Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Of kings

The Gospel set for Holy Communion today: Luke 19:11-28.

Conditioned as we are to see any king in Jesus’ parables as referring to God, I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard on this passage on how we are all given gifts by God and expected to put them to good use. But that is a nonsensical interpretation. This despot ruler has to derive his authority from an external source in a distant land. Moreover, we are explicitly told that Jesus tells the parable to calm a growing fervour that the kingdom of God is about to sweep away the status quo.

Herod the Great, who ruled in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth, came to power at the patronage of Rome, client to the emperor. So, the Herodian dynasty displaced the Hasmonean dynasty. In his will, he divided his rule between three of his sons: to Herod Archelus, Judea to the south; to Herod Antipas, Galilee to the north; and to Philip, territory to the east of the river Jordan. But as it was not his to give, the three sons had to travel in a delegation to distant Rome to make their claim. In his benevolence, emperor Augustus agreed to the terms of Herod’s will. But Herod Archelus was a bit rubbish, and so was stripped of his status and direct Roman rule imposed on Jerusalem through the provincial governor. At the time of Jesus’ death, this was a man named Pontius Pilate. When Jesus was brought before him, not long after giving this parable, Pilate sent him before Herod Antipas, in whose territory Jesus had been most active. But already, this Herod Antipas had been the one to arrest Jesus’ cousin John the baptizer, and later have him beheaded.

The king in this parable shimmers between Augustus, before whom Herod the Great’s three sons had been made to give account; and Herod Antipas, ruler (at the reward of Augustus, though as servant and not king) over Galilee. He is an everyman king, for any ruler exercising worldly power. He is most emphatically not God.

This parable, then, is ultimately about a different way of being king, a way Jesus would model. The rational way would be to flex wealth and violence. The irrational way, folly, would be to rise up in revolt against Rome. But there is a third way, the trans-rational hope that glory might be revealed through self-sacrifice, and the world transformed, in time, by those who followed, even to death, a man who would hang naked, battered and bleeding, dying on an executioner’s instrument of torture. That no king, no emperor, could stand against this. And so, it proved. And so, it still proves.

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