Christ the King and the Ethics of the Kingdom
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 25, 2007
Scripture: Col 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43
“There was also an inscription over him. ‘This is the King of the Jews’.” — Luke 23:38
Today, on the festival of Christ the King and the last day of the Christian year AD 2006-2007, I want to approach the Kingship of Christ through the ethics of the Kingdom. I want to ask, ” Given that our King expects us to live in a certain way in his Kingdom, what may we deduce from this life about His nature, what do the ethics of the Kingdom tell us about the nature of its King? The short answer: He is a Generous King; the ethics of generosity reveal a generous king and a kingdom of expansive kindness.
I love to preach in the summers when the lessons set are the parables in the central portion of Luke’s gospel: the prodigal son (the generous father), the good shepherd (the caring king – shepherd was one of the prime symbols of the king in the ancient near east, e.g. the Pharaohs were always portrayed with a shepherd’s crook in hand), the unjust steward (the generous boss), the lost sheep (the shepherd of impetuous love). These parables and others (e.g. the man who pays all the workers the same despite some having worked longer than others, showing that our reward depends not on our deserts but on God’s generosity, and who says to the complainers ” Can I not do what I please with my own money? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” And Jesus adds, “Thus the last shall be first and the first last” Matthew 20:15-16) all attest that our God is a God of expansive generosity, rather than retributive justice.
It is a truism in liberal theology that the historical Jesus was so to speak “on the side of” the poor and against the rich. So far do these theologians, like Marcus Borg for instance, go in identifying him with the poor that they empty him of divinity. Jesus is not, as we believe, “…the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” but rather a social prophet, concerned to clean up corruption among politicians, exploitation by businesses, and cruelty in kings. He is a partisan of democracy and an enemy of aristocracy. As far as he is concerned, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” These theologians must be the last Marxists in the world out side the jungles of Nepal.
His theological identity aside for the moment, such a claim clashes with the title Jesus was given, namely, King, and the name he gave to the nature of his community, Kingdom. For me, Borg’s Jesus is a complete mystery; a social worker who became in the eyes of his followers the image of the invisible God and the first-born of all creation. For Borg such claims are not statements of fact but metaphors of feeling, to which I say that such distinctions are impermissible because metaphors are statements of fact too. When someone says Jesus is the image of God he does not mean only that he personally believes this but that it is not “objectively” true. This kind of logic is way out of date, especially in view of progress in the neurosciences and in what used to be called epistemology but is now known as “cognitive science.” Metaphors are ways of stating “facts,” (another term that has lost its firmness of meaning).
I picked up Borg recently and found myself appalled at the sloppy reasoning and careless historiography by which he erases the King of life and death, the conqueror of sin and despair, and replaces him with a poet of social justice, like the folk singers of the sixties of last century. (I once reviewed Borg and said that his Jesus was like the Hippy remnants of Boulder Creek where we then had a house, and Santa Cruz). Now that is very bad news indeed; Jesus the community organizer and the Kingdom a great commune of love, flowers, and free sex.
Jesus is a king, which is not such a bad thing to be when you compare it to presidents. Currently we have a president who would be king and whose best pals are the rancid royals of Saudi. On this evidence there is no a priori reason to be anti-monarchy and pro-presidency; on the whole kings have not been more corrupt and rapacious than presidents. In the case in point look what democracy achieved: twice it produced catastrophe.
To be sure it was Jesus’ executioners who give us the title we cite today; it is the title on the Cross. However, it was not simply a slander, it must have had basis in fact; people did call him “King of the Jews,” and for good reason; there was something royal about him, something that reminded them of the great king David.
There was also something in his ethical teaching that was royal or at least aristocratic, namely, generosity. In this alone Jesus was not a social prophet of the OT kind. Those wooly rubes were far from generous; on the contrary they were hypercritical and flamingly partisan. If you listen to those OT prophets you hear mostly ferocious condemnation, self-righteous accusation, and venomous jingoism. You hear them excoriating the kings for being friendly with foreigners and at the bottom of the well you hear them demand that true Jews divorce and drive out all non-Jewish wives, and one of their exemplars, Phineas the priest once took a spear and killed an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in the act of love, for the sake of his go (Numbers 25:6-9). (Just like the Taliban religious police). Their vision of social justice would bring about a community like Stalin’s USSR or Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist Mormons, or Saudi Arabia, or Taliban land.
Against the low class ressentiment and venomous indignation of these OT prophets, Jesus sets the ethic of generosity. He behaved like an aristocrat of the best kind; he was merciful, he was humane and he was generous. This is the overwhelming evidence of the parables of the Gospels.
Recently I have been reading Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2007), a very good book, sane and reliable, which I recommend to those who are willing and able to read a demanding text. I learned from Taylor the history of the word “generosity” from its arrival in Western European discourse in 16th century French. Here is the description: Taylor is asking where we might have found the resources for a universal beneficence absent the divine commands. He writes, “Now one obvious place they might have found these resources was in pride. Not the negatively judged pride of Christian preaching but the positive force which was central to the warrior- aristocratic ethic, whereby one is moved by the sense of ones own dignity to live up to the demands of ones estate. This motive in 17th century French was called ‘generosite.’ Corneille’s characters incessantly evoked it. Here is Cleopatra’s speech from Pompee:
‘Les Princes ont cela de leur haute naissance…
Leur generosite soumet tout a leur gloire.’
(This to their high extraction Princes owe…
Their magnanimity subjects all to their glory.)
Generosite is translated “magnanimity,” a marvelous word! The opposite of pusillanimity and the narrow, nationalist meanness of the prophets. And the phrase, “…whereby one is moved by the sense of ones own dignity to live up to the demands of ones estate,” translates the biblical phrase, “for Thy name’s sake.” We pray God to act generously not for our sake nor for our merit but for his own name, that is, the sense of his own dignity which makes him live up to the demands of his estate.
Think again of Christ the King in this light: his high birth is without peer, (“He is the image of God, the first-born of all creation…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” Colossians1: 15&19). Out of this peerless dignity Jesus would of course show magnanimity and not pronounce condemnation. My friend Ed P Sanders of Duke University, whom I regard as the best historian of Jesus of our generation, points out that Jesus did not call first for repentance and then for entrance to the Kingdom, but rather for sinners to enter the Kingdom as they were, unrepentant or whatever, and subject themselves to its magnanimous influences. This, Sanders says was one of the reasons they crucified him, that is, for undermining the prophetic demands that people measure up to the prophets’ standards before they approach God. Jesus reversed this, and that is how he became the King who ruled from the Cross, the highest born among us in the place of slaves and traitors; he offered unconditional acceptance in a world of competition and conditions.
But through it all he never once ceased to be the King, your sovereign and mine. From that Cross he forgave us because we did not know what we were doing (Luke 23:34); and out of his magnanimity he still forgives us when we pander to current culture and its incapacity for truth, and thus crucify him again on a cross of pusillanimity and obsequiousness. Be assured, when we have Judas-like given over to them our magnanimous king, the prize givers of our culture, whom our renegades regard with such awe, will not reward us; they will despise us more, because we will have exchanged the pearl of great price for a video game, and even in their ignorance they can smell the rot of self-destruction.