There’s an old episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry’s new girlfriend has a terrible, hideous, ear-splitting laugh. Of course, she’s beautiful, funny, and likeable in every other way, but Jerry—a comedian—can’t date someone whose laugh he cannot stand. It just won’t work for them to be together. (I can't get the YouTube clip integrated, but you can watch it here.)
I am no comedian, but I am playful, and I make regular use of sarcasm and irony. Being around someone who doesn’t appreciate that kind of humor is tiresome—for both of us. I routinely say the most outrageous things (almost always with my tongue in my cheek), but the straight-laced individual I’m with can’t see through the sarcasm. Explaining one joke after another is agonizing.
I kind of feel like that when I read Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 23:33-43). This Sunday is the last Sunday after Pentecost—the last week before Advent starts—which means that most of us are observing the Johnny-come-lately festival of “Christ the King,” a designation for this Sunday that didn’t come about until Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925. The point is to contrast Christ’s kingship with that of world leaders—the kingdoms of the earth that lead to the horrors of the Great War. Of course, that comparison is still apposite, but I worry that most of us (especially me) miss the irony of making it.
Christ the King. Those words go together without needing any explanation. Christians understand that Jesus Christ is God’s king (even if we don’t really get the theological significance of God having a king). And people who aren’t Christians probably aren’t surprised to hear that we would call the central figure of our faith a “king.” We’re always talking about how special Jesus is and how much we love him. Why not call him King Jesus? But go back and read Luke 23:33-43 and ask what in there seems even remotely monarchical.
I remember a seminary professor making a great deal about the Titulus—the sign that hung on the cross. It is attested by all four gospel accounts, and it seems so unusual and unexpected that even the most critical historians seem willing to accept its veracity. As a follower of Jesus who is so accustomed to talking about him as king, that sign seems to belong there. But of course it doesn’t. It’s ridiculous. It’s the most terrible, biting political satire of its day. “You want a king?” the Roman Empire asks. “Here’s your king. This is what we do to kings.” The sign that declares Jesus’ kingship is the blinking neon light of defeat. A king who is executed on a cross is not a king.
But, of course, we stand at the cross and gaze upon our king. Jesus’ kingship isn’t like that of the kingdoms of this world. The cross isn’t a mistake. It’s not a story of the Roman Empire or the Jewish hierarchy killing the one who belongs on a throne. Jesus belongs on the cross—not because of anything he deserved but because of who he is. This king accepted the cross as the sign of his kingship. The Titulus is doubly ironic. The Romans hung it there as a warning sign. And the gospel accounts leave it there to embrace the irony it declares.