Christ, the Great King
Good kings and rulers execute their civic duties in response to the lawful requirements of their subjects. They provide for the common defense. They tend to our perceived community, family, and individual needs. They collect taxes to pay expenses, and they guarantee reasonable freedoms.
A great king provides a striking contrast to the routine hard work of a good king. He wages glorious wars, and he builds magnificent buildings. His kingship not only costs much in blood and treasure, a great king (like Pharaoh) also typically abuses the freedom of his subjects.
Consider Herod the Great. Herod was born around 70 years before the birth of Jesus and raised as a nominal Jew. His father had good relations with Julius Caesar. As a young man, Herod also cultivated favor with the Roman elites. In 41 BC, Mark Antony named him and his brother tetrarchs, and during a visit to Rome, the Roman Senate appointed Herod King of the Jews. In 37 BC, assisted by the Romans and the army of the governor of Syria, Herod captured Jerusalem. He used secret police to monitor the general populace. He executed several family members as security risks, including one of his wives and her children. (Children often seem a threat to great—and not-so-great—rulers.)
But Herod had a sense of civic pride. He began construction on the Temple of Jerusalem, with a portion remaining today as the Western Wall. Herod also used the latest technology in hydraulic cement and underwater construction to build the deep-sea harbor at Caesarea. During a severe famine in 25 BC, he generously provided for his valuable taxpayers.
On the other hand Herod’s taxes had a bad reputation. His expensive gifts—ancient versions of pork-barrel politics—emptied the kingdom’s coffers. The lavish spending upset his Jewish subjects because—back in those days anyway—people frowned on deficit spending and public debt.
Not long after his slaughter of the Innocents after the birth of Jesus (those pesky babies, again), Herod died a miserable death. Worms consumed his innards. Concerned that no one would mourn his death, he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho. He ordered their murder at the time of his death so that the displays of grief would witness his legacy. Alas for the tyrant, his son and his sister did not carry out this wish.
Herod the Great is the very model of a modern tyrant. He spent a lot of taxpayer money, generally abused his subjects, and left a historical legacy uniquely his own. His example inspires us to pray: “God, save us from great leaders.”
But Jesus is also a great King—the King of kings—and, He has dominion over all creatures. He is the Alpha and the Omega. Jesus will judge all nations and: “all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22:27) On the last day, He will judge the living and the dead. But this mighty King never violates our freedom. He has come to set us free.
Slavery comes in many forms, but only one type of slavery has eternal consequences: “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36) Before Pilate, Jesus acknowledges that He is a great king but identifies a kingship that guarantees our freedom: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” (Jn. 18:37)
When Pope John Paul II visited the US in 1987, President Reagan met him at the Miami airport and said: “Your Holiness, it is precisely because we believe in freedom, because we respect the liberty of the individual in the economic as well as the political sphere, that we have achieved such prosperity.” He concluded: “As you exhort us, we will listen. With all our hearts, we yearn to make this good land better still.”
The Pope replied: “I join you also in asking God to inspire you—as Americans who have received so much in freedom and prosperity and human enrichment—to continue to share all this with so many brothers and sisters throughout the other countries of the world who are still waiting and hoping to live according to standards worthy of the children of God.” Freedom, yes, but freedom exercised according to the truth of Jesus.
When the Pope ended that visit to the United States, at the Detroit airport, he said: “Every human person—no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society—is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival—yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn.”
Jesus is more succinct: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 16:16)
The measure of worthy kingship—in families, communities, and nations—is the truth of Jesus: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” We can be slaves to our sins—the world, the flesh, and the devil—in the freest of societies. But we can live in freedom with a clear conscience, in union with Jesus, even in a concentration camp.
Great leaders come and go. They often impoverish nations and murder millions. But only the truth of Christ the King leads us to eternal life in freedom. In Him, freedom is inviolable. “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)
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