A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for November, 2013

Why do we call Jesus “king?”

When you hear the word “king” what comes to mind?  Fancy palaces equipped with very expensive contents?  In his gospel, Luke (23:35-43) presents us a Jesus who is a different type of “king”  The context is one of Jesus’ suffering and death–and yet he is referred to as “king.”  The difference is that there are two distinct understandings of “king.”   The first is that in one case “kingship” is described in physical terms (such as in the illustration above.)  The second is that of “kingship” in the spiritual sense.  No concrete palace and no armies ready to challenge the political power.  This is the kind of “king” that Jesus was.  His “kingship” was that of establishing and developing a moral value system.

During his trial, Jesus was asked  by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Pilate’s understanding of kingship was of the physical kind, for one of the fears of Jewish leaders was that someone was challenging the authority of the emperor.  Pilate believed that Jesus was that type of king.

Why was Luke referring to Jesus as “king” in the context of his passion and death?  Well, it seems to me that two observations are necessary here.  First, when Pilate and his soldiers referred to Jesus as “king,” it was understood in the physical sense, but Jesus had neither  a fancy palace nor unlimited armies to challenge the authority of the emperor. Consequently, any regal reference to Jesus was obviously within the context of mockery.  Second, Luke was attempting to demonstrate that spiritual kingship was more valuable than physical kingship, which Jesus’ resurrection subsequently demonstrated in later theological development.  So, we have in this biblical reading a contrast between the physical and the spiritual sides of kingship.

How does Luke do this?  The contrast seems to be manifested between Pilate/soldiers and one of the criminals being crucified with Jesus.  Pilate asks Jesus if he is king, and he places an inscription on the cross, “This is the king of the Jews” (=physical understanding of king; mockery).  Some of the soldiers mockingly say to  Jesus, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”  (=physical understanding of king; mockery).

However, one of the criminals being crucified with Jesus seems to have undergone a type of conversion.  This conversion seems to have manifested itself in an act of belief.  For he says to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”  (=spiritual understanding of king; affirmation).  The belief in Jesus as spiritual king seems to have come from some kind of conversion.  Who knows how or why?

What can we learn from the above Gospel reading?  No doubt, many things.  But I would like to suggest two lessons.  I would call them: “The Jesus pattern,” and “Periodic conversion.”

First of all, the “Jesus pattern” will remind us that every thing that Jesus did and said  was spoken/done in the form of a pattern, namely, LIFE-SUFFERING-DEATH-RESURRECTION.   Every gesture that we say or do should follow this pattern.  Our life should be one of saying and doing good things to others.  Meanwhile, problems will surface in life that will bring us suffering, and eventual death.  But our faith tells us and gives us hope that after pain and suffering there is always resurrection.

Secondly, the “Periodic conversion” can come about in several ways.  Our failure in responsibility toward others should be dealt with immediately.  Possibly by the Sacrament  of Reconciliation, outward signs of forgiveness, or other similar gestures.

One memorable scene in the Gospel is Jesus’ response to the criminal who asked to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom.  The same can be said to us should we have adopted the “Jesus pattern” and the “periodic conversion.”  And that is, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  May our prayer be that every day of our lives can be that “today.”

Hope in the midst of tragedy

It is true that many people around the world felt great compassion for those who suffered the devastating typhoon in the Phillipines, especially for those who lived in the town of Taclaban.  Television news reports showed piles of wood that used to be homes.  You could see that sadness was on the faces of many.  It appeared as if the area had been  thoroughly bombed.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 21:5-19) an account of destruction is also described.  But the destruction is to come in the future, and the  principal cause will be human behavior.  Jesus overhears a conversation speaking about the magnificent adornment of the Jerusalem Temple, a focal point of concern for Jews.  His comment tells listeners that the Temple will one day be completely destroyed.  The people ask for dates, namely, “When will this happen?”

Instead of replying with specific dates, Jesus answers with causal human events in “apocacalyptic” language.  [Apocalyptic language is, basically, persecution literature.  It discusses events via hidden images about future destruction, for example, see the “Book of Revelation.”]

What does Jesus say will happen?  First of all, he speaks of human deceit.  There will be folks who say they come in his name, speak of destruction, but do not offer hope.  Don’t listen to them.  Secondly, there will be polarization and awful things done to the planet.  The “truth,” most likely, may well not enter the conversational equation.  Thirdly,  any committed follower of Christ will be persecuted simply for being a committed follower.

However, in spite of the tragedies listed above, Jesus does indeed offer hope.  How does he do so?  First of all, he will give wisdom in speaking to the seriously committed Christian.  We simply have to read the first few chapters of the book of Acts to see how the committed followers of Jesus were able to speak to their challengers.  And secondly, he made it clear that those who affirm Jesus in the midst of conflict will indeed be affirmed by Jesus himself.  This is much like the “Stand by me” approach to reality.

What can we learn from this gospel reading?  We know that throughout life bad things will happen, but the  baptized committed Christian will have this sense of hope which means that if we treat others as Jesus has taught us, then we will have an ongoing relationship with Jesus.

And what does that mean?  It means that with the sense of hope, as committed Chistians, we can overcome the deceit of others and encounter the truth in polarized situations.  But that committment must be permanent.  It is well to keep in mind the final words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading:  “By your perseverance you will make your life secure.”  Perseverance comes from hope. Hope comes about when we “stand by” Jesus.


A puzzlement regarding marriage

In the gospels, we often see Jesus being challenged to defend his teaching.  In Luke’s version (Luke 20:27-38) we note that the Sadducees express such a challenge by asking a question about marriage.  Since they don’t believe in the resurrection, the challenge is posed in terms of marriage/resurrection.  The question is presented in order to entrap Jesus.

Their question is based on the “Levirate” law, that is, if a married man dies and leaves no children, it is up to his brother to fulfill that task so that the family name is continued and the species is preserved.  In their hypothetical case, the Sadducees speak of a man with six brothers.  The first man died, so his brothers took the widow for a wife. They all died childless.  So did the widow.  The question was, “Whose wife shall she be since all seven brothers married her?”  Jesus saw this as a trap.

Consequently, his answer was: (1)-She is not going to be anybody’s wife; and (2)-In the account of Moses and the burning bush, God began to reveal himself to Moses saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  (Exodus 3:6)

What did Jesus mean?  Well, in the first place the Sadducees misunderstood by presupposing that earthly institutions will continue after the resurrection.  Since the primary function of marriage is to perpetuate the species, there is no need to have marriage after the resurrection.  So the widow won’t have to be anybody’s wife.

Secondly, God says, “I am the God of Abraham…Isaac…and Jacob.”  He speaks of the present not the past.  How are the patriarchs still alive?  Because of the resurrection.

In the Old Testament, there was a place called SHEOL which was a shadowy place below the waters, where all those who died came to rest.  At the time of Jesus, the concept of Sheol merged with the idea of resurrection (Daniel 12) in which Sheol became a place of judgement for how one behaved during earthly life.  This, most likely, is why Jesus says, “The Lord is not God of of the dead, but of the living.”  “Living” being those resurrected.

What can be learned from the above gospel reading?  The  primary learning experience can be that of realizing that there is a judgement on our behavior when we die.  The basis of that judgement will be how we have treated others in this life.

The second learning experience can be that as long as we keep a positive relationship with neighbor (and, of course, with God) we will know that our relationship with God is of the “living.”  Sin can destroy  a good relationship.  Therefore, a good and fair treatment of others will keep us in a good “living” relationship with God.  The choice always remains ours.


Do you see what I see?

Don’t know if this has happened to you, but it has happened to me several times.  While standing on the sidewalk waiting for the New Year’s Rose Parade, or sitting in a movie theater anticipating a “talked about” movie, someone will stand/sit right in front of me blocking my vision.  Instead of saying something I would later regret, I would move elsewher for  a better view.

In Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10) we note that something similar happened to Zacchaeus as he was waiting to see Jesus coming into Jericho.  He was such a small man and knew his view would be blocked, so he climbed a tree to get a better view.

There was something curious in the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus.  Almost immediately,  Jesus saw Zacchaeus peeking at him through some sycamore branches, so Jesus told him to come down and then he invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house.  What an extraordinary set of events!  Jesus called him by name and said that he wanted to go to his house.  No wonder Zacchaeus was puzzled, but happy nonethe less.

That calling by name and the self invitation by Jesus was enough to be a sort of “conversion” experience for Zacchaeus.  That “conversion” experience resulted in his gift of generosity to the poor and justice for those

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage...

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

whom he “cheated.”

Notice what happened.  Two key concepts in the narrative are: “see” and “taking initiative.”  Zacchaeus wanted to “see”  Jesus, and so he “took initative” by climbing the sycamore tree.  Jesus “saw” Zacchaeus, and then “took initiative” by inviting himself over to his house.

This experience with Jesus brought about somewhat of a “conversion”  which resulted in generosity and justice.  As a result of this conversion, Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

What can we learn from this Scripture reading?  First, we must “see” Jesus in other people.  Especially those who are marginalized in society.  Seeing Jesus in others means that we must treat people with dignity, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.  If we “take initiative” and not wait to be told, most likely there may be a “conversion experience” which likely may result in generosity and justice.

The second thing that we can learn from this reading is the consequence of our actions.  Jesus is always looking for us, and he has a better chance of seeing us if we let him (by “seeing” him in others).  And if our “conversion” experience is genuine, he will tell us what he told Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

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