The text I want to reflect on this
morning comes from the crucifixion story, from the 23rd chapter of the
gospel of Luke:
33When they came to the
place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the
criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said,
‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are
doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the
people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying,
‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God,
his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and
offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the
Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him,
‘This is the King of the Jews.’
39 One of the
criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are
you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked
him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same
sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly,
for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has
done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you
come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today
you will be with me in Paradise.’
We come on this Sunday after
Thanksgiving to the end of the church's year, the liturgical year.
Because next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, which is the
beginning of the church year. The Sunday when we 'start over', we
look for a fresh, new coming of God. We Duck fans wish we could
start the football season over J.
But next Sunday we look for those ways that God comes into our world in
new and unexpected ways.
But this Sunday is more about looking
back than looking forward. And it is on the church's calendar, on
the liturgical calendar, called "Christ the King
Sunday". Hence the reading this morning from this passage, to
help us reflect on the nature of Jesus as King, and the nature of that
kingship. To remind us that Jesus is the one who reigns, who sits
at the right hand of God, to whom our allegiance belongs, above all
So before we enter into that advent
season and start singing carols about Kings from the Orient Afar, we
stop and take this notion, to take a look back at the kingship of Jesus.
And I want to do so this morning by
drawing a picture. This triangle here, may be a pyramid, we'll use
this morning to represent the class structure of agrarian
societies. And especially that first century society. We'll
call it 'The World of Jesus':
This world is divided into 2 groups --
the upper class and the lower class. There was no 'middle
class'. And because there was no middle class in ancient
societies, we're drawn a gap between those 2 classes.
That upper class had essential 4 groups
in it -- the Rulers who are in charge, the Retainers who are the
bureaucrats that keep it moving (the lawyers, the scribes, the soldiers,
the ones who preserve this structure), there are the Merchants who make
the business happen, and lastly, there is the Priestly class, the
religious leaders, the ones that provide the theological justification
for this structure.
And then you have the lower
class. In that, the first group are the Peasants. We
typically think of Peasants as being the poorest of the poor, but that
was not the case in ancient agrarian societies. The peasants were
the ones that provided the economic engine for this structure.
They're the farmers, they're the ones who have a little piece of land,
growing things, producing things. They are the ones who are paying
most of the taxes. They constitute about 60% of ancient agrarian
Below the peasants -- surprisingly for
most folks -- are the Artisans. The bricklayers and the
carpenters. We tend to think of Jesus as a carpenter, his father
as a carpenter, being a step above the peasants. Actually the
reverse was the case because the artisans who had to work with their
hands did not have a plot of land that they could use to sustain
themselves, support themselves. So they're forced to go out there
and compete in a very difficult labor market, and are usually a step
below the peasants.
Below them are the Unclean, the people
who do the jobs that no one else wants to do -- the undertakers, the street sweepers,
And lastly, the Destitute. The
disposable class. In Chinese agrarian society, a great example of
this last class are the rickshaw drivers. The average life-span of
a rickshaw driver in agrarian Chinese society is 5 years. It's a
very tough life. They literally work themselves to death --
Now, this is the basic class structure
of the first century.
Your role is now to name for me the
people in the life of Jesus, and to put them in this structure.
Let's start first with the friends of Jesus -- name all the folks you
can think of, that come to mind, who are the friends of Jesus [the
following was the result from the congregation]:
Now, name for me the enemies of Jesus
[the following was the result from the congregation]:
Judas is an interesting one -- on the
one hand, he's part of the 12, but think about Judas, what does he
do? He's the treasurer of the 12. He's the one that knows
where to go to turn Jesus in. I kind of think Judas belongs toward
the upper class. That may tell us something about his frame of
mind, why he's the one who betrays Jesus.
Now isn't this interesting -- look at
that picture. What do you note?
Take note also how Luke begins his
story. Who are the first characters in Luke's gospel? The
parents of John the Baptist -- Elizabeth and Zechariah. They're
priestly, but they're barren -- they're abandoned by God. And
hence probably part of that lower group, even though they come
originally from a priestly class.
And then you get to the end of the
story, the criminals who are crucified with Jesus definitely part of
this group (the lower class). From beginning to end, you see, the
mission of Jesus, the Kingdom of Jesus, was predominantly from this
This is Christ the King. His
kingdom is a parody of earthly power, represented by that upper
group. A kingdom of nobodies. And that's precisely why Jesus
entered Jerusalem -- most intentionally -- on a donkey, mocking the
powerful processions of Roman rulers.
Think about the stories that Jesus
tells. Stories about peasant farmers sowing seeds, about shepherds
looking for sheep, stories comparing the kingdom of God to that woman
who was so poor that if she loses a single coin she's got to sweep the
entire house in order to find it. When was that last time you did
that, looking for a dime or a quarter? The story of great banquets
where the blind and the lame are brought in off the street to sit at the
And then when Jesus tells stories about
the upper group, how do they fare? The story of Lazarus and the
rich man, Lazarus at his table and his door begging for crumbs, and then
in the next life it's the rich man in torment. The story of the
rich farmer (part of the Merchant class) who builds bigger barns so he
can sit back and retire, eat, drink, and be merry and live off of his
'401K'. And God says to him "fool!", your life this
night will be taken. That rich ruler that comes to Jesus and says
'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'. And Jesus asks 'Did you
keep the commandments?' "Yeah, I've done that".
Then Jesus says 'What you must do is go and sell all that you have, give
it to the lower class, come and follow me'. But he's part of the
upper group, he can't do that. And so he leaves sad, because he
was exceedingly rich.
Jim Wallis, in his book "God's
Politics" that we're reading in our Monday-morning group,
notes: "The best known scripture about the poor is also the
most misinterpreted scripture". What is that scripture?
"The poor will always be with you". Which typically is
interpreted as 'There is nothing you can do about poverty because the
poor will always be with you'. So why bother trying. But
that's not what Jesus was saying at all.
Remember that story? "That
woman", you know the one I'm taking about (down there in the lower
class), pours out that expensive perfume on the head of Jesus and they
complain 'What a waste! We could have sold it, we could have used
that money to really help somebody'. And then the famous response
of Jesus: "Leave her alone, she has done a good thing.
You will always have the poor with you, you can show kindness to them
whenever you want". We often forget the second half of that
sentence. "But you won't always have me".
So the question is: why will they
always have the poor with them? And it is because if they are
followers of Jesus, where are they? Who are they spending their
time with? The lower class.
This scene takes place in the 14th
chapter of Mark's gospel in the home of Simon the leper. Part of
that 'unclean' class. The point of the story is exactly the
opposite of the way it is most often used. The poor will be with
us when we are following Jesus.
Wallis says "The critical
difference between Jesus' disciples and a middle-class church is
precisely this: our lack of proximity to the poor".
I'll never forget James Forbes from
Riverside Church (in New York City) when he was here in 2004 as part of
the "Let Justice Roll" campaign, and he told us:
"No one gets to heaven without a reference letter from the
Ernie Unger, I just happened to catch
on this morning on the radio, talking about the work of the rescue
mission, and said that some of the finest people he has ever met have
been at the front door of the rescue mission. You see, poverty is
a moral and a religious issues that is at the core of our faith.
Jim Wallis says that when he was in seminary, he and some friends (you
know how students are, they can get radical) took a Bible and they
literally cut out every single text that had anything to do with wealth
or poverty. When they got done, they had a Bible that was so full
of holes, it would barely hold together. That is the Bible that we
too often use -- a Bible full of holes.
I don't know if you've noticed, there's
this little conversation going on about healthcare across the
nation. Got these people talking all about it, traveling around
the country. We call them presidential candidates. It's no
wonder it's an issue -- 45 million Americans have no health insurance,
the number is growing. Over 8 million children who have no health
insurance. We are the only industrialized nation that has this
problem. I learned a couple weeks ago in a workshop sponsored by
the Human Rights Commission of the City of Eugene that one of the
reasons for that is because we view healthcare as a privilege (something
you have to earn), rather than a right (as declared in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Article 25:
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health
and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, and medical
care". And even though our government was instrumental in the
formulation of that declaration of human rights (remember, Eleanor
Roosevelt had led the effort), and it has been ratified by almost all of
the nations of the world, we have not yet ratified it.
Our failure to reform the way that we
provide healthcare has left us at the bottom among Western nations in
just about every measurement of health statistics you can find.
From live births to longevity. So it does not matter who we elect
as our next president if we do not get some kind of meaningful
healthcare reform for all of our citizens -- it will be a disgrace.
This is not really a political issue, I
don't think, I think it is a moral issue. It is a religious issue
of the highest order, and we -- as people of faith -- need to demand
better from our government on behalf of the voiceless poor, the ill, the
nobodies in our society.
So look at what Jesus did when he was
with this group. The two principle signs of that kingdom were
food and healing. Stands in direct contrast to what the political
kingdom of his day was doing. When Jesus wasn't eating with
lepers, tax collectors, and sinners, he was feeding the crowd.
When he wasn't feeding the crowd, he was healing the blind and the
lame. When he wasn't healing the blind and the lame, he was curing
those possessed -- we call them today the mentally ill. And when
he wasn't curing and healing and feeding and eating with these folks, he
was telling stories about others who were doing those things.
Providing food for the hungry,
healthcare for the uninsured, are probably among the most important
things we can do as a community of faith striving to follow Jesus.
Building a kingdom of nobodies.
One last story from Jim Wallis.
In that neighborhood, just 20 blocks from the Capital Building, he says
there's an old Pentecostal woman, Mary Glover, who taught him more about
the call of Jesus than any seminary professor he'd ever had. Mary,
he says, was a self-appointed missionary to the poor. A regular
volunteer in their food basket program. And because she was such a
great 'pray-er', she was one of those people that when she prayed you
just knew that she knew that person to whom she was
praying. So they would call upon her to give the blessing before
they opened up the doors to provide food for people in the
community. People would come just to hear Mary pray. And she
"Thank you Lord,
for waking us up this morning! Thank you Lord that our walls
were not our grave, and our bed was not our cooling floor! Thank
And she would continue to thank the
Lord for all kinds of things, and then invariably she would say:
"Lord, we know that you will be coming through this line today, so
Lord, help us to treat you well".
Wallis says that there in the shadows
of Washington's power you learn from Mary Glover who was really
important in the kingdom of God.
He quotes Mary so often in his speaking
engagements around the country (even around the world), he said that
prayer of Mary Glover can now be found in the official prayer book of
the World Council of Churches. He told Mary that, thought it would
please her. She was amazed, she was just a humble Christian woman,
and she asked: "What's a council of churches?"
Gifted blind composer Ken Medema wrote
this song about Mary Glover:
I'm just a coal black Jesus with a hole in his shoes,
On a D.C. street
with no more to lose,
Get into the line
and there you'll stand
"Sweet Mother Mary, put some food in my hand."
A coal black
Jesus with a hole in his shoes,
On a D.C. street
we got no more to lose,
Get into the line
and there you'll stand
"Sweet Mother Mary, put some food in my hand."
You see, Mary Glover knows that in
Jesus' kingdom, everybody is somebody.