Monday, February 07, 2005

Royal Language

Some may recall an entry I wrote about taking a 'working Sabbath' near the beginning of January. Well, it really did me a lot of good to take an afternoon of study and plan ahead for the next couple weeks. This could quickly become a tradition for the first Monday of the month.

One issue I've been pondering off and on the past few weeks has been royal imagery in relation to Jesus. In preparation for Lent I just switched the sanctuary paraments this morning to purple, the color of royalty. Those who have read my online ramblings here and elsewhere or who have heard me preach know that I have no problem talking about the kingdom of God. But my issue isn't with kingdom so much as 'Christ the king,' 'hail King Jesus,' 'amazing love, how can this be that you my king would die for me,' 'Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.'

To get a disclaimer out of the way, no, my issue isn't with the apparent patriarchal overtones. Some get far more huffy than I over that aspect of king-speak. No, my concern is more along the lines of whether Jesus wished to be thought of as king of the very kingdom he preached.

Christian Century has a very good article this week concerning Jesus and Paul and their ideas about empire. The Greek word for kingdom, baseleia, can also be translated as empire, and this article notes, as does Stephen Patterson, that such a word was very intentional in its day. Jesus could have talked about the family of God or the community of God, but in the days of the Roman Empire Jesus used 'empire.' It was a message of over-against and instead-of. It's little wonder he died the death of a political traitor. Perhaps if Jesus had been born in other times or places we'd be talking about the Dynasty of God, the Third Reich of God, or the Manifest Destiny of God.

In the book of Revelation, one primary image of Jesus is wearing dazzling white with a crown. It is a very royal image. The gospel writers make use of prophecy to declare Jesus a king (Mat. 21:5), in other places Jesus either avoids being made king (John 6:15) or avoids directly answering when he is asked about being king (Mat. 27:11, Luke 23:3, John 18:37). And yet the author of Matthew is very open about declaring Jesus the Messiah, a term meaning God's anointed, previously associated with the kings of Israel and Judah. Still in other places Jesus goes back and forth between speaking of 'my kingdom' (Luke 22:30, John 18:36) and 'my Father's kingdom' (Mat. 26:29). And then there are many instances in the passion narratives where the soldiers and crowds mock him, calling him 'king of the Jews.'

So the gospel communities are not particularly bashful about declaring Jesus their messiah or king, yet acknowledge that Jesus did not tend to speak of himself often in such terms. But teachings on the kingdom of God far outweigh references to who rules that kingdom (apart from God, of course).

Could it be that in the decades following Jesus' death that the small band of disciples continued to defy the empire by preaching God's empire, even declaring Jesus their emperor for good measure? After all, 'Son of God' was originally a term conferred upon the Caesars. Both Jesus and his followers made good use of royal terms to defy the powers and principalities of their day.

Well, I'm not really going to solve anything in this post. I still feel weird about calling Jesus my king, although I understand why the early church called him that. Of course, I have no problem with calling him 'Lord,' but that's for another day.

Off to study.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have a feeling Jesus understands the limitations of our language, and it is precisely those limitations that lead to our use of kingly (and militaristic and "master") language to describe him. The problem with neutralizing the language, which can be one of the results of attempting to be inclusive, is that we often lose the words that emphasize the relational nature of Jesus (and God, for that matter).
We're soon going to begin implementing inclusive language in the Gloria and the Doxology; we gain something, but we lose something, too. There's a reason we say "God in three persons" instead of "God with three parts" or "God the three entities." In that anthropomorphizing, we draw closer somehow to God.
I happen to love Master language and don't like seeing "O Master Let Me Walk With Thee" converted to "O Savior," etc., even though I know the purpose for doing so.
On the other hand, I don't like the word "kingdom." I remember sitting in a confirmation class trying to explain the concept of "God's commonwealth of love" to a group of high school students. I thought it was such a cool revisioning of the notion of Kingdom, but most of them thought it was just silly. What was God if not a King, they asked? On the other hand, my nine-year-old was only seven when she declared, "I think God is just a big ball of love."