The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

November 23, 2008

Glynn Cardy

Christ the King? Sunday     Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24     Matthew 25:31-46


If there is one thing that every scholar agrees on about Jesus it is this: he was no king, had no pretensions to kingship, and would have been absolutely dumbfounded and dismayed by the Church’s regal elevation of him in the centuries after his death.


‘Christ the King’ is stirring stuff in Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, but it hardly fits with the gospel picture of Jesus the man who wouldn’t be king. Instead of singing “King of Kings, Lord of Lords”, it would be much more accurate to sing ‘Rebel of rebels, misfit of misfits’.


In the centuries following his death, Jesus’ followers attached a number of honorifics to his name and then weaved those titles into the gospels. Jesus became ‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘Prince of Peace’, ‘Lord’, ‘Light of the World’, and ‘Word of God’ to name just a few. None of these names were used by Jesus or about him during his lifetime. They are attempts to translate the meaning of his life into the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures and to address theological issues in the late 1st and early to mid 2nd centuries.


What we can piece together of the historical Jesus tells us that he lived and preached an antithetical vision fundamentally opposed to the accumulation of power, wealth, and privilege symbolized by monarchy. Jesus was a social deviant, a religious reformer, and a political rebel.


His social deviancy centred around two counter-cultural practices. Firstly he challenged the patriarchal family system. This system entrenched biological privilege [the basis of any class system] and male privilege. He did this by creating a new extended ‘family’ which included lepers, tax collectors, women, children, enemies, and even priests and Pharisees. The clean and unclean, the righteous and unrighteous, the polluted and the pure were all in this new ‘family’. Not that Jesus was seen as a supporter of the family, quite the opposite: he was seen as its destroyer. The patriarchal family was the social glue that held society together.


His other practice was that he refused to build up a patron/client relationship with the populace. Normally a religious leader and healer would establish a base of operations and be the patron to those who sought assistance from him. The disciples would be the brokers. As a US president is located in the White House and has a number of minions whom normal people have to go through in order to have an audience, so it was with a first century patron and their clientele. This system made sure the patron’s power would grow and the clientele would always be dependent.


Instead Jesus was deliberately itinerant. He kept moving so his power and others’ dependency did not grow. Healings came free. His vision was that people did not need a brokered relationship in order to relate to God or to each other. His vision was radically egalitarian.


Of course this social deviancy of Jesus’ was after a few decades ‘corrected’ by the Church. Christianity was refashioned to be supportive of ruling classes, class structure, and male heads. Christianity instituted bishops and priests to be brokers and control people’s relationships with one another and with God.


Jesus was also a religious reformer. His religiously promiscuous dining practice was both visionary and confrontational. The encouragement for anyone to come in off the streets to his table breached the purity codes that were deemed essential for personal holiness. What food you ate, who you touched or were in close proximity with, who you spoke to, was believed to affect not just your health and social standing but also your relationship with God. To dine with say a woman was to lower you to her inferior spiritual status. It was similar with a leper, or child, or tax collector. Jesus was challenging the rules about holiness.


Likewise Jesus challenged the rules around Sabbath practice and the role of the Temple. Jesus was a free spirit who deliberately flouted the boundaries of his faith.


Jesus parables are full of parties and celebration. He had a confidence in God and God’s affection and goodness. He didn’t see himself as the go-between for people to get to God. He had confidence that everyone could access the Divine like he did, and have a personal relationship with God.


In this way he challenged the sin/forgiveness system. People didn’t have to buy or beg forgiveness. Rather they had to forgive others and forgive themselves. To experience forgiveness they had to freely give it. They didn’t need to go through religious hoops, sacrifice pigeons or lambs, fast and use sackcloth, keep saying sorry, build holy shrines, put money in the plate, or do good works. There wasn’t a God waiting to punishment them.


Jesus thus undercut the theology, economics, and power of a religious system that divided people and places into holy and unholy, privileged and plebeian. By word and deed he broke the boundaries. No wonder they wanted to break him.


Of course in time the Church reconstructed a system of boundaries in order to give its elite power over people’s lives. Holiness once again required that we bend our heads to the heavenly, earthly and religious Lords, respect their palaces and temples of power, associate only with our peers, party only when approved, and feel unforgiven and pay for it. Holiness required control.


Lastly, Jesus was a political rebel. He was born at a time when the Roman Empire had subjugated Palestine, and in a region whose spirit refused to be subjugated. The Empire was brutal. Sepphoris, the town 7 km down the road from Nazareth, was razed in 4 BCE and its inhabitants enslaved. Any dissent or unrest was ruthlessly suppressed. Despite this there was a variety of protest – from armed gangs and resistance movements, to refusing to pay tax or plant seed.


Jesus was a covert rebel. He first withdrew his consent-to-be-ruled from the usurpers of power and counselled others to be the same. He pointed out how the system of imperial domination afflicted the poor. He was militantly non-violent. Jesus’ Kingdom of God was a vision for how this world would run if God, not Caesar, sat on an imperial throne. Jesus had a utopian dream in which both material and spiritual goods, political and religious resources, economic and heavenly favours were equally available to all without interference from intermediaries. The well-known and well-misunderstood maxim ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ is an example of his political teaching. Far from it being a division of property or responsibility, every Jew knew that the whole land of Israel belonged to God even if Caesar thought an idolatrous coin belonged to him.


The imperial overlords executed Jesus. Romans and the Roman Procurator were not the lackeys of the Jewish religious authorities. The Romans killed for one reason only: to eliminate dissent and keep ‘the peace’. The Jewish authorities had their own methods of killing people. Crucifixion was Roman. The reason Jesus was killed was the incendiary remarks made and actions taken regarding the Temple during the Passover season. He symbolically negated all that it stood for. The peasant riots of past Passovers had been brutally suppressed and their leaders executed. So it was with the provocative prophet Jesus. It was no accident, misunderstanding, or priestly plot.


When the Gospels were written some 40 or more years after Jesus’ death the authors were concerned to not invite the ire of Rome. They tried to dress up Jesus message in politically neutral colours. When the Church cuddles up to the powerful it is very convenient to disguise Jesus’ politics and paint him as an other-worldly spiritual leader concerned about individual piety and family values. ‘His kingdom is not of this world’ they say, and quietly mutter, ‘and long may it be that way’. Elevating this egalitarian political rebel to spiritual kingship in heaven has maintained the power of the kings of this earth.


There is a very sober quote from Eusebius describing the assembling of the bishops for the Council of Nicaea in 325. This Council would produce a creed that ignored the ministry, vision, and challenge of Jesus. He writes:


“Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table… One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…”


The table of Jesus was now all male, all bishops, politically neutered, reclining with all the best wishes and weaponry of the Empire.



Further reading:

For an easy guide to the historical Jesus try:

Crossan, J. D. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography [especially chapters 2-5]

Crossan, J. D. Who Killed Jesus? [especially chapter 1]

Funk, R. Honest to Jesus [especially chapter 11 and the epilogue]

Borg, M. The Heart of Christianity

Horsley, R. Jesus and the Spiral of Violence

Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man [especially p.444-7]

Please reload