Making a Joke of the King
A reflection on John 18:33-37 by Nathan Nettleton, 26th November 2000

When we call Jesus King, we may not know what we’re saying?


There are all sorts of titles used to describe Jesus in the Bible, and they are mostly loaded with meaning. Often though, we get so used to them that we just use them like names — we say “Lord” as if it meant no more than saying “Graham” or “Geraldine”. On this Sunday each year, we are reminded of another of those titles and called to reflect on what it means. What does it mean to call Jesus our “King”? Does a title like “King of kings” just roll off the tongue out of habit, or do we really mean something by it? And if so, what?

It’s not an easy question to answer. In fact it is one of the more problematic titles given to Jesus. It is perhaps more problematic than ever nowadays, because the way we think about monarchy as a system of government has changed and that inevitably alters the way we hear the title. The title “King” was always problematic though. Just look at the way it is used in the gospels. The phrase “the Kingdom of God” appears frequently in the gospels, but the description of Jesus as the King does not. The only place you will find the word “king” used in reference to Jesus in any of the four gospels is in the context it appears in this one — in his trial before Pilate, the trial that leads to his execution. Even then, it is not a title that Jesus welcomes or even accepts. When Pilate asks a second time whether he is claiming to be a king, Jesus something to the effect of “That’s your word, not mine.” And yet the Christian tradition has had few problems exalting Jesus as our King.

It is probably not hard to see where the image of Jesus as King comes from. We are looking for language that describes someone who rules over us and over everything, someone who is not dependent on multiple recounts of ballot papers to secure their right to rule, someone who is awesome and admired and honoured. For the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the memory that most naturally evoked such imagery was the memory of King David. For the Jewish people, David was the archetypal great leader. In his day, Israel had been united, prosperous and at peace, and so, in the popular memory, David was the King whose rule brought them such desirable things. In times of national chaos and insecurity Israel would look back on that golden age and wish a gain for a King like David. The reading this week from 2 Samuel 23:1-7, which we are told contains David’s final assessment of his own reign, reinforces this rosy image of the King. He compares the rule of a just king with good weather, it “is like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” When you have a good King, everything is wonderful, or so the King would have you believe!!

But there are problems with the memory of David as king and with transferring those memories onto Jesus. How ever rosy Israel’s memory of David was, when you read the actual stories a much more troubling picture emerges. We’ve read quite a few of those stories in worship during recent months. However much Israel may have benefited from David’s political genius, he was also a lying, lecherous, murdering bastard. His power went to his head and as it so often does, it corrupted him. Power became more important to him than integrity and he began to regard himself as being above the law, and above the petty moral restrictions that the common people were expected to live by.

And isn’t that exactly the problem with calling Jesus a King. We don’t actually have any examples we can point to of kings who were not corrupted in some way by their power. There might be some who haven’t stooped to murder like David did, but the machiavellian impulse to protect one’s own interests at all costs seems to be a universal characteristic of kings.

It is going to be very interesting to see what happens to the way we feel about using King language of Jesus when there is next a king on the British throne. The troubles and scandals of the Royal family over the last 40 years have changed for ever the way most people think about monarchs, but our use of the “king” word for Jesus has been inoculated from the problem because there has been a Queen on the throne instead. It will come as quite a shock to many Christians to be suddenly using the word they are used to using only of Christ to speak of Charles! It may provoke a rapid rewriting of some of our theology.

What we can see when we look at this discussion between Jesus and Pilate is that the gospel writers are clearly pointing out that if we are going to think of Jesus as a king we had better be clear that we are talking about a radically different model of kingship than that to which Pilate subscribes. Jesus and Pilate are almost talking past each other because they are talking about such different things. Pilate, of course, is not showing the least interest in what kind of theology of power Jesus might hold. He simply wants to establish whether this man before him presents any threat to the stability of Roman rule in Israel. He is not particularly interested in guilt or innocence, right or wrong. Like most of his kind, Pilate would have had little difficulty ordering the execution of an innocent man if it would help hose down any revolutionary fervour among the masses.

One of the things to note from this exchange is that Jesus makes little or no attempt to allay Pilate’s fears. If anything his answers are likely to be seen as provocative. His assertion that his Kingdom is not of this world and that his followers have no need to fight to protect him could have sounded like a bold challenge to Pilate. In a sense Jesus is saying “Yes, there is a revolution, and there is nothing you can do about it because it is not vulnerable to the only sort of power you have at your disposal.” Those who want to say that Christianity has nothing to do with politics have to remember that this trial had a very political dimension. Jesus does not try to argue that when people give their total allegiance to him that Rome should not feel that there is any threat to its power.

However, it is equally clear that Jesus is not simply on about setting up an opposing rule to that of Rome which would operate on essentially the same understanding of the nature of power and the imperative to keep the people in submission. The theological rewriting of the concept of kingship began long before Jesus. It can be seen in the stories of David, even though David fell woefully short of the ideal. The emphasis placed on David’s background as a shepherd was no accident. The image of the shepherd is the most frequently occurring theme in the Bible’s theological presentation of the ideal king. It was not today’s image of a bloke on a trail bike with a Kelpie pushing the sheep around. The shepherds of that era virtually lived in the paddocks with the sheep, leading them from good feeding place to the next and protecting them from all dangers. The image of the shepherd who was so attached to his sheep that he would protect them with his own life if need be was an ideal that was invoked to describe what a king should be and which was, of course, later used to describe who Jesus was. You can see Jesus alluding to this in this story. When the gospel writer records him saying to Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” there is a clear link back to Jesus’ description of himself as the good shepherd back in chapter 10: “He goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (v4) “They will listen to my voice and they will become one flock with one shepherd.” (v.16).

So in John’s gospel in particular, the image of Jesus as King is a complex image that is played with in an ironic way. Jesus is dressed up in a purple robe and a crown of thorns and called “King” as a form of ridicule while he is being beaten and humiliated by soldiers. He is till dressed up as a joke when Pilate questions him about his status as a king. The gospel writer is deliberately interweaving these three images — the imperial king of domination, the shepherd king who lays down his life, and the mocked and humiliated “joke king” — and challenging us to think carefully about what we are saying when we glibly use such language to speak of Jesus. It is one thing to speak of Jesus reigning over all creation. It is another lump him in with the kings we have known in the world. The gospel calls us to give our allegiance to Christ and to allow him to reign in every aspect of our lives. But we had better be clear about what we are and aren’t saying if we want to call him “King”.