Have you ever met a king? Imagine how it would be to bow your head before the majestic figure who bears the fate of the nation on his shoulders. To kiss the hands whose strong actions prudently lead the political affairs, justly protect the weak, merciful aid the needy. To listen to his deep fatherly voice, heavy with wisdom. To sink on one knee and sense the atmosphere of a great man who does not lack humility despite the fact that the world seems to slow down in his presence, as all eyes seek him, all movements take their rhythms from his, all people admire him. Have you ever met such a king?
To say the truth, hardly anybody in history has. Most of the time, when people met a king, they found themselves noticing how that man fell short of what would have been the common expectation. Most kings in history have been far from perfect. The more they themselves knew that, the harder they usually tried to coat their flaws with the appearance of majestic greatness, with the reputation of matchless wisdom and strength, with a golden show to make people respect or even adore them. We know the tales…
Most people have not met a king and have formed their concept of kingship based on what the kings of history or the common imagination have made them believe - be it through romantic fairy tales, idyllic narratives of history, or wishful thinking. Others may, in turn, have an altogether different, and less positive, concept of kingship. Their republican upbringing may have caused them to never feel quite comfortable with the idea of a king being in charge. For both groups, those who idealize kingship and those who view it with suspicion, it is of paramount importance to take a close look at Jesus’ teachings about His Kingdom.
A first thing to realize is that in Jesus’ time, too, the concept of kingship was not at all univocally positive. The kings of the Palestine region and the foreign imperial rulers were all far from perfect in the eyes of Jesus’ listeners. Be it the Herodian dynasty, the Roman emperors, or the neighboring sovereigns: they were certainly no models of virtue or justice for the population of first century Juda or Galilee. There were the names of great kings in the memory of the people of Israel, of course, among which David and Salomon stood out more than any other. However, as we can notice when reading the biblical books dedicated to the Jewish kingdoms, the interpretation of the kingship of the sacred authors contained massive criticisms. To start with, the kingship was the consequence of the rather impious desire of the people. Samuel saw in it a thread to the characteristic theocracy of the one God inherited from the times of Moses (cf. 1Sam 8:6-9). Thus, the monarchy was the result of a crisis and, after the fairly positive (and probably a bit idealized) accounts of David’s and Salomon’s reigns, it turned into a long chain of more crisis.
So Jesus and his listeners knew about the sobering reality of the kings of history as much as we do. They also knew, however, that alongside with the imperfect royal regimes, a hope had started to grow in the spirituality of God’s People. A hope for a king to come, one that would not disappoint them, one that would respond to the inherent desire of society to be led wisely and justly and victoriously. The more wicket the actual kings turned out to be, the more ardent this hope became – not only as an object of spiritual longing for salvation but also as a fervent cultural desire for political order and justice.
Thus, when considering the context of Jesus’ teachings, we end up again with two rivaling conceptions of kingship: on the one hand, the idealization of a perfect king, be it based on wishful dreams or on the example of saintly kings like Salomon. On the other hand, the realist and experience-based suspicion regarding kings who, against all hopes, usually fall short of these high royal ideals. In this light, the understanding of kingship was not all that different in Jesus’ time from how it is today. Both their conception and ours enclose these two tendencies of idealization, which can be naive, and suspicion, which can make us cynical. What then is a king? Do I want such a king?
It thus seems as if a serious consideration of the concept of kingship ought to take into account both the high ideals and the sobering reality. We ought to feel the dilemma these two sides create. We must become aware of the inherent drama of human society which harbors the desire for justice; a desire that is embodied in the dreams of a perfect ruler, a desire that motivates us, more generally, to relentlessly improve our respective political structures; alas, a desire which is so often disenchanted by the crude reality of imperfect rulers. I believe that it is necessary to feel this perplexity in order to understand Jesus’ message about his own kingdom because it helps us to realize the disruptive character of that message. You see, one could (and many have) easily interpret his announcement of the Kingdom as yet another, maybe the ultimate, attempt to solve that dilemma; a political proposal to cater to society’s demand for a just rule. Jesus could have done that, of course. He could have entered history in order to fix history from within history. He could have offered man a kingdom in the sense of a paradise on earth. He could have. But he did not.
You can think of a king either as a dream of an idealized leader or as an outdated hoax. Or you can settle with some type of cautious combination, a middle ground between the two previous extremes, a benevolent yet conditional acceptance of the king’s role due to its convenience; such a “third way” could well be inspired by those rulers in history who did manage to be reasonably good kings within their understandable limitations. Dream, hoax, middle-ground. These turn out to be the mental boxes within which the concept of “king” can be placed.
Jesus seems to be quite aware of the aforementioned boxes in the minds of humanity. He makes it very clear that he does not wish to be put in any of them. He does not want to fill the role of a romantic majesty; nor does he want to be cloaked with a royal show meant to impress the subjects; and he does not want to be met with the reticent distance of a conditionally loyal subject either. He wants something different. “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
It is fascinating to read the abundant references about the Kingdom and his kingship in the gospel, once you have left behind the aforementioned boxes of your mind. You can thus allow Jesus to craft a new concept in you of what he means by "kingdom." You can allow him to reveal to you something which “is not of this world.” You will read, for example, that “the coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed” (Luke 17:20), as would be the case of a human kingdom, and you will learn that it is already “among you” (17:21), even though the social and political structures seem still so far from being perfect.
What is a king? How is Jesus a king? The answer to these questions must flow from a reading of the gospel more than from the existing boxes in our minds. If Jesus would call himself “president” or “head of state” we would probably not fall that easily into the temptation to just attribute to him our conception of those figures. We would feel immediately that it is a long stretch and that Jesus simply must think of himself as more than a universal “head of state” or an ultimate “president.” The fact that we have close to no direct experience of what a king is, however, makes the temptation more tangible to pray “Christ, our King!” and thereby somehow cater to the inherent hope for reordering society. Not that Christ is not interested in a just society. But he knew and taught us that social structures alone do not solve man’s problems. A perfect structure is useless if it is filled with corrupt hearts. This is why Jesus seeks to establish his reign in people’s hearts. His redemption does not consist in revealing an ideal political order; his redemption consists of his victory over sin and the renewal of our integrity. He healed the hearts, now he wants to rule in the hearts. Justice in worldly affairs will follow from hearts in which Jesus is king. Therefore, the Kingdom does not halt before external society; it is more than only an affair of interior life. But its dynamism stems from the renewal of the hearts which then leads to virtuous behavior and the building of a just world. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom grows from the soil of the heart to then stretch out into the world (cf. Luke 13:19).
This is why Jesus chose to call himself a king and to title his presence in our hearts the “Kingdom” despite the potential for misunderstandings. He does want to respond to our longings for a perfect ruler and a just life after all. He wants to be our king. But he does not aim for social justice and political structures alone. He wants to respond to the deeper needs of human wholesomeness. In his divine wisdom, he knew in what way a human heart can be renewed. He knew that an ideal social structure would not be enough. For we do not become wholesome by the workings of a perfect surrounding; we do not find happiness in a paradise on earth; we are not redeemed by the rule of politics. We become wholesome by becoming holy; we become happy by being renewed in our hearts; we are redeemed by the rule of heavenly grace. And all these things are more like seeds in the soul of our hearts, than paragraphs in political statutes.
Jesus’ Kingdom, this mysterious seed which is planted in hearts in order to renew them, is not of this world. His kingship is the revelation of something entirely new. It is not a new policy, but something entirely different from mere policy. It is different from human kingship. This does not mean that we cannot use elements of human kingship to express Christ’s: golden crowns, majestic hymns, baroque buildings: They are welcome aides to remind us of the revelation that Christ is, in fact, king. Just as David was an old prefiguration of Jesus’ new kingship, the natural and cultural expressions of monarchic respect, admiration, and dedication can find in Christ, the King, their ultimate relevance. As long as these expressions are uplifted to higher meaning in light of Christ’s revelation rather than dragging down his kingship into the existing boxes of human categories. Gold and gestures ought not dim the newness and fundamental difference of Christ’s kingship.
In a similar way as an open and attentive reading of Jesus’ words about the kingdom in the gospels can shape our understanding, his presence in the Holy Eucharist can shape our experience of his kingship. Gold and gestures play their roles in Eucharistic adoration: the golden monstrance, the kneeling, the incense, the hymns… But in order to experience Christ as our king, we must let these circumstances guide us to the mystery of his show-free presence. In the Eucharist Jesus is small and silent and humble. He does not blind us with splendor, nor overpower us with strength. He is “among us” like the Kingdom and yet, like the Kingdom, his presence cannot be observed (cf. Luke 17:20f). Can you see him regardless? Can you be in his presence and perceive his rule? If you have, indeed, encountered Christ in the Eucharist, you know of the newness of his kingship; you know how different he is from ordinary rulers.
Who has read his words about the kingdom, will find the reality of what they express in the presence of the Eucharist. And Jesus as the Eucharistic King will never be confused with a dream or a hoax. His reign will never be mistaken for an earthly paradise of impeccable structures. His rule will never be confused with politics.