Thursday, April 1, 2010

King Without a Sword

When I was young I was taught that Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom, rather that he came to set up a heavenly kingdom and to populate it with as many people as possible. I was taught wrong.

Nothing against my childhood Sunday School teachers, they were only teaching what they had been taught, and what was being taught in their Sunday School literature. But this idea that Jesus wasn’t interested in an earthly kingdom has to ignore or explain away a whole lot of Scripture.

Take, for instance, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Here’s how Mark records it in 11:7-10:

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

It was explained to me that the Israelites wanted a king and a kingdom, but that Jesus would have nothing of it, but in Matthew 21:4-5, that gospel writer adds:

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

This prophecy from Zechariah clearly expects an earthly king and an earthly kingdom, and Matthew states that Jesus fulfilled it. Well, yes, I was taught, Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, but just not in the way that the people expected. He came to set up a kingdom, just not the kind of kingdom everyone wanted. Now, that part is true, just not in the way that it was meant. Once again what was meant was that Jesus came to set up a heavenly kingdom, while the people wanted an earthly kingdom, but that’s not the distinction I believe Jesus made.

The people expected the new kingdom to be established and maintained the way all kingdoms are established and maintained—at the tip of a sword, with war and all the violence and civilian casualties that come along with it. Jesus’ kingdom would be different. It would come not through violence but through sacrifice, not with a sword but with a cross. That was the difference.

But Jesus came to establish a kingdom, and the people recognized it. He entered as a king, and he knew full well what he was doing. He came to confront the earthly powers who did not rule with justice but actually oppressed the people with their unjust practices—the power structures of Temple, king (Herod), and, yes, even Caesar. And these power structures recognized what he was doing. It’s not for nothing that Jesus was tried and executed for treason. When Pilate said that he felt Jesus was innocent, he didn’t mean that he found false the claim that Jesus saw himself as king, just that he found Jesus to be no threat to Rome. Well, in terms of which Pilate understood what constituted a threat to Rome, that was true. A king without an army and with no desire to raise an army didn’t seem like a threat to Rome.

But he was. And by the end of the century the Romans would begin killing the followers of Jesus because they posed a threat; not a threat of violent revolution, but a threat nonetheless. They refused to call Caesar Lord and instead claimed that Jesus, and Jesus alone, was Lord. The Romans saw this as a serious enough threat that they were willing to kill because of it, and the Christians saw it as a serious enough claim that they were willing to die for it, just as Jesus said they needed to be prepared to do.

So there is a sense in which everybody was correct in their understanding of what was happening that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They people recognized Jesus as their king, and they were willing to follow him. The Temple leaders recognized that the people were willing to follow Jesus wherever he led them, and that that constituted a threat to them and their power structures. And when they put it that way to Pilate, that Jesus was a popular leader who was going to turn things upside down in Israel if he wasn’t put down, he played along.

The people were right that Jesus was a king, and the power structures were right that he was a threat. They just underestimated how big a threat a king without a sword was.

And they didn’t understand that by crucifying him, they were sealing their fates.

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