Outside of Disney, I have little interaction with the notion of “royalty.” That is probably my first reflection each year on Christ as our “King.” This designation is a little too “medieval” for me.
I recently asked a Bible scholar that I know how she teaches “kingship” to American college students. She told me that “In the 40 years I have taught in college, no student has ever raised any questions or expressed any concern regarding the notion of God as king.” I guess with so many channels showing reruns of “Friends” these days, perhaps I am remiss in thinking our Millennials dwell on such reflection.
The professor reminded me that:
“Israel’s earliest understanding of God is that YHWH is a warrior God (Exod 15) who fights on behalf of his people. When the people request that Samuel appoint for them a king “like the nations,” Samuel objects that YHWH is their king. In ancient Israel a king “like the nations” was one who created and led an army in battle to protect his people from enemies inside and outside the nation. Samuel objects that YHWH fights on their behalf (Holy War) so they don’t need an army and hence they don’t need a king. YHWH overrides his objections and tells him to anoint Saul as king. When Israel had to deal with the Philistines who had a well-trained army, they needed a king to create and lead an army. They accepted Saul as their king when he won a battle (there are competing stories of how he actually became king in 1 Samuel), but when Saul began to fail to win in battle against the Philistines, the people turned to David and his “mighty men” who were ultimately successful in confining the Philistines to the coast. Of course, this was far more complicated than I have presented here, and the Bible works in theological issues among the historical issues that led eventually to kingship in Israel.”
A thesis we seldom hear on the feast of “Christ the King.” Interestingly, this scholar further elaborated for me that she didn’t think that it matters that most college students in America have never lived in a country ruled by a king:
“Amid their often conflicting, confused, and rather simplistic views of God, most recognize that if there is a God that God would be all-powerful and the ultimate ruler. I think what is more difficult for them is to accept a God who chooses to become human, a limited creature, and accept an unjust death to redeem those limited creatures (and all creation according to Paul). God did not marshal an army to do battle against the forces of evil. He accepted death. His rule as king challenges most views of how a king should rule. Would you empty (kenosis) yourself of your humanity to become a snail and die an unjust death to redeem snails?”
I loved her “snail” analogy. Have I ever looked at the cross with the mindset that I was an insignificant snail? Yet, even if true, we are never “insignificant” to God. God’s love for us is beautifully signified by the crucifix. We see God’s love through ultimate submission.
Submission. That is the missing element for me! Looking up “king” in the dictionary tells us that this is a person with an absolute authority. I was reflecting upon “king” and should have been focused on “authority.” In today’s idiom, our notion of submitting to God as our “authority” – the ultimate authority in our lives, is being missed.
Not only do we miss God being the authority in our lives, we do so without even being aware that we are living in a state of neglecting His authority. We are failing to focus upon God in our lives and are letting society run amuck. “My” authority says I can choose my sex or my “pronouns.” “Uncle Frank” has a boyfriend and I love my uncle so the Church must be wrong in its teachings on homosexuality… Whose authority, or worse, whose agenda, are we bowing to here? Such authority surely is not Scriptural. Read Genesis, Paul’s guidance in his letter to Romans and the directives of Leviticus to confirm this.
Our claim of self-authority not only damages us, but others whom we interact with as well. Fr. Mike in his very popular “Bible in a Year” podcast reminds us that in doing so we risk the “millstone.” By our “authority” (by teaching a false narrative), do we lead others to sin? Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18 that we much be cautious in leading others astray – that it would be better for us to have a millstone around our necks and thrown into the sea than cause others to sin.
I mentioned this notion of self-authority in a recent homily. After Mass, a woman who was visibility upset, came to speak with me as I stood out front of the church. “This is why my daughter won’t come to church,” she stated.” “She can’t handle the intolerance. God is love.” I replied, “Of course he is. He loves all his creatures. Teaching the faith is not being intolerant.” She said I should have added this comment. I thanked her and, made note to add it to my notes for the next Mass. However, I also asked this woman, in her daughter’s stance, whose authority is she listening too? A loving God is never dismissive of inappropriateness. “Go and sin no more” is the part that people seem to gloss over in Jesus’ discussion with the adulterous woman. (John 8:11)
Following up on this conversation with a priest, his first comment to me was “and this is the only reason her daughter is not coming to church?” Interesting point that I missed. Father wisely noted that we are seldom mindful how much our notion of personal authority clouds all our views. It makes us believe at times we are experts in theology, law and medicine when, in fact, we are not. Maybe that’s something we should remember when we tout our authority. Notice this the next time you hear “I follow the science” on television.
In this season of trees losing their leaves and winter approaching, the Church reminds us to be vigilant in our awareness of the kingdom of God. We must again recognize and submit to God’s authority in our lives. Looking upon the cross we see our King, but not a “typical” King. Our King is a king who “self-emptied” and gave up everything for us. This cannot just be hollow teaching that we’ve internalized. John the Baptist reminds us that we must decrease and let the Lord increase in our lives. (John 3) Our first step on this journey is to recognize and stop living under our deception of our self-authority. The incarnation of ultimate authority is again about to be celebrated. Let us joyfully open ourselves and submit to the true authority of God.