Editor's note: This homily by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton was given Nov. 23.
Today as you know, we celebrate the feast of Jesus as king of all the universe. But I must confess that as I enter into this celebration with you, it’s with some reluctance, and perhaps all of us should feel just a tiny bit reluctant about celebrating Jesus as king. In fact, this is a very recent feast in the church. It only was established in the 20th century, less than 100 years ago. For all of those previous centuries, the church never really looked to Jesus as king, and with good reason.
If you remember in the Scriptures during his life on earth as recorded in the Gospels, there were times when people wanted to make him a king and he constantly refused. Where you read about that marvelous event when Jesus fed the thousands in the desert, afterwards the people were so excited and they were so glad he was in their midst, that they wanted to make him king. They thought this would resolve all their problems. They would never have to worry about where they get their food or drink or anything. He would be their king.
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
And Jesus immediately went into hiding to avoid any big demonstration where people would try to acclaim his as a king. And when Peter proclaimed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and Jesus congratulated him because he said, “You have not learned this on your own, but God has enlightened you,” and so Jesus praises Peter.
But then immediately afterwards, Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples, “Yes, but now we’re on our way to Jerusalem. There the son of man will be handed over to his enemies. He will be tortured, executed as a criminal,” and Peter says, “Oh, no! No! That doesn’t have to happen to you,” and I’m sure he’s thinking in terms of what Jesus could do. He has this huge following of people and he’s able to heal and brings care and fulfills people’s needs.
And Peter just can’t understand why Jesus would give himself over to his enemies, let himself be tortured and put to death, give up any power. You know what Jesus said to Peter? “Get behind me, you Satan! You’re not thinking according to my way, you’re thinking according to human ways.” Jesus would not let the disciples acclaim him as a king, as one who would overthrow the Roman empire and set the people free once more. He refused that.
Even on the Sunday before he was put to death when he came into Jerusalem in triumph — we all remember Palm Sunday, the people gathering in huge crowds, acclaiming him as king of the Jews, throwing down their robes for him to pass over. But Jesus wanted to make sure they understood. “Okay, if you’re going to try to make me a king, you’d better understand. It’s not going to be as a ruler who dominates, who has power, who has wealth,” because remember, when Jesus came into Jerusalem, he did not come in on a war horse, a leader of an army.
He rode on the back of a donkey, a beast of burden, the kind of beast that a poor, almost helpless person would have. He was trying to get across to the people, “I am not going to be one who rules and dominates, who takes over the world. That’s not who I am.” And at his judgment before Pontius Pilate when Pilate says to him, “Well, are you a king?”, and Jesus says in effect, “No, I’m not saying that. You have said it.” But then he adds something: “If I am a king, my kingdom is not of this world. It’s going to be something very different, if I were king.”
And as you look earlier on in Matthew’s Gospel, you find that event where the mother of James and John comes to Jesus and says to him, “Here you have my two sons. Grant that they may sit one at your right hand and one at your left when you are in your kingdom.” See, she’s envisioning this kind of an earthly kingdom where Jesus will have a court and the most important places will be at his right hand and his left.
And Jesus said to the brothers, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I’m about to drink?” They answered, “We can.” Jesus replied, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right or my left is not for me to grant.” Now when the other 10 heard about this, they were angry with James and John, so Jesus called them all together. He’s going to straighten them out. “You know that the rulers of the nations act as tyrants over them. The powerful oppress them. It shall not be so among you.”
He’s saying, “We’re not going to have that kind of a kingdom. Whoever wants to be more important in your community shall make himself the servant of all. If you want to be the first, make yourself the slave of all others. Be like the son of man.” Jesus, talking about himself: “Be like me who has come not to be served, but to serve and give his life for all.” So Jesus refuses to be a king, a ruler — dominating, wealth, everything you want in a human way. He has a whole different way, his way: “I came not to be served, but to serve, even to be a slave for all others.” And that’s the only kind of way that Jesus wants us to follow him.
And isn’t it very clear in the Gospel lesson today that Jesus is asking us to be servants of one another, of our brothers and sisters anywhere in the world? As I mentioned in introducing the Gospel, Pope Francis says, “This is the program for action on the part of the followers of Jesus.” Have we ever considered it that way that this is how I act as a disciple: When there are hungry people, I give them something to eat. I find a way to make sure they have enough. Or sick people, people in prison, or strangers.
People coming to our borders because they are fleeing a situation of violence and desperate poverty — the stranger. If we follow Jesus, we would welcome them in. We would do that on an individual basis when people are hungry and strangers come into our midst. But shouldn’t we be doing that as a nation? There are so many that are saying, “Push them back.” We spend tens of hundreds, even millions of dollars to build a security wall.
I have a friend who visited Jordan many times, a country on the border of Iraq and on the border of Syria, and she visits these refugees who have been taken in by the Jordanian people. And in a letter she wrote, she said, “I asked a Jordanian man how he felt about the massive influx of Syrians.” Now Jordan is a small country. It’s a poor country; it’s a Muslim country. The man replied with concern, “Syrians are even taking the lowly jobs. An employer can pay them 200 Jordanian dollars a month rather than the 300 Jordanian dollars he would pay a Jordanian. This causes anger, but what can we do? They are our brothers and sisters.”
Imagine this small, poor country flooded with refugees from the wars in Iraq, the war in Syria. “They are our brothers and sisters. We must take them in.” Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “Not only are these your brothers and sisters, actually, I am in them. When you take in a stranger, you take in me. When you feed the hungry, you feed me. When you take care of the sick, when you visit those in prison, when you clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, you’re doing all of that to me. Whenever you did it to one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.”
If we want to honor Jesus today as a king, which our feast day calls for, we must be clear what kind of a king Jesus is and how he wants us to honor him. In that chapter of Matthew, Chapter 25, we have the program of action. I hope each one of us will take this seriously, look into our hearts, see how I am carrying out that program of action.
Because don’t we all want to hear Jesus say to us, “Come, you who have been blessed by God. Come into the fullness of God’s kingdom and live in the fullness of life and joy forever.” When we follow the program of action that Jesus has laid out, we can look forward to that moment when Jesus will say to each one of us, “Come, you who are blessed by God. Enter into the fullness of life forever.”
[Homily given at St. Anne's Parish in Frankfort, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]