If the foyer of our house is a painting of the crucifixion by an artist from Tanzania. The painting is hauntingly beautiful, with deep reds, purples, and blacks. For some reason this week, our younger daughter noticed the painting and asked who the other two men on crosses were. “Why are there three crosses? Wasn’t just Jesus on a cross?” she asked. I offered a short explanation, including why people were crucified in Jesus’ time. Her rage was immediate. “That’s not fair! We should crucify those people who crucified others!”
I confess her reaction was not what I expected and led to a rather pedantic conversation about The Golden Rule. But the more I thought about her reaction, the more I though she was simply reflecting those base feelings we all have. In her mind, justice is retribution: a consequence equal to the offense. Her reaction is why twenty-seven states still have the death penalty. In fact, there are whole political science courses on the concept of what constitutes justice.
That’s why today’s feast day, Christ the King Sunday, is tricky. The people of Jesus’ day had notions of what a king should be – in particular, what the messianic king should be. The messianic king was to be about justice – righting the wrongs of a people who have been subjugated by the Romans, establishing power, authority, and control, and running out anyone opposed to the rule of the Lord. Suddenly why Jesus is on a cross is more obvious – the Messiah whose “triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” instead involves riding into town on a lowly donkey, who seems more focused on healing people than on establishing a new political order, who questions the authority and motives of the religious leaders. This is why a mocking sign, “King of the Jews” hangs over his head, this is why religious leaders and soldiers are taunting him, this is why a thief condemned to the same fate, hanging in agony, channels his anger toward Jesus.
And yet, here we are, reading this text of seemingly failed leadership while simultaneously celebrating the crucified Christ as the king. We modern Americans know what successful leadership looks like. We have spent the last two weeks anxiously awaiting who will control the House and Senate in Congress. Presidential hopefuls are revealing themselves. Political pundits have been explaining the consequences of split leadership, and what we can anticipate in the next two years. Given the chaos of the times, a traditional messianic king might be kind of nice.
But here’s how we know why we prefer Jesus’ version of kingship. In the midst of this chaos are those two men my daughter saw in that painting. According to tradition, the one on the right, who defends Jesus, is named Dismas; the one on the left, who insults Jesus, is named Gestas.[i] Both men are likely political criminals, since crucifixion was reserved for the most extreme political crimes. And since they are both on a cross, we can imagine that both their political dreams did not come to fruition. And so Gestas, bitter and angry mocks Jesus. He’s often called the “bad” or “unrepentant thief,” so we have our cues about how to judge his behavior. But who among us, especially when our dreams or political hopes have been dashed, is not bitter?
Meanwhile, Dismas is equally defeated. He does not presume to plead his case to Jesus – he has surrendered his dream. He asks the only thing left to ask, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”[ii] His plea is a defeated, vulnerable plea. But here’s where the beauty of Jesus’ version of kingship comes in. Jesus, as scholar Debie Thomas says, “tolerates the terrible tension between despair and hope, absorbing both into his heart…” Jesus offers, “a hope so paradoxical, [the hope] transforms our suffering and changes our lives.” “Today,” he says to Dismas, “You will be with me in Paradise.”[iii]
Today we celebrate the king who remembers us, who hangs “in the gap between our hope and despair…who carries our dreams to the grave and beyond.”[iv] No matter what is happening in our political lives, Christ the King Sunday invites us to follow this third way of Jesus. We will not always feel like victors. In fact, our defeats may be the only thing that help us see the way out of the world’s suffering. The way is not on gallant horse, flag in hand, proclaiming victory. Ours is the quiet victory of a man who hangs in the midst of hurts and declares a new way of the cross. Our invitation is to follow that kind of king. Because today – today – we can realize the kingdom with Christ our King. Amen.
[i] Debie Thomas, Into the Mess & Other Jesus Stories: Reflections on the Life of Christ (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022), 184.
[ii] Luke 23.42
[iii] Thomas, 184-185.
[iv] Thomas, 186.