Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Feast of Jesus Christ King of the Universe (24 November 2019)

Gospel for the Feast of Jesus Christ King of the Universe (24 November 2019)

And 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!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:35-43 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


As Luke’s Gospel comes to its climax, we hear major themes being emphasized. “The people” are distinguished from the religious leaders and the soldiers. The latter mock, the former “stand watching”. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has a close connection with “the people” – especially the poor and marginalized. Then we hear the theme of Jesus as Saviour. Interestingly enough, this is achieved through the mockery of the religious authorities, the soldiers and one of the thieves. The leaders refer to his being “the Messiah of God, his chosen one”, the soldiers refer to him being “the King of the Jews” and the thief refers to him as “the Messiah”. It is the second thief who recognizes that all these titles that are being used to mock Jesus, are in fact true. “The distance between Jesus as the proclaimer of God’s kingdom and his opponents has never been clearer, for they can understand no salvation except that involving the perpetuation of this human existence. But as the reader of the Gospel to this point well understands, it is through faith that God has brought salvation in the words and deeds of Jesus.

“The reader has also learned that salvation does not consist in political liberation or the perpetuation of life, but rather in the restoration of God’s people through the forgiveness of sins. The irony of Luke’s portrayal therefore is obvious, when Jesus is shown extending forgiveness to his executioners, even as their mocking shows them incapable of receiving it (23:34). And to the criminal who responds to Jesus in faith, asking to “be remembered” in the kingdom, Jesus responds with the promise of a place with him in paradise (23:43). Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as Prophet is enhanced because everything that has happened to him in the passion narrative is in fulfillment of his own predictions (9:22, 44; 17:25; 18:31–32). To the very end, furthermore, Luke has Jesus maintain his philosophic composure and self-control.

“Luke’s account is notable as much for what it omits from the death scene as for what it includes. First, he reduces the cosmic wonders accompanying the death to a minimum. He explains the darkness over the land as an eclipse (the word “eclipse” comes from the Greek word used here, ekleipō), and the allusion to the sanctuary curtain is so overdetermined that it almost misses saying anything certain. The effect, however, is to focus our attention on the person of Jesus as he dies rather than on accidental side effects. Second, Luke omits the cry of anguish from the cross, and the accompanying confusion over whether he was calling Elijah. Again, the effect is to remove attention from the bystanders and their misunderstanding, and place attention on the death of Jesus.

“Finally, Luke shows Jesus in utter control. He forgives his executioners. He promises paradise to the repentant criminal. And having done these things, he entrusts his spirit to his Father in prayer, and dies. His death is shown to be utterly consistent with his life, his life an enactment of his teaching. He is Philosopher, Prophet, Lord of God’s kingdom” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 380-381).


the people stood by, watching: Psalm 22 comes to mind: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?/ ….. But I am a worm, and not human;/ scorned by others, and despised by the people./ All who see me mock at me;/ they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;/ “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—/ let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” However, “Luke has omitted the wagging of the heads (Mark 15:29) and attributes the sneering to the leaders. The contrast prepares for the reaction of the people in v. 48” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 28A), New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1504).

Luke 23:48-49 tells us that “when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things”.

let him save himself. “The remark drips with sarcasm; only so can he fill the leaders’ idea of messiahship! Mark 15:31c formulates the taunt in a question, “Is he not able to save himself?” (Joseph A Fitzmyer S.J., op cit, 1504).

if he is the Messiah of God: Mark 15:32 has: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him”. Luke does not mention “Israel”. He uses the title that he has already put on the lips of Peter. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?”, Peter replies for the apostles: “The Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20).

sour wine: The Greek word is oxos. Fitzmyer writes: “The word oxos was used in the ancient eastern Mediterranean area to designate a dry wine, distinguished from the sweet wine usually called oinos. It was called oxos (from oxys, ‘sharp’) because it was sharper or more piquant; it was the ordinary wine used by soldiers stationed at Hermopolis in Egypt and elsewhere and is frequently mentioned in papyri. ….. What the motivation of the offering is is not clear, since Luke has omitted the anesthetic wine and myrrh of Mark 15:23. There is no mention of Elijah, because Luke has eliminated the cry of Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34), not for the avoidance of an Elijah motif, but because he normally eliminates Aramaic phrases” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1505).

“This is the King of the Jews”: Luke uses Mark’s simple statement: “The King of the Jews”. Fitzmyer writes: “By putting it at the end of this scene, Luke makes it more climactic than it is in ‘Mk.’ Matthew and John have added the name of Jesus to the inscription. Attempts have often been made to identify the original form among the four that have come down to us (see G. M. Lee, “The Inscription on the Cross”; P.-F. Regard, “Le titre de la croix”), one as more Latin or another as more Hebrew; but the differences in the suggestions belie the fantasy which belongs to them. Only John’s Gospel attributes the inscription to Pilate himself. It is to be understood as a taunt against Jesus, and not as a taunt against the Jews (see J. Schmid, Evangelium nach Lukas, 349)” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1505-1506).

Fitzmyer writes concerning the title, “Christ”: “Messiah or Christ. Though not the most frequently used title for Jesus in the Lucan writings, christos has to be regarded as the most important. This emerges from the question that the Lucan Jesus poses to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘Was not the Messiah bound to suffer all this before entering into his glory?’ (24:26). Moreover, only Luke in the NT implies its importance by telling us the name, ‘Christians’, by which the disciples came to be known (Acts 11:26; 26:28).

“The noun christos is used by Luke in a titular sense about twenty-four times (Luke 2:11, 26; 3:15; 4:41; 9:20; 20:41; 22:67; 23:2, 35, 39; 24:26, 46; Acts 2:31, 36; 3:18, 20[?]; 4:26; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23). One may debate whether it is better to render it in these passages as ‘Messiah’ or as ‘the Christ’. The latter might seem better for Luke’s Gentile Christian readers, but the former conveys the meaning of the title better—especially given the use of Christ as a name for Jesus, a use that tends to obscure its basic meaning. But christos has already become a name for Jesus in some Lucan texts, a sort of second name (e.g. Acts 2:38; 3:6; 4:10, 33; 8:12, [37]; 9:34; 10:36, 48; 11:17; 15:26; 16:18; 17:3[?]; 20:21; 24:24; 28:31). In some of these passages it is actually coupled with the word for ‘name’ (e.g. 4:10; 8:12).

“The title is derived from Palestinian Judaism. Its origin is found in the OT use of māšîaḥ, ‘anointed one’, which was translated in the LXX as christos. Both the Hebrew root mšḥ and Greek chriein mean ‘anoint’. In the OT the anointing did not have a univocal significance, but the title was generically used of certain historical persons regarded as anointed agents of Yahweh for the service or protection of his people, Israel. It was usually applied to kings of Israel (Saul, David, and successors on the Davidic throne), but at times it was applied to others as well (the high priest, even Cyrus, the Persian king). In the last pre-Christian centuries of Palestinian Judaism there emerged a messianic expectation, i.e. a belief in a future David or in anointed figures to be sent by God; for details on the emergence of this belief, see the NOTES on 3:15 and 9:20.

“In the time of Jesus the title ‘messiah’ would have denoted an expected anointed agent sent by God either in the Davidic, kingly or political, tradition for the restoration of Israel and the triumph of God’s power and dominion or in the priestly tradition (see Ps. Sol. 17:32; 18:title, 5, 7; 1 Enoch 48:10; 52:4; 2 Esdras 12:32; 1QS 9:11; cf. M. de Jonge, “The Use of the Word ‘Anointed’ ”). Jesus would not have been unaware of this messianic expectation or of a possible relationship of himself to it. But we have no certain way of assessing what form that relationship would have taken in his own consciousness.

“Though the pre-Lucan gospel tradition attests the application of the title to Jesus by Peter in his ministry, it also portrays Jesus himself as scarcely tolerating the use of it for him and as correcting it by announcing his destiny of suffering as the Son of Man (Mark 8:30–31). Moreover, whereas the Marcan Gospel later presents Jesus frankly admitting his messiahship before the high priest (14:62), that admission is likewise corrected in the later gospel tradition (cf. Matt 26:64; Luke 22:67). The political overtones of the title were almost certainly the reason for the corrections.

“After Jesus’ death and in the time before Luke writes, christos became the title par excellence for Jesus of Nazareth, even a name for him. Pace F. Hahn (Titles, 186), Paul has scarcely retained any of its titular sense, save in Rom 9:5 (see W. Kramer, Christ, 203–214). But the distinction noted above in Lucan writings between the title and the name is hardly original with Luke. The catalyst for the adoption of the title ‘messiah’ (christos) for Jesus has to be recognized in that used for him on the cross, ‘The king of the Jews’ (Mark 15:26). The regal status attributed to him by Pilate led to the clear association of him with the messianic expectation of the time. In other words, he was crucified as such, as N. A. Dahl (‘The Crucified Messiah’, 23–28) has rightly argued. Crucified as king, he quickly became for his followers ‘the Messiah’, and the title, colored by resurrection-faith, ceased to be a mere appellation for an expected messianic figure and became instead a honorific designation that suited one person alone. Within a few years of the crucifixion ‘Christ Jesus’, ‘Jesus Christ’,” or ‘Jesus the Messiah’ emerged. It soon became part of the kerygma, as 1 Cor 15:3 reveals: ‘Christ died for our sins in accord with the Scriptures’. This passage clearly militates against the thesis of Hahn that in the ‘earliest times the concept and the title of Messiah were not applied to Jesus’ (Titles, 161).

“Luke has preserved the application of the title to Jesus during his ministry in Peter’s confession (9:20, ‘God’s Messiah’), but he has also preserved Jesus’ prohibition to use it of him and the correction (9:22), even though he omits the rebuke of Peter. At the interrogation before the high priest he does not answer the question about his messiahship with the frank ‘I am’ of Mark 14:62, but with an evasive, at most half-affirmative reply (Luke 22:67–68). Moreover, Luke further portrays the risen Christ brushing aside the disciples’ question whether he was then about to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). Thus the Lucan Jesus does not tolerate the political overtones to the current messianic expectation, even though the close identification of ‘Messiah’ and ‘king’ are predicated of him in 23:2.

“If, then, the title is applied to the phase of Jesus’ earthly ministry in the Lucan Gospel, Luke does not use it of him solely there. It is expressly linked to his resurrection in Acts. Peter is made to proclaim on Pentecost to the Jews of Jerusalem, ‘This Jesus God raised up …; this Jesus, whom you crucified, God has made Lord and Messiah’ (Acts 2:32, 36), and he speaks of him as exalted to God’s right hand (2:32–33). Thus the title is applied to him in the third phase of Christ’s existence. It is also pressed back into the first, for Luke, writing his infancy narrative with hindsight, makes the angels declare to the shepherds of Bethlehem, ‘A Savior has been born to you today in the town of David. He is the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:11).

“For Luke the title christos used of Jesus designates him as God’s anointed agent announcing himself as the bearer of a new form of salvation to mankind and its relation to God’s kingdom among them in a new form (see Luke 2:26, 29–32). Not unrelated to this title is the sense of another one, ‘king’ used of Jesus in a special way in the Lucan writings and expressive of a sense in which christos itself has to be understood (see below, pp. 215–216). Furthermore, one should note the distinctively Lucan phrases ho christos Kyriou, ‘the Lord’s Messiah’ (2:26; Acts 4:26) and ho christos tou theou, ‘God’s Messiah’ (Luke 9:20; 23:35), where the genitive expresses the author of the anointing, as in the OT (e.g. 1 Sam 24:7).

“Two further aspects of Lucan messianism must be recalled here. First, the view of Jesus as a Messiah who is still expected. Peter, in his speech addressed to the people of Jerusalem gathered in the Temple, exhorts them: ‘So repent and turn, so that your sins may be wiped away, that times of refreshment may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send you the Messiah appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must welcome until the time for establishing all that God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old’ (Acts 3:19–21). One may try to read these verses as if they referred to Jesus, who is already recognized as the Messiah, who has ascended, and who is expected to come again; but that would be to miss the complicated testimony of these verses. For they speak of Jesus as one appointed as a Messiah to come, one whom heaven must preserve until God’s good time arrives. J. A. T. Robinson has queried whether we may not have here ‘the most primitive christology of all’ in the NT (see bibliography). That may well be. Since it is a type of messiahship that appears nowhere else in the NT and is not used by Luke himself in any other part of his writings, it may be that we are confronted here with a bit of pre-Lucan para-kerygmatic christology (i.e. a primitive type of christology that emerged in the early church, that was not part of the kerygma itself, but existed alongside it, notably with what became the more common view of Jesus’ messiahship). What should be noted about it is that it applied the title christos to Jesus as of his parousia, to the fourth phase of his existence. It is the only place in the NT where this title is used of the parousiac Jesus; elsewhere kyrios seems to be the preferred title for that phase (see 1 Thess 4:17; 1 Cor 11:26; 16:22).

“Second, a peculiarly Lucan theologoumenon is the idea that Jesus was a suffering Messiah. ‘Was not the Messiah bound to suffer all this before entering his glory?’ (Luke 24:26); ‘… the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead’ (24:46). See further Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23. The idea of a suffering messiah is found nowhere in the OT or in any Jewish literature prior to or contemporaneous with the NT. This is true despite what Luke says in 24:27, 46 about ‘Moses’, ‘all the prophets’, and ‘all the scriptures’. Nor does any other NT writer speak of Jesus as the suffering Messiah. True, Mark 8:29–31 may contain elements that enabled Luke to formulate the matter as he has: Peter is said to acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah, and immediately thereafter Jesus corrects that confession, speaking of himself as a suffering Son of Man. But Mark himself never spoke of the suffering Messiah. (Needless to say, one should not confuse the idea of a suffering Messiah with that of the suffering Servant of Yahweh in Isa 52:13–53:12. In later Jewish tradition, the Servant eventually was given the title, ‘the Messiah’; cf. Tg. Neb., Isa 52:13 [A. Sperber, The Bible in Aramaic (4 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1959–1973) 3. 107]; see further S. H. Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation: The Messianic Exegesis of the Targum [Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1974] 63–67. But that is not known from earlier tradition.) (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 197-2000)


One of the most memorable hymns to be borne of the horrors of slavery, is “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” If you Google it, you will get more than forty million results. It first appeared in print at the end of the nineteenth century but predates that by some years. The author is unknown, though almost certainly a slave. The heart of the hymn is found in the repeating line: “Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”. There are minor variations in the other lines of the hymn, but this repeating line is constant. The words of the hymn suggest a deep faith. It is not only an account of the Paschal Mystery, it is also an invitation to enter that Mystery and know the Lordship of Jesus: “Were you there when they nailed Him to a tree? …. Were you there when they laid Him in a tomb? …. Were you there when He rose up from the dead?” The truth, if it gets into the marrow of our bones, will undoubtedly cause us to tremble.

What would you have seen if you had been there?

Today’s Gospel – Luke 23:35-43 – reminds us that not all those who were there saw the same thing. The religious authorities ridiculed – “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” – while the soldiers mocked – “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”. One of the thieves joined in the mockery – “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” – but the other thief cried out – “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Even the Roman soldier could see that this man hanging on the cross was not just another criminal that had run foul of the authorities: “Certainly this man was innocent.” And what about “all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle”? “They returned home, beating their breasts” (see 23:48). Perhaps most intriguing of are “all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee”. They “stood at a distance, watching these things” (see 23:49). We are not told by Luke what these people saw. However, we are given a clue in the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where he tells the story of the two disciples going to Emmaus: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel ……” (see Luke 24:21).

One of the functions of liturgy – when we, the People of God, gather to worship the Lord – is to nurture our remembering. We easily slip into forgetfulness. The remembering we need nurtured is as much of the body as it is of the mind. All our liturgies affirm that Jesus is Lord. The title, “Christ the King”, is a metaphor for a truth that is beyond words. The Cross is a harsh fact of history that, against human logic, affirms rather than denies the reign of Jesus the Christ. “Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”.