Though it never made the American Film Institute’s recent list of the 100 best movie quotes, Mel Brooks’ remark in The History of the World – Part 1 – “It’s good to be the king!” – seems to fit snugly into today’s feast.
But, it also creates a huge problem. One of the misunderstandings which haunts the celebration of Christ the King revolves around how we think of kings and queens. If our concepts are fueled by centuries-old western European ideas of royalty, we’ll miss most of what our sacred authors are conveying when they speak about God or Jesus as king.
When we read the story of the establishment of the Jewish monarchy in I and II Samuel, then explore the various biblical laws which apply to these leaders, we discover that no one in Israel was ever permitted to be an absolute ruler. Their power was not only limited by Torah regulations, but they were given a job description which emphasized their obligations to the helpless in the realm. For instance, three groups of people could knock on the palace door day or night and be granted an audience with the king: widows, orphans and resident aliens. In each case, these individuals have no one to defend their rights. The king is expected to fill that role.
Many kings, of course, never worried about any of those biblical expectations. That’s why Ezekiel, planning for Israel’s return from exile, reminds his audience that some pre-exilic monarchs scattered instead of shepherded their people. The situation was so bad that the prophet expects Yahweh to now step in and take the place of such tyrants. “I myself,” Yahweh promises, “will look after and tend my sheep. . . . The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal . . . shepherding them rightly.
Jesus employs a parallel image in today’s well-known gospel pericope. The “king” in the story rewards those who, like good Jewish kings, care for the helpless. It’s the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned who most need help. In the same way, those sent into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” are people who refuse to assist the helpless.
The irony of this passage is that the king not only champions the cause of those with no clout, he actually identifies with them. Reminds me of the grade school students some years ago who so identified with a classmate who had lost her hair due to chemotherapy that they shaved their own heads. That’s why Jesus can state, “What you did or did not do for one of these least ones, you did or did not do for me!”
Such identification provides a key for understanding our Corinthians passage. Those who dare to become one with Jesus will discover that they’ve also become part of the life-giving force which he brought into the world.
Paul expresses this experience in classic terms. “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ all shall be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. . . .For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Sounds beautiful, but there’s just one problem. Jesus’ plan for ridding the world of death demands that his followers die with him. It’s not necessarily by physically dying that one achieves life, but by dying enough to become one with those around us. That’s why we constantly must return to the revolutionary concept expressed in today’s gospel. One best receives life by giving life to others.
Christians can certainly resonate with Mel Brooks’ pleasure in being king. But if we’re not good for others, we can’t possibly identify with the ancient Jewish kings, and especially not with Christ the King.