No! Not the Magi! King David, Christ the King and King Herod.
The three readings for Sunday involve three people called kings. Significantly, their place in history and scripture is defined by their relationship with God and their use of their powers.
This week’s opening reading (2 Sam 6:1-5, 12b-19) follows the story of David being anointed as king over the united land of Israel (in last week’s first reading). It tells of how David brought the Ark of the Covenant to the temple in Jerusalem with much celebration and thanks. The Ark was the centre of religious life in Israel. It held the tablets with the commandments that God had given Moses. It represented God’s presence with his people.
Part of the passage reads,
David brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might … So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet…
They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished … he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
As a king, one of David’s first acts was to engage the people in bringing the Ark to a city that bordered the northern part of Israel and the southern part of Judea. It was a profound liturgical and religious act but also a political one that would mark Jerusalem for millennia. The people believed that God was present in the Ark in a special way as a sign of his choice of Israel as his special people.
Bringing the Ark to Jerusalem also indicated David’s personal connection to God. While he would fail to follow the commandments during his life he would also return, repentant, to God, the spiritual centre of his personal life.
The reading from Ephesians 1:3-14 does not explicitly identify Christ as “king” but it celebrates many of the characteristics that would be attached to him with the title of Christ the King, particularly his relationship to God the Father. This understanding of Christ includes:
- Christ as the one through whom all blessings flow v.3
- Christ as present with God before the world was begun v.4
- Christ the source of our adoption as God’s children v.5
- Christ the source of our redemption from sin v.7
- Christ as the source of our wisdom about God v.9
- Christ as the heavenly destination for “all things” v.10
- Christ as the sender of the Holy Spirit v.13
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, … 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will … that he set forth in Christ, 10 … to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
David and Jesus contrast significantly with the third king in Sunday’s readings, Herod. (Actually, Herod was tetrarch, not king, but Mark referred to him this way.) He was a vain, cruel, adulterous and, remorseless individual, as today’s gospel shows with the murder of John the Baptizer.
King Herod heard of Jesus’ cures, … Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; … But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But Herod … said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
Herod had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison …For John had told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But … Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
But when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee… his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She… asked her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier …who went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. …
Herod understood at some basic level that John was speaking the truth: Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man… he liked to listen to him. In John he glimpsed the possibility of his own relationship with God… a possibility he rejected in an exercise of power to preserve his own sense of honour.
- Does David’s exuberant celebration when he brought the Ark to Jerusalem suggest to you that our liturgies are too staid? Or do you regard David’s behaviour as over-the-top? Or perhaps that his dancing was “cultural” in a sense that we are not today?
- Christ’s kingship, as described in Ephesians, is other-directed. We are the beneficiaries of his largesse. If you were asked to add to the list of Christ’s qualities and gifts, what three additional gifts would you add?
- Governments exercise power these days, not kings. Some authoritarian leaders jail and sometimes kill people who oppose them. Do you see a contemporary lesson in John’s speaking the truth to power? What form does it take for you?