Thought for the day
It is possible to contrast the various philosophies and religions as systems of ideas and as ethical paradigms. What is distinctive of Christianity, however, is the centrality of the person of Jesus. In his own ministry, he proclaimed the Good News of the reign of God. The Good News for Paul is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christianity is different: we have not only a message but a person to proclaim.
O Christ, you stand at the very centre of our existence as believers. Show yourself to us and help us to know you, love and serve you. Amen.
John 18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
This is a wonderful passage from John 18, which goes to the heart of the Christology of that Gospel. It is read chiefly on Good Friday, but is also appropriate here. It must be said, however, that the presentation of the conversation with Pilate serves the theological programme of the Gospel rather than our need of historical facticity. Echoes of other texts abound.
Kind of writing
As may be observed from the chart, John offers an intricate sequence of scenes, in an intentionally theatrical manner. The scene chosen for our reading is the second scene, from early in the dialogue. As you can see from the pairings of the scenes, scene 2 is meant to be read in conjunction with scene 6. In both scenes, Pilate asks the key questions: “Are you the King of the Jews?” and “Where are you from?” In a Gospel in which those against Jesus always presume to know “where he is from”, paradoxically only Pilate asks truly open questions.
Old Testament background
“Kingdom” is an important category for understanding the preaching of Jesus and the subsequent Christian tradition. There are two sources. There is the commonplace of all religions that God is a ruler or king. This is also found widely in the Hebrew Bible. Of the many possible illustrations, two may suffice:
For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Is 33:22)
Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” (Psa 96:10)
You may notice the connection of kingship with salvation and with justice. When, however, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God (common in the Synoptics but rare in John—John 3:3, 5), he is not reflecting this religious cliché that God is in charge. Rather, the use of the expression is apocalyptic, deriving from works such as the book of Daniel. The hope in a future kingdom of God is a recognition of the felt absence of God. It is answering the question: where is God in all this mess? As a result, today’s first reading goes very well with the Gospel:
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan 7:14)
New Testament foreground
It is a common place of New Testament studies that while Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, the early church proclaimed Jesus, the king. The shift from the teaching of Jesus to the person of Jesus is very noticeable from the letters of St Paul onwards. It is very noticeable too in the Fourth Gospel, where every single scene is not so much teaching offered by Jesus as teaching about Jesus himself. This is true even across the whole Gospel: John 3:3, 5; 18:36.
King: John 1:49 (Nathaniel); 6:15 (the people); 12:13, 15 (Scripture citation); 18:33, 37, 39; 19:3, 12, 14–15, 19, 21 (all with Pilate).
The category of kingship arises from the historical Jesus tradition, as we see:
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. (Mark 15:16–20)
The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” (Mark 15:26)
The Fourth Gospel then takes this tradition and explores it in an almost Pauline way: Jesus will be king not by force but by frailty precisely because his kingdom is not of this world.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18–25)
Verse 33 In John’s Gospel, Pilate is made to go out to the Jewish leaders who refuse to defile the Passover by entering the house of a Gentile. The irony is palpable, because Jesus is the Lamb of God as the Baptist proclaims at the start of this Gospel. The question put by Pilate need not be insincere, because it is one of the questions which really matter. Later in chapter 19, we read: Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19) Then, the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” (John 19:21)
Verse 34 The questioner becomes the questioned. This turning of the tables is even clearer later on: Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:11)
Verse 35 Historically speaking, some Jewish leaders plotted the death of Jesus. To make sure the Romans would pay attention, an essentially religious charge had to be converted into a political one. Later on we read: The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” (John 19:15) This is an especially hard saying on the lips of those for whom God alone is king. The earlier uses of the word “nation” help us understand the force of the dialogue: If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. (John 11:48–52) John’s Gospel excels here in the ironic and unconscious proclamation of the truth. Finally, “What have you done” is a tremendous question.
Verse 36 The “whence” (where from) of Jesus is a powerful technique used in this Gospel to explore his true identity. The texts are too many to give fully, but here are the references: John 1:48; 2:9; 3:8; 4:11; 6:5; 7:27–28; 8:14; 9:29–30; 19:9. The climax is 19:9. The non-violence of his followers is portrayed ironically too in this Gospel: Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus (= king!). Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:10–11)
Verse 37 Born: i.e. as a human being. Come into the world: i.e. as the Word who was in the beginning. The reader of course knows the deep origin of Jesus since the very first words of the Prologue.
On the lips of the Johannine Jesus, we hear the typical faith vocabulary of his community: testify and truth. To testify is found widely and significantly: John 1:7–8, 15, 32, 34; 2:25; 3:11, 26, 28, 32; 4:39, 44; 5:31–33, 36–37, 39; 7:7; 8:13–14, 18; 10:25; 12:17; 13:21; 15:26–27; 18:23, 37; 19:35; 21:24. Perhaps the most intense moments are in chapter 5:31-39. “Truth” reminds the reader of two texts: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:4–6) Hearing the voice reminds us of the Good Shepherd in Jn 10.
Pointers for prayer
1. The feast we have today and the gospel give us an opportunity to reflect on the different ways in which we, and others, exercise influence and leadership. The authority of Pilate came from position and power. The authority of Jesus came from his integrity and what he stood for. Recall leaders you have known whose influence was like that of Jesus.
2. The values of the kingdom of God cannot be imposed. It is never a matter of fighting battles, or forcing others into compliance. Perhaps through experience you have learned the limitations of the use of force, as a parent, a teacher, a group leader. What has been the good news, the learnings for you, in this?
3. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth and we are all created for a purpose. What do you believe is the purpose of your life? Recall times when you have been able to bear witness to this. What fruit has this witness had for yourself and/or others?
Almighty and eternal God, to Jesus Christ, first-born from the dead, you have granted everlasting dominion and a kingship that shall not pass away.
Remove from us every desire for privilege and power, that we may imitate the sacrificial love of Christ our King, and, as a royal and priestly people, serve you humbly in our brothers and sisters. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.