Reading the Bible as an Activist: a Lectionary Series

Jesus Rules : Reign of Christ Sunday

Amaury Tañón-Santos

The Feast of the Reign of Christ marks the last Sunday of the liturgical year. If your community is one that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, you would have followed the gospel of Mark this year (Year B). The oldest of the canonical gospels, and the shortest, Mark is both encouraging and challenging to the social justice activist. In the words of Dr. Eliseo Pérez Álvarez, “Mark focuses his (narrative) in the day to day of the Nazarene, in his liberating works and on the death on the cross as a consequence of his lifestyle, one in favor of the untouchables, the destitute and the anonymous.” (Conozca su Biblia: Marcos, pg. 3). It may seem odd to some to end the (liturgical) year with a reading of the Gospel of John. But with a journey through Mark as a background, the encounter between Jesus and Pilate as narrated by John will have provide that connection to the everyday Jesus Mark writes about.

The narrative of the encounter of Jesus before Pilate is found on all four gospels. John is a bit different. On all narratives we find Pilate asking Jesus if he is king. In what seems to be a non-answer, Jesus simply responds, “you say so.” (Mark 15.2, Matthew 27.11, Luke 23.3) In the gospel of John, however, Jesus engages Pilate. Throughout his ministry Jesus engages in conversations. His being tried by Pilate was going to be no exception. The first thing Jesus does is to shift the conversation from the cultural-religious accusations brought by the chief priest to a socio-political one. Pilate quickly acquiesces. In v. 35 Pilate affirms that his interest is not religious or cultural. Some biblical scholars might even suggest that he cares less of the motivations of the religious leaders of Jerusalem. Pilates motivations are purely political. And worst, they were imperial. Pilate taking on the case of Jesus is not to tend to a looming religious-political crisis brewing at the heart of Jewish life in 1st century Palestine. The governor’s intent was to manage the political fall-out that may befall him should a mob situation were to happen in Jerusalem just days before Easter. And then, when motives are clear, the two can freely converse.

For the preacher of this lesson the focus on the Jesus that converses as his way of being is important. Jesus does not dialogue. A dialogue is an engagement among two or more parties with the purpose of convincing the other of an opinion, point of view or action. That is not the way of Jesus. A conversation is an engagement where motives are clear, and relationships deepen. In a conversation, the parties engaged speak about their own being. There is no agenda in a conversation. However, conversations are powerful. The pursuit to catch the other on something that could defeat the other’s argument is transposed with a deeper awareness of the other. And when that awareness grows and deepens, the truth is shared. And it was so in the conversation between Jesus and Pilate. So much so that Pilate had nothing on which to find Jesus guilty. And that is the reason why Jesus died a state-sanctioned death, not only to fulfill what Jesus had said about his death (v. 32), but because there was nothing in the law – fair or unfair – that would have merited a guilty verdict. Jesus was killed because of an interpretation of a tradition, authorized by the state.

The other aspect of this lesson that can challenge and encourage a preacher while engaging the community during the proclamation is the relationship between power and truth as the ethos of politics. Pilate was looking for ways to discredit Jesus’ ability or capacity for political power. For the governor, political power is bestowed through family relations, imposed by force and fear, and exercised for the purpose of maintaining power and increasing wealth and access to more power. And, Jesus seems to suggest that Pilate (and the religious authorities) could rest easy because the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world. Otherwise, Pilate would have had a full-blown rebellion – against the Temple and the Empire – on his hands. But Jesus’ response is revolutionary, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (v.37) Aletheia, the Greek word translated to truth has a much deeper meaning. It is not simply truth found out of fact (as opposed to lies). It is not simply about objectivity. It is also relational. Truth is also about sincerity, integrity, candor, living out in harmony with divine truth. Although the lesson ends in v. 37, I wonder if Pilates question in v. 38 was a sincere question or asked out of spite.

In a time where fact is fabricated and journalism – that essential profession for the encouragement of a lively and informed democracy – seems not to be able to keep up with said fabrication, in a time where opinion is rampant and the furthering of the socio-political polarity is evident in the so-called Western world, we are found by a lesson that speaks of the Pantocrator. The Ruler of the Universe is one that rules not in the ways of this world – where power, access, and wealth are amazed, increased and protected through warmongering, propaganda, and nationalism. The Christ rules by being the testifying to the truth. Interesting word “testify”. A better word to translate the original Greek verb would be “witnessing.” The noun of this verb is often transliterated to English into “martyr.” As followers of Christ compelled by Jesus to pursue justice, how are we learning from Jesus regarding his witnessing – style, engagement – of the truth?

Amaury Tañón-Santos is a pastor with a passion for intercultural engagement in many contexts. He currently serves the Church as Synod Networker of the Synod of the Northeast – the regional community of Presbyterians in New England, New Jersey and New York. Prior to his service in the synod, Amaury was a parish minister in New Jersey and New York, and a director of programs for intercultural, urban and social leadership formation at Princeton Seminary.

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