by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“So you are a king then?” said Pilate. “It is you who say it” answered Jesus. “Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” John 18, 33-37

The exchange between Jesus and Pilate recorded in today’s gospel reading earned Pilate the reputation in history for being the world’s master of compromise. Even though his conscience told him that Jesus was innocent, he realized that his own political career depended on his finding a compromise. Caving into the demands of those calling for blood, he washed his hands of the responsibility he carried and sent Jesus to his death. For more than two thousand years, Pilate washing his hands has been to the world a symbol of cowardice and compromise.

While today is known as the feast of Christ the King, it is a celebration of integrity rather than one of kingship, authority, power and personal prominence. To most of us, kings and queens belong to the world of fairy tales. The queens and kings of our day are little more than figureheads, people invited to add dignity and gravity to political and civil events where ordinary people like to see pomp and pageantry. Jesus had little interest in either of those. However, he did make it clear that personal integrity was the defining quality of authenticity in his life and in the lives of anyone who would make a claim to being one of his followers. We all stand tall, we are all queen or king in our own lives whenever we live with integrity and witness to the truth.

In his play, A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt gives us a powerful example of the value of integrity in an exchange between King Henry VIII and the Chancellor of his realm, Thomas More. Henry is desperate to gain the approval of More on his decision to divorce his wife, Catherine:

“Thomas, Thomas, does a man need a Pope to tell him when he’s sinned? It was a sin, Thomas, I admit it; I repent. And God has punished me; I have no son. Son after son she’s borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth, or dead within the month; I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything. I have a daughter, she’s a good child, a well-set child – But I have no son. It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen and all the Popes back to St Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.”

“Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?”

“Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you are known to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves – and there is you.”

“I am sick to think how much I must displease Your Grace.”

“No, Thomas, I respect your sincerity. Respect? Oh, man, it’s like water in the desert.”
(Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, p. 34, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1960)

One of the characteristics of John’s Gospel is the author’s use of irony. Nicodemus, a teacher and leading Pharisee, comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to learn something about the action of God’s Spirit (John 3, 1-21). The Samaritan woman comes with a bucket to draw water from the town well, but is still left feeling thirsty. Jesus comes with no bucket, looking for a drink, and reveals himself as the water that wells up to eternal life (John 4, 5-42). A royal official from the court of Herod makes a journey of more than 20 miles from Capernaum to Cana to ask Jesus to come and cure his very ill son. He takes on trust and without question the direction of Jesus: “Go home, your son will live.” Yet the Jewish religious leaders and even the disciples of Jesus demonstrate repeatedly their lack of faith (John 4, 46-54). The blind man cured by Jesus sees with the eyes of faith, while the fully sighted scribes and Pharisees are blind to the truth and lack moral integrity (John 9, 1 – 41). When Jesus identified himself to the heavily armed soldiers who had come to arrest him, those military men fell to the ground. The unarmed Jesus stood with quiet dignity and identified himself a second time (John 18, 1-9). John uses the very same kind of irony in today’s gospel reading where Jesus, the powerless prisoner quietly demonstrates his moral superiority over a weak Roman Prefect of Judea, appointed by the Emperor Tiberius (John 18, 33-37). Then there is the final irony when Jesus is crucified with a sign affixed to his cross proclaiming: “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews “(John 19, 17-22).

The “reign” of Jesus Christ was not built on political, tyrannical or economic power. Neither was it about restoring the fortunes of a nation that had lost its independence to the power of Rome. It was, rather, a culture of respect and acceptance for all, built on the values of equality, justice and compassion. It was founded on the vision that all people, created in the image of God, belong to the one great community of humankind. Despite our failure to live up to our full potential and to appreciate the love that God has for each of us, God became one of us in the person of Jesus to lift us up to be like him, living lives of love and loving those around us into living and loving true to themselves.

To be part of the reign or kingdom of God is to give witness to the truth that God’s love for us and for all humanity is boundless and unconditional.

Just last week, some of us based in Rome had the privilege of spending some time in a retreat and conference centre located in Karen, Nairobi and run by a group of religious sisters called the Little Daughters of St. Joseph. Karen takes its name from Karen Christenze Dinesen, a Danish writer who wrote the book Out of Africa under the pen-name of Isak Dinesen. One of Dinesen’s stories in that book led to the award-winning film Babette’s Feast. Another story she tells in Out of Africa is that of a young farm worker from the Kikuyu tribe, whom she employed on her property. After being with her for three months, the man announced that he was going to leave her employment to work for a Muslim farmer who lived in the vicinity. Surprised by what looked like a sudden decision, Dinesen asked him if she had done something to upset him or if he was unhappy to be working for her. The man replied that he was happy working for her but that he had made up his mind, long before, to work for a Christian for three months and then for three months with a Muslim. Doing that, he could study the ways of both Christians and Muslims in order to decide whether he would become a Christian or a Muslim.

If that young man had three months to observe you and me in our daily actions and interactions, I wonder if he would feel drawn to become a Christian. Would he see us reflecting more of Pilate or more of Thomas More? “I came into the world to bear witness to the truth”, said Jesus. Isn’t that also why we are here?