As Americans we have mixed emotions regarding the word king. The American Revolution was fought to free Americans from the tyranny of a kingly rule. Since then we’ve had little enthusiasm for hereditary, life-long reigns. Our political traditions mostly involve elected officials who serve a set term of office and then retire to private life. The U.S. Constitution maintains a “balance of powers” among the different branches of government to prevent any one branch from usurping a royal authority.
Even in the world at large, hereditary monarchies are fading away. Those which remain, as in Great Britain, have come to assume largely a ceremonial function as heads of state, with little genuine political power.
Despite this, there is something about the symbol of a king which continues to captivate our imagination. Many of the stories we hear as children feature Kings or Queens. Disneyland has maintained a long popularity as “the magic kingdom.” Crowns, swords, scepters, turreted palaces, moats and dungeons, can all seem marvelous to us.
Kings were more common in the world in which Jesus lived. The Emperor Tiberius ruled the Roman empire. Jesus grew to manhood in a world which remembered the glories and terrors of Herod the Great, the King of Judea. Herod was king only by grace of the Roman emperor. He was known as “great” because of his accomplishments as a builder. He constructed or rebuilt fortresses and palaces throughout the land, and oversaw the creation of a magnificent harbor on the Mediterranean. Yet Herod also used his power to destroy anyone whom he felt threatened his rule, not excluding some of his own sons.
After Herod’s death, the Roman occupation of the Holy Land continued, in Galilee under Antipas and in Judea under the governance of Pontius Pilate. Jesus and his contemporaries knew kings and rulers as sources of war, heavy taxes, corruption, violence, and the oppression of military occupation.
In all four gospels Pilate asks Jesus “are you a king?” and Jesus declines to answer. Nevertheless Pilate understood Jesus to be challenging the authority of the Emperor. The title “King of the Jews” was placed on the crossbeam he carried as an indication of why he was being crucified.
Jesus never claimed an earthly kingship. Yet he spoke of himself frequently as one who was announcing a new kind of reign, the kingdom of God. Jesus sometimes spoke of this kingdom as something that was coming in the future and sometimes he spoke as if it was already present. In his parables and pronouncements, Jesus was stating that God, not Caesar, was king of Israel. Unlike the oppressive, death-dealing earthly kings, God’s kingdom was one of freedom and hope. Much of Jesus teaching was a description of what the kingdom of God is like. Signs of the arrival of God’s kingdom included the release of prisoners, the restoration of sight to the blind, and freedom for all who were oppressed (Luke 4:18).
To Jesus’ way of thinking, God alone was king. This made him a most subversive figure, even if he did not claim political leadership for himself.
Over time Christians began granting Jesus the title of king because his own life of servant love so completely modeled the kingdom he preached. In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King as a way of reminding a world once again dominated by death-dealing dictators of the rule of love that was so present in Jesus’ words and actions.