordinary Time: on the Solemnity of Christ the King (B)
Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37
“Behold, appearing on the clouds …”
In today’s Gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus answers, “You say I am a king.” A short while before this, Caiaphas had asked him the same question in another way: “Are you the Son of the blessed God?” and Jesus had replied affirmatively this time as well: “I am!”
Indeed, according to the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus reinforced this answer, citing and applying to himself that which the prophet in the Book of Daniel had said of the Son of Man who comes on the clouds of heaven and receives the kingdom that will not end (First Reading). A glorious vision in which Christ appears in the story and above it, temporal and eternal.
Alongside this glorious image of Christ we find, in the readings for the solemnity, the image of Jesus humble and suffering, more concerned with making his disciples kings than with ruling them. In the passage taken from Revelation, Jesus is described as he “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.”
It has always proved difficult to hold these two prerogatives of Christ together — majesty and humility — deriving from his two natures, divine and human. The man of today has no problem seeing in Jesus the friend and brother of all, but he finds it hard to also proclaim him Lord and recognize Jesus’ royal power over him.
If we look at the films about Jesus this difficulty is evident. In general the cinema has opted for Jesus the meek, persecuted, misunderstood, so close to man as to share his fate, his rebellions, his desire for a normal life. In this line are linked “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Martin Scorsese’s more crude and sacrilegious “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, in “Vangelo secondo Matteo” (The Gospel According to Matthew), also gives us the Jesus who is the friend of the apostles and of men, close to us, even if he does not lack a certain dimension of mystery, expressed with much poetry, above all through some poignant moments of silence.
Only Franco Zeffirelli, in his “Jesus of Nazareth,” made the effort to hold together the majesty and humility. Jesus appears in Zeffirelli’s film as a man among men, affable and close, but, at the same time, as one who, with his miracles and his resurrection, places us before the mystery of his person, a person who transcends the merely human.
I do not wish to disqualify the attempts to repropose the Jesus event in accessible and popular terms. In his time Jesus was not offended if “the people” considered him one of the prophets. However, he asked the apostles, “But you, who do you say that I am?” making it clear that the answers proposed by the people were insufficient.
The Jesus that the Church presents to us today on the solemnity of Christ the King is the complete Jesus, most human and yet transcendent. In Paris the stick that was used to establish the length of the meter is preserved with special care so that this unity of measurement, introduced by the French Revolution, will not be altered with the passage of time. In the same way, in the community of believers which is the Church, the true image of Jesus of Nazareth is preserved. This image must serve as the criterion for measuring the legitimacy of every representation of him in literature, cinema and art.
It is not a fixed and inert image, kept under glass like the meter stick, but an image of a living Christ who grows in the comprehension of the Church, who will continually give rise to new questions and provocations of human culture and progress.
[Translation by ZENIT]
Gospel reflection: John 18:33-37
The Triumph of the Defeated
In the highest part of the city of Jerusalem, in what had been the palace of King Herod the Great, Pilate had established his praetorium. There, at the dawn of the eve of the Passover, the Jews took Jesus and accused him of being a criminal. It is within this praetorium that the dialogue reported in our passage took place. The question formulated from the very first interrogation that the prosecutor turns to Jesus is the most delicate, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Since in 63 B.C. Pompey had conquered Jerusalem and subjected Judah to the Roman rule, they started to recite a psalm in the synagogues. It was composed by a rabbi soaked in biblical thought, “Lord, you are our king. The majesty of our God is eternal on all the nations. You chose David as king of Israel, and you swore that his descendants would never be extinguished before you. Now, because of our sins, the sinners have risen against us. Look, O Lord, and raise a son of David, in the time you have set, to reign over Israel” (Ps 17).
It was an explicit rejection of the foreign power.
Unrealistic attempts to call into question the Roman power had been drafted as early as 4 B.C., after the death of Herod. In Perea, Simon rebelled. He was a slave of the court who, after having set fire to the palaces of Jericho, had made raids throughout the kingdom. In Judea, Atronge, a shepherd of the gigantic stature, had inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman army. Finally, at the time of the census of Quirinius (A.D. 6), Judas the Galilean, also mentioned in the book of Acts (Acts 5:37), started another sedition in Sepphoris, near Nazareth, inciting the people not to pay the tribute to Caesar. All of these uprisings were bloodily suppressed. So, from A.D. 6 to 36, Judea enjoyed a period of tranquility under the authority of the prefect of Rome. The revolutionary movements, including the famous party of the Zealots, appeared only later, in the mid-40s A.D., when Rome performed the folly of sending to Palestine cruel and corrupt prosecutors.
Even in a period of relative calm as the one in which Pilate ruled (A.D. 26-36), the accusation of awakening the dormant nationalistic hopes and the suspicion of wanting to restore the Davidic monarchy were extremely dangerous.
The dialogue on kingship that elapsed between Jesus and Pilate is placed in this historical context. The first question of the prosecutor—“Are you the king of the Jews?”—aims to point out the charge and reveals the perplexity of Pilate who finds himself in front of a man, unarmed, with no soldiers to defend him, abandoned by his own friends and slapped by a servant of Annas. He does not seem the kind that can endanger the power of Rome.
Jesus responds with a counter question, to force the prosecutor to take responsibility, “Does this word come from you, or did you hear it from others?” That is, do you have any reason to call me seditious, or are you paying attention to gossips? Was my reaction to the attempt of a disciple who drew his sword not referred to you (Jn 18:10-11)?
Pilate’s reply is almost resentful: “Am I a Jew?” That is: I am a Roman official and I administer justice in an autonomous way. He continues: “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” (v. 35).
It is at this point that the theme of the kingship of Christ comes alive. Jesus tries to help the procurator to understand: “My kingship does not come from this world” (v. 36).
Pilate knows only the kingdoms of this world. If someone speaks to him of the reign of Tiberius, he immediately thinks of the immense territory over which the emperor extended his dominion, or of the time, to the years when he reigned, or even the sovereign authority he exercised. He has in mind the well-defined characteristics of the kingdoms of this world. They are carried out by people moved by ambition. They base themselves on the use of force and money, are defended by force of arms. The strong one imposes, controls and commands; the subjects must be submissive and obey.
The kingdom of Jesus has nothing in common with these realms. He does not kill anyone, he goes to die. He does not command the others, he obeys. He is not allied with the great and powerful, he sided with the last, those who count for nothing. For people to possess, conquer, exterminate are signs of strength, for Jesus they are signs of weakness and defeat. For him, great are those who serve.
Pilate does not understand what Jesus is talking about. He only manages to make him a generic question: “So you are a king?” (v. 37). Jesus has always reacted harshly with those who have tried to make him adhere to a royalty of this world. From the beginning, he considered it a diabolical proposal (Mt 4:8-10). He disappointed the messianic expectations of his disciples; he fled when the people wanted to proclaim him king (Jn 6:15). Now, however, that he is defeated and his hours counted, now that there is no longer any possibility of misunderstanding, in front of the representative of the pagan world, he solemnly proclaims: “Yes, I am king.”
Then he says: “I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth” (v. 37). Not to teach the truth, as the wise did, but “to bear witness to the truth.”
For the Greek philosophers, “the truth” was the discovery of the essence of things. It pointed to the fall of each veil, of every secret about the meaning of their existence. Linked to this philosophical truth was the historical truth that consisted of telling objectively, in reporting the facts exactly as they happened.
The Jewish way of understanding the truth is different. In the Bible, the truth is faithfulness to the given word; it’s stability and perseverance, it is that or it is one who can be trusted. God is truth because he never lies, keeps his promises, is animated by a love that nothing and no one will ever damage (Ex 34:6).
For a Jew, truth is not something logical, but concretely, is what happens in history. To comfort and illuminate the seer of the Book of Daniel, troubled by the tragic events in the history of his people, the Lord reveals to him what is written in the “book of truth” (Dan 10:21). It is an image to show that God has revealed the plan of salvation that he is about to do. “Truths” are the designs of the Lord’s love; “to know the truth” is to understand these designs and get involved in their implementation.
Jesus came to testify to the truth, because he embodies God’s plan, bringing it to fulfillment, for this “he is the truth” (Jn 14:6). With his presence in the world, with all his life spent for love, he shows the Lord’s faithfulness to his covenant with people.
Now many expressions used by John would be a lot clearer. “To do what is true” (Jn 3:21) and “to walk in the truth” (2 Jn 4) indicate the acceptance of Christ with one’s whole life. “The Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13) is the divine impulse that, after introducing the plan of God, gives us the strength to remain faithful. “The truth sets you free” (John 8:32) because only those who lead a life according to the Gospel are truly free, who deviates becomes the slave of their own passions and idols.
Jesus concludes the explanation of his reign by declaring: “Everyone who is on the side of truth hears my voice” (v. 37) and Pilate, who understands less and less, replied: “What is truth?” The prosecutor is not interested in the person of Jesus, but he wants to know whether or not he is a threat to the power of Rome. He is stubborn to God’s plan, thinks about the kingdom of this world, not to the truth. He is insensitive to the voice of Jesus and tired of hearing the words that for him are senseless, so he interrupts the dialogue.
He is the symbol of the unbelieving world that refuses to listen to the word of truth. He finds no cause for condemnation but has not the courage to take a stand and ends up giving in to death choices.
But it is not on the decision of the Roman procurator to deliver Jesus to be crucified that the curtain falls on the tragedy of royalty. On the scaffold Pilate put an inscription in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, to be read and understood by all: “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19).
Without realizing it, the representative of the most powerful kingdom of this world officially recognized the kingship of Jesus. When the chief priests protested and asked him to have it rectified, he said that the statement was irreversible: “What I have written, I have written” (Jn 19:22). He, the depository of the authority of the emperor, could not change it: the victory of the vanquished had begun with their king lifted up on the cross. No kingdom of this world was now more able to halt the advance.
This was the big surprise of God.
Fr. Fernando Armellini