Today being Christ the King Sunday, and myself never having lived under the authority of an earthly king, I thought I’d better do some research into how my peers think about kings. So I did what contemporary people do, and turned to the Oracle of Mountain View—that being Google—for insight.
I figured that I’d learn a lot just by typing “king” into the search bar. You may be familiar with what happens when we do that. Google—in its algorithmic wisdom—will attempt to complete the phrase based on the most common recent searches. I imagined the search engine might helpfully suggest phrases like “King Arthur” or “king sized bed” or maybe even “King James Bible.” But no. On the day I went investigating the internet, the most commonly searched term beginning with “king” was “King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard.”
Really. For the record, that’s an Australian psychedelic rock band.
Which was its own valuable lesson for me, because I know very little about psychedelic rock. Maybe even less than I know about kings. But even though that search engine experience might easily have opened the door to hours of fascinating research into popular music, it also served to highlight the problem. Kings, in the sense that Biblical peoples would have understood them, are kind of anachronistic to people like us. Likewise shepherds. We are generations—and in many cases continents—removed from the models of security and guidance that those images were intended to convey in the lessons we just heard.
In a post-pastoral and post-monarchal society, we’ve mostly romanticized these historic roles. Shepherds are the ones in clean white robes watching over impossibly green hills dotted with fluffy white sheep; kings are well-dressed a-listers whose exploits grace the pages of tabloids. But just because we don’t have firsthand experiences of kings and shepherds doesn’t mean that we don’t want what the Biblical images suggest they provide. Human beings still want leaders to protect us, and we still want guidance and care.
Recently I’ve been pondering social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations. Briefly, he argues that—around the world—there are six poles on which people and cultures hang their public morality. They are care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion and sanctify vs. degradation. Now in many ways there’s no surprise there: we’d all prefer to live in a` society that’s caring, that values liberty and supports loyalty, respects legitimate authority and honors the sacred.
Haidt has discovered, however, that in our country blue state voters put a much greater priority on the first three—care, fairness and liberty—than they do on loyalty and respect for authority and sanctity. All of which is a long way of saying that we more individualistic blue-staters are really not so sure about the value of authority figures like kings and shepherds. They might want deference or obedience, to which my response would likely be “let me think about it. I’m going to have to google you first to see if you merit my respect.” Red-staters, on the other hand, give higher weight to the values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. The office of the presidency, military leadership, and the perceived sanctity of concepts like the heterosexual nuclear family are to be respected a priori. Alongside the values of care, fairness and liberty, which all of us share.
Haidt argues that part of the reason we north Americans aren’t communicating well across the political divide is that we prioritize different political values. Which may seem like a significant obstacle, except that ours is not the first society to live through a culture war based on competing values. In fact, I think a reasonable case could be made that Jesus died on the cross of a first century culture war over the nature of kingship. The king being the one who commands loyalty and exerts authority. And—because kings were considered divine—the model for sanctity as well.
The scriptures we just heard illustrate the deeply held Jewish longing for a benevolent shepherd and judicious king, who would eventually reign from a throne of glory. Jesus is “the one who is above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” according to the letter to the Ephesians, and God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.” At first glance, this would seem like a comforting image for those who value authority. The king will keep his obedient subjects safe and ensure the sanctity of the traditions within his realm.
But listen to Jesus’ own words, as Matthew recorded them. ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Since we don’t think a lot about kings, the scandalous nature of this proclamation takes a while to sink in. This is the self-disclosure of a king who identified with hungry, the sick and the immigrant, which was not the way that any other king known by Jesus’ disciples would have described himself. For the early church to proclaim Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords was in no way an affirmation of the coercive model of authority that they knew and lived under. To say that Jesus was king was to insist that Caesar was not. To celebrate the feast of Christ the King, when Pope Pius XI created it in 1925, was to undermine the sovereign claims of fascism.
And I would argue that to proclaim the reign of Christ is equally subversive today. If Christ is king, then consumerism is not. If Christ is king, then unquestioning loyalty to authoritarian leadership is not. Yes, Christians respect authority, but as Jesus would teaches us, the authority belongs to the most vulnerable in our midst.
If the Lord is our shepherd, then feeding the five thousand—or the five hundred as we did at Trinity on Thanksgiving Day—is the way we follow his lead. We follow the shepherd when we bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. Yes, Christians are loyal, but our loyalty is to the leader who models service to the most vulnerable.
And we Christians value sanctity as well. But if Jesus is our model of holiness, then so are human bodies of all colors and genders and ages and sizes. And so are households of all different configurations, who welcomed Jesus, then and now. If Jesus is holy, then there’s no shame in weakness, nor poverty or homelessness, nor even in a lonely death.
In a few minutes we’ll all recommit to our baptismal vows, and the parents of Aiden, Dexter and Everett will make the ancient promise, on their behalf, to follow and obey Jesus Christ as Lord. Now if you type Lord into your search engine, you might return phrases like “Lord and Taylor”, which tells me that lordship is just as antiquated a concept as kingship in our culture. So what do we do with this peculiar linguistic and theological inheritance, hierarchical and sexist though it be?
Well, we can ignore or write off the ancient language of the sovereignty of Christ. Or we can hand it over to those who would use its authoritarian overtones to oppress women or immigrants or people whose gender and sexual expression doesn’t fit their definition of sanctity. Or we can follow in the footsteps of our first century forbears and reclaim its ancient subversive power.
We can live as if we were already inhabitants of God’s kingdom, in which the last, the least and the lost have first claim on God’s heart, and on ours. We can bind up the injured and feed hungry and welcome the stranger. We can celebrate the outrageously countercultural claim that the power of God-with-us is stronger than the power of coercion and violence, and insist by our words and actions that whatever demeans God’s good creation and beloved people will have no dominion here. Because Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.