What Kind of King Is This? Reflections on Luke 23:33-43

Lectionary Reflections
Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2013

This is the 27th Sunday after Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Reign of Christ. The question that comes to my mind today is, "What kind of king is this?"

Each of the synoptic Gospels presents a slightly different picture of Christ as King. In Mark, Christ is Israel's true king, but his kingship is hidden in suffering and rejection. A centurion declares, "Truly this man was God's Son!" (Mk. 15:34, 39) but he dies on the cross under the mocking banner "King of the Jews."

In Matthew, Jesus is the God-authorized Son and Israel's Messiah who teaches with heavenly authority concerning the will of God (Mt. 5-7), and performs miracles that give authority to his teachings. Jesus as King in Matthew is, in the words that both open and close his gospel, "God with us" (1:23, 28:20).

In Luke, Jesus is the Son of a God who, through Jesus' ministry, grants forgiveness of sins to the repentant and the gift of salvation through the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (11:13, 20, 19:1-9).

In all three of these gospels there seems to be a degree of choice in Jesus' determination to head toward Jerusalem, a compulsion that comes from within. I am convinced that he had a choice in the matter. He could have run for the hills. I am convinced that, given who he was and his commitment to the mission he felt to be his, he gave himself no other choice but to head toward Jerusalem and face the consequences of the deep antagonism he had created by his faithfulness to God. I believe Jesus chose the kind of King he would be. That's why, when I hear lyrics like those of the anthem called "Listen to the Hammer Ring," I cringe at some of the words.

Listen to the hammer
as it rings on Calvary
The nails that held Him captive
They liberated me

Now you might say I'm callous
When you see this joy in me
But every blow was planned by God
And taken willingly

So listen to the hammer ring, and rejoice
Listen to the hammer ring, and thank Jesus
Listen to the hammer ring, for He's taken everything
That was against us, and nailed it to His cross

Precious hands of Jesus
that healed the sick and the lame
His touch was oh so tender
Now those hands are maimed

And those feet to travel
over rough and dusty roads
Now are bloodied by the nails
that my Jesus chose

So listen to the hammer ring, and rejoice
Listen to the hammer ring, and thank Jesus
Listen to the hammer ring, for He's taken everything
That was against us, and nailed it to His cross

Why do I cringe at some of the words of this anthem? Because its answer to the question "What kind of king is this?" is too facile: one whose suffering should bring us joy. I want lyrics that don't separate Good Friday from the Resurrection and that honor the reality of the Trinity in that ugly scene of suffering on the hill.

It might be a good exercise for all of to write our own hymn lyrics based on Luke 23:33-43.

Since I'm no hymn writer, I'll write a poem of sorts instead.

What kind of King is this? Who is crucified at a place called the Skull? With a criminal on his left and a criminal on his right?

What kind of king is this who forgives rather than executes judgment on those who contest his power?

What kind of king is this? Who allows himself to be disrespected and abused without speaking a word in his own defense?

What kind of king is this who allows even criminals to mock him without putting them in their place?

What kind of king is this whose thoughts are on others rather than his own pain at the peak of his own undeserved suffering?

How can a crucified king bring us life? How can a forgiving king right the wrongs done to us and that we have done to others?

How can a peaceful king end the wars that rage within us and around us?

How can a compassionate king find the strength to lead us?

He can't, if we envision our role in this scene as standing on the sidelines and rejoicing in his sufferings.

The goal of the narrative genre is not to have the reader stand on the porch and look in the window, but to be drawn into the scene; to identify with a character in it and to be transformed along with them as the plots unfolds. This scene warrants the standard disclaimer that comes onto the screen before many television dramas: "This drama contains some scenes that may not be suitable for all audiences. Parental discretion is advised."

This ugly scene is not suitable for any audience in the sense that it contains nudity, blood, and brutality.

There is no way I'm rushing to joy as fast as "Listen to the Hammer Ring." Not before entering penitently into prayerful meditation on the courage and compassion of God shown to us in Jesus the Son, a courage and compassion that knows no earthly bounds.

What kind of king is this that we honor on this Reign of Christ Sunday? Not one we've ever seen before on this earth, but one who was, and is, and is to come. Thanks be to God!

11/17/2013 5:00:00 AM
Alyce McKenzie
About Alyce McKenzie
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.