Commentary on the Readings
CHRIST THE KING THE TRIUMPH OF THE DEFEATED
“Then Pilate had Jesus taken away and scourged. The soldiers also twisted thorns into a crown and put it on his head. They threw a cloak of royal purple around his shoulders; and they began coming up to him and saluting him, ‘Hail king of the Jews’ and they struck him on the face” (Jn 19:1-3).
How come Jesus does not react as he did when he was struck by the servant of the high priest (Jn 18:23)?
The enthronement of a mock-king was a well-known game in antiquity. A prisoner who was to be executed after a few days was clothed in the regalia and treated as an emperor. A cruel mockery put into action against Jesus. In the scene described by John, there are all the elements that characterize the enthronization of an emperor: the crown, the purple cloak, and the acclamation.
It is a parody of kingship and Jesus accepts it because it shows in a more explicit way what his judgment is on the display of power and the pursuit of glory of this world. To aspire to sit on a throne in order to receive honors and bows is for him a farce even though, unfortunately, is the most common and grotesque comedy played by people.
In the final stage of the process (Jn 19:12-16), Pilate takes Jesus outside and made him sit down on a high platform. It is midday and the sun is at its zenith when in front of all the people Pilate, pointing to Jesus crowned with thorns and covered with a purple robe, proclaims: “Behold your King.” It’s the time of enthronement; it is the presentation of the ruler of the new kingdom, the kingdom of God.
For the Jews, the proposal is so absurd as to be provocative. They furiously react with an indignant rejection: “Take him away, crucify him!” (Jn 19:15). A king like him they don’t even want to see; he disappoints all expectations; it is an insult to common sense.
Jesus is there, at the top, for all to contemplate, lit by the sun shining in all its glory; he is silent, does not add a word because he has already explained everything. He waits for everyone to rule and make their choice.
One can bet on the greatness, the majesty of this world, or follow him, giving up all goods and preferring defeat for love. The success or failure of a life depends on this choice.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Who becomes servant of the brothers and sisters reigns with Christ.”
The chapter from which the two verses of the reading are taken opens with a dramatic night vision. From the ocean that, in the ancient Middle East, was the symbol of the hostile world and of chaos, four huge beasts emerge: a lion, a bear, a leopard and a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible with exceptional strength, crushes everything with its iron teeth (Dan 7:2-8).
The language and images are apocalyptic; the references and allusions to the history of the people need to be understood.
The symbolism of the four beasts is explained by the author himself (Dan 7:17-27). They represent the four great empires that have succeeded and oppressed the people of God. The lion indicates the bloody reign of Babylon, the damned; the bear is the image of the people of Media, greedy and always ready to attack; the leopard with four heads is the symbol of the Persians peering in every direction in search of prey; the fourth beast, the scariest, depicts the reign of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Diadochi. Of these, one is particularly sinister, Antiochus IV, the persecutor of the saints faithful to the law of God. He is in power right at the time in which the Book of Daniel is written.
The history of Israel has been a succession of cruel and merciless reigns over the weak. They have violated the rights of the people and imposed themselves with violence and abuse, and behaved like beasts.
Will the world always be a victim of arrogant rulers that make power their god? Will the Lord assist indifferently to the oppression of his people?
To the seer is given to contemplate another great scene: a throne and a watchman are placed in heaven. The watchman represents God himself, seated for the trial and pronouncing judgment: power is taken away from the beasts and the last one is killed, cut to pieces and thrown into the fire (Dan 7:9-12). Then what happens?
It is at this point that the passage of our reading is inserted. Daniel continues his revelation: “I continued watching the night vision: One like a son of man came on the clouds of heaven to whom the watchman, God, entrusts dominion, honor, and kingship” (Dan 7:13-14).
“Son of man” is a Jewish expression that simply means “man.” After so many “beasts,” at last “a man” appears. The man is the image of God and his vocation is to dominate the animals (Gen 1:28; Ps 8:7-9).
Who is he? Whom does he represent?
He does not come from the sea as the four monsters, but from heaven, that is from God. The author of the Book of Daniel was not referring to a single individual, but to “Israel” who, after the great tribulation confronted under Antiochus IV, would have received from God an everlasting kingdom, a kingdom that would never set. All the other nations would be subdued by her, without being oppressed because her king would have a human heart.
With this prophecy, written during the persecution of the wicked Antiochus IV (167-164 B.C.), the author wanted to infuse courage and hope in the pious persons of his people. The oppression was almost at its end; a few years more and God would deliver to Israel the dominion of the world. When was this prophecy fulfilled?
After two or three years, Israel gained, in fact, political independence. The reign of the “son of man” therefore has come.
As it always happens when authority is understood as power and domination, even the new liberators, the Maccabees, soon turned into oppressors and exploiters.
The prophecy was fulfilled only with the coming of Jesus, the “son of man” who began the reign of the saints of the Most High (Mk 14:62). All the kingdoms that have come before him were inspired by the same brutal principle: competition. The strong has subjugated the weak, the rich imposed himself on the poor, and the most competent enslaved the less gifted. New rulers were installed in place of their predecessors, without rendering the co-existence of people more human, even making it worse, because thoughts and feelings remained the same: greed, cruelty, and oppression. Jesus has stopped forever the succession of these fierce empires; he overturned the values by placing at the top not power, but service. He introduced a new criterion, that of the human heart, which is the opposite of the cruel heart of the beasts.
The rabbis told that, on a dark night, a man lit a lamp, but the wind blew it out. He lighted it a second time and then a third, but again it was turned off. Then he said, “I will wait for sunrise.” In the same way, Israel was rescued from Egypt, but her freedom was turned off by the Babylonians; she was saved again but was quickly overwhelmed by the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks. Then she said: “I will wait for the sun, the kingdom of the Messiah.”
The Jews are still waiting for the emergence of this light. We too are waiting for it because it does not yet shine in all its splendor, but we know that it has already risen: it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose reign “is like the dawn that becomes brighter until the fullness of day” (Pro 4:18).
From Patmos, a tiny Aegean island, an exiled Christian “because of the word of God and witnessing to Jesus” (Rev 1:9) writes to the seven churches of Asia Minor, shaken by the persecution unleashed by Domitian, to encourage them to persevere in their faith.
Our passage, taken from the prologue of the seven letters that constitute the first part of the book of Revelation, begins with a reference to Jesus to whom four significant titles are attributed: “Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5).
Today we are particularly interested in the last one: “ruler of the kings of the earth” for it is an invitation to consider with fresh eyes the history of the world. Everyone looked to the Emperor of Rome as the arbiter of the destinies of nations, to the man claiming to be god almighty and filling the whole empire with his statues. Instead, he was not the one to rule the fate of the world. He was subjected to a superior sovereign, to Christ whom the Father had given the kingdom that no one will ever be able to destroy.
The power of an empire is appraised, first, by the size of the area on which it spans. The kingdom of Christ does not occupy any geographical space; it is not based on demonstrations of force nor consists in the domain. The members of this kingdom are neither soldiers nor slaves, nor subjects, but priests (v. 6) called to offer, with their lives, sacrifices, acceptable to God, that is, works of love. This is the only order they receive from their king.
Every act of generosity that they fulfill is an exercise of their priesthood. When they are persecuted because of their fidelity to the Gospel, they offer God a more acceptable sacrifice: the heroic love toward those same perpetrators who make them suffer unjustly and put them to death. The author invites the Christian communities of Asia Minor, inclined to be discouraged because of the persecution, to turn their gaze towards the Lord who is to come (v. 7). His victory is assured and everyone will see it, even if his triumph will not be the one that people expect. He will not humiliate his enemies, will not condemn “those who pierced Him,” but will win them converting their hearts. All will recognize their sin and they will turn to his love. This is the only victory that Christian communities must expect.
At the end of the passage (v. 8), God affixes his signature to the assertions of the seer of Revelation, presenting himself as the Alpha and the Omega. The image of the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet is a happy transposition in the Hellenistic culture of the Biblical statement: “I am the first and the last; there is no God beside me” (Is 44:6). World history is an intermediate event: everything comes from God and returns to him. In his eyes, the power of the emperors of Rome is a brief interlude, even if it seems so painful and endless to the Christians.
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.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: