I can’t imagine the historical Jesus being comfortable with today’s feast. During his earthly ministry, if anyone called him a king it would have been a sign that person misunderstood what his life and ministry were all about. Such a title carried lots of unwanted baggage, especially during Jesus’ and the early church’s day and age.
Like all titles or metaphors, only part of the comparison applies, when, for instance, we call a special person “Honey,” we’re not referring to the fact that honey is bee regurgitation. I trust we’re speaking only about honey’s sweetness. Or when the author of the Song of Songs compares his beloved to “a mare of Pharaoh’s chariot,” he must be certain his girlfriend knows on what part of the horse he’s concentrating.
It makes sense that some of Jesus’ late first century followers would apply the title king to him. But when they did, they were only looking at that aspect of a king which showed his importance and influence in one’s daily life. Just as kings were at the center of their country’s life, so Jesus is at the center of a Christian’s life. Most other aspects of royalty don’t apply to Jesus, in particular those which have to do with kingly pomp and circumstance or the royal prerogative to completely control the lives of others.
That seems to be why the author of Revelation can talk about the risen Jesus as “the faithful witness the first-born from the dead and the ruler of the kings of earth.” Because Jesus has conveyed God’s will and life to us, he’s giving something more important and lasting than any earthly king could offer.
We must also be careful in hooking up Jesus with Daniel’s well-known “Son of Man.” More and more Scripture scholars are concluding that, when Jesus applies this title to himself, he has Yahweh’s frequent reference to Ezekiel as “son of man” in mind rather than Daniel’s one time, chapter 7 mention. When God calls the prophet son of man, he/she is simply reminding him about the fact that God’s God and Ezekiel isn’t. In other words, by using this title, Jesus is emphasizing his humanity.
John surfaces the basic problem with calling Jesus a king. When Pilate insists on addressing him as “the king of the Jews,” Jesus is forced to create a new definition for the term. “My kingdom does not belong to this world. . . . It is you who say I am a king. The reason I was born, the reason why I came into the world, is to testify to the truth. Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice.”
From the rest of the Christian Scriptures we know “the truth” the historical Jesus proclaimed revolved around the importance of all human beings, and the necessity to recognize that importance in our service of others.
The author of Revelation nails that message perfectly when he mentions that Jesus “has made us a royal nation of priests in the service of his God and Father.” Jesus only becomes what he expects his followers to become.
Years ago I was asked to preside at a grade school Eucharist in an inner-city parish. Since the theme of the celebration was Christ the King, I began the homily by asking, “What’s a king?” Hands quickly shot up. One student confidently replied, “A king’s the leader of a gang that tries to kill off all the people in other gangs.” Another assured me, “A king plays a guitar, shakes his hips and sings like Elvis.”
We have a lot of explaining to do whenever we celebrate today’s feast.