Commentary to the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B
The triumph of the defeated
"Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged. And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him and said, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they struck him repeatedly" (Jn 19:1-3).
Why does Jesus not react, as he did when he was struck by the high priest's servant (Jn 18:23)? The enthronement of a mock king was a well-known game in antiquity. A prisoner who was to be executed after a few days was clothed in the royal insignia and treated like an emperor. This was a cruel mockery that was also used against Jesus.
In the scene described by John, all the elements characterize the enthronement of an emperor: the crown, the purple cloak, the acclamations. It is a parody of kingship, and Jesus accepts it because it demonstrates most explicitly his judgment on the ostentation of power and the search for the glory of this world. To aspire to sit on a throne to receive honors and bows is, for him, a farce even if, unfortunately, it is the most common and grotesque comedy played by people.
In the final scene of the trial (Jn 19:12-16), Pilate leads Jesus out and seats him on an elevated stand. It is midday, and the sun is at its zenith when in front of all the people Pilate, pointing to Jesus crowned with thorns and clothed in a purple cloak, proclaims: "Here is your king." It is the moment of enthronement, the presentation of the sovereign of the new kingdom, the kingdom of God.
For the Jews, the proposal is so absurd as to appear provocative. They react furiously with an indignant refusal: "Go, go, crucify him!" (Jn 19:15). They don't even want to see such a king; he disappoints all expectations, he is an insult to common sense. Jesus is there, high up, so that everyone can contemplate him, illuminated by the sun that shines in all its splendor; he is silent; he does not add a word because he has already explained everything. He waits for each one to make his own choice.
One can bet on the greatness, on the royalties of this world, or follow him, renouncing all goods and preferring defeat for love. On this choice depends the success or failure of a life.
To internalize the message, we will repeat:
"He reigns with Christ who becomes with him a servant of his brothers and sisters."
First Reading: Daniel 7:13-14
The chapter from which the two verses of the reading are taken opens with a dramatic night vision. From the ocean which, in the ancient Middle East, was the symbol of the hostile world and chaos, four enormous beasts emerge: a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a fourth frightening, terrible beast of exceptional strength; it crushes everything with its iron teeth (Dn 7,2-8).
The language and imagery are apocalyptic; the references and allusions to the peoples' history must be understood. The symbolism of the four beasts is explained by the author himself (Dan 7:17-27). They represent the four great empires that followed one another and oppressed God's people. The lion indicates the bloody reign of Babylon, the accursed one; the bear is the image of the people of Media, greedy and always ready to attack; the four-headed leopard is the symbol of the Persians who peer in every direction in search of prey; the fourth beast, the most frightening, depicts the reign of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Diadochi. One is particularly sinister, Antiochus IV, the persecutor of the saints faithful to God's law. He holds power at the very time in which the book of Daniel is written.
Israel's history was a succession of reigns that were cruel and ruthless to the weak. They violated people's rights and imposed themselves with violence and oppression; they behaved like beasts. Will the world always be the victim of arrogant rulers who make force their god? Will the Lord be indifferent to the oppression of his people?
The seer is given to contemplate another grandiose scene: thrones are placed in the sky, and an older man, representing God himself, sits in judgment and pronounces the sentence: the beasts are deprived of their power, and the last one is killed, cut into pieces, and thrown into the fire (Dn 7,9-12). What happens next?
It is at this point that the passage in our reading is inserted. Daniel continues his revelation, "As the visions during the night continued, I saw coming with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man" to whom the old man, God, entrusts power, glory, and the kingdom. Son of man is a Hebrew expression that simply means man. After so many beasts, here finally appears a man. Man is the image of God, and his vocation is to dominate the animals (Gen 1,28; Ps 8,7-9).
Who is this man? Who does he represent? He does not come from the sea like the four monsters, but heaven, from God. The author of the book of Daniel was not referring to a single individual, but Israel that, after the great tribulation faced under Antiochus IV, would receive from God an eternal kingdom, a kingdom that would never wane. All other peoples would be subject to him, without being oppressed, because his king would have a heart of man.
With this prophecy, written during the persecution of the impious Antiochus IV (167-164 B.C.), the author wanted to instill courage and hope in the pious people of his time. Oppression was now at an end; just a few more years and God would hand over world domination to Israel.
When was this prophecy fulfilled? After two or three years, Israel did indeed gain political independence. Had the reign of the "son of man" come? As is always the case when authority is understood as power and dominion, even the new liberators, the Maccabees, soon turned into oppressors and exploiters.
The prophecy was fulfilled only with the advent of Jesus, the "Son of Man," who initiated the kingdom of the saints of the Most High (Mk 14:62). All the kingdoms that followed before him were inspired by the same brutal principle: competition. The strong have subjugated the weak, the rich have imposed themselves on the poor, the most capable have enslaved the less gifted. New rulers took the place of their predecessors, without humanizing the coexistence of peoples, but rather worsening it, because thoughts and feelings remained identical: voracity, cruelty, and abuse.
Jesus interrupted the succession of these ferocious empires forever; he overturned the values by placing at the top, not power but service. He introduced a new criterion, that of man's heart, which is the opposite of the cruel heart of the beasts. The rabbis recounted how, on a night, a man lit a lamp, but the wind blew it out. He lit it a second time and then a third time, but again it was extinguished. Then he said, I will wait for the sun to rise. In the same way, Israel was rescued from Egypt, but the Babylonians extinguished its freedom; it was saved again but was immediately oppressed by the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks. Then Israel said, I will wait for the sun, the kingdom of the messiah.
The Jews are still waiting for this light to rise. We, too, are waiting for it because it does not yet shine in all its splendor, but we know that it has already risen: it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose kingdom "is like the shining light, that grows in brilliance till perfect day" (Prov 4:18).
Second Reading: Revelation 1:5-8
From a tiny island in the Aegean Sea, a Christian exiled writes: "I found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God's word and gave testimony to Jesus" (Rev 1:9). He writes to seven Churches in Asia Minor, shaken by the persecution unleashed by Domitian, to encourage them to persevere in the faith. Our passage, taken from the prologue of the seven letters that make up the first part of the book of Revelation, begins with reference to Jesus to whom four significant titles are attributed: Christ, faithful witness, firstborn from the dead, prince of the kings of the earth (v. 5).
Today we are especially interested in the last one, prince of the kings of the earth because it is an invitation to evaluate the history of the world with new eyes. Everyone looked to the emperor of Rome as the arbiter of the destinies of peoples, the all-powerful man who passed himself off as a god and filled the entire empire with his statues. However, it was not he who ruled the fate of the world: he was subject to a superior sovereign, to Christ, to whom the Father had given the kingdom that no one could ever destroy.
The power of an empire is assessed first by the size of the territory over which it extends. The kingdom of Christ does not occupy any geographical space, is not based on demonstrations of strength, and does not consist in domination. The members of this kingdom are neither soldiers, nor slaves, nor subjects, but priests (v. 6) called to offer, with their lives, sacrifices pleasing to God, that is, works of love. This is the only order they receive from their king.
Every act of generosity that they perform is an exercise of their priesthood. When they are persecuted because of their fidelity to the Gospel, they offer to God the most pleasing of sacrifices: heroic love towards those same executioners who make them suffer unjustly and put them to death.
The author invites the Christian communities of Asia Minor, prone to discouragement because of persecution, to direct their eyes toward the Lord who is coming (v. 7). His victory is assured, and everyone will see it, even if his triumph will not be of the kind that people expect: he will not humiliate his enemies, he will not condemn those who have pierced him, but he will overcome them converting their hearts. All will recognize their sin and be converted to his love. This is the only victory that Christian communities must expect.
At the end of the passage (v. 8), God affixes his signature to the claims of the Revelation seer, presenting himself as the Alpha and the Omega. The image of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet is a happy transposition into Hellenistic culture of the biblical statement: "I am the first, I am the last; there is no god but me" (Is 44:6). The history of the world is an intermediate event: everything starts from God, and everything returns to him. In his eyes, the power of the emperors of Rome is a brief interlude, even if to Christians it seems so painful and unending.
Gospel: John 18:33-37
In the highest part of the city of Jerusalem, in what had been the palace of King Herod the Great, Pilate had established his praetorium. There, at dawn on the eve of Passover, the Jews led Jesus away on the charge of being an evildoer. It is within this praetorium that the dialogue reported in our passage takes place. The first question that the prosecutor addresses to Jesus is one of the most delicate: "Are you the king of the Jews?"
Since 63 B.C. Pompey had conquered Jerusalem and subjected Judea to Roman rule; the synagogues began to recite a psalm composed by a rabbi steeped in biblical thought: "Lord, you are our king. The kingship of our God is eternal over all nations. You chose David to be king of Israel and swore that his descendants would never die before you. Now, because of our sins, sinners have risen against us. Look, O Lord, and raise a son of David, in the time you have appointed, to reign over Israel." It was an explicit rejection of the foreign power.
Vague attempts to challenge the Roman power had been sketched since 4 B.C., after the death of Herod. In Perea, Simon, a slave of the court, rebelled and, after having set fire to the palaces of Jericho, made raids throughout the kingdom. In Judea, Atronge, a shepherd of gigantic stature, inflicted heavy losses on the Roman army. Finally, at the time of the census of Quirinius (6 A.D.), Judas the Galilean, also mentioned in the book of Acts (Acts 5:37), had started another sedition at Sefforis, near Nazareth, inciting the people not to pay tribute to Caesar.
All these revolts had been suppressed in blood. Thus, from 6 to 36 A.D., Judea experienced a period of tranquility under the authority of the prefects of Rome. Revolutionary movements, including the famous Zealot party, appeared only later, in the mid-40s A.D., when Rome made the foolishness of sending cruel and corrupt procurators to Palestine. Even in a period of relative calm as the one in which Pilate ruled (26-36 A.D.), the accusation of awakening dormant nationalist hopes and the suspicion of wanting to restore the Davidic monarchy were extremely dangerous.
The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate on kingship should be placed in this historical context. The prosecutor's first question—"Are you the king of the Jews?"—aims at clarifying the accusation and reveals Pilate's perplexity when he finds himself facing a man alone, unarmed, without soldiers who can defend him, who has been abandoned by his friends and slapped by one of Anna's servants. He doesn't seem like the type capable of endangering the power of Rome.
Jesus responds with a counter-question to force the prosecutor to take responsibility: "Are you saying this yourself or have others told you about me?", that is: do you have any reason to think of me as a seditious person or are you listening to gossip? Haven't you been told about my reaction to my disciple's attempt to draw his sword (Jn 18:10-11)?
Pilate's reply is almost resentful: "I am not a Jew, am I?" that is, I am a Roman official and administer justice independently. Then he continues, "Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?" (v. 35).
It is at this point that the theme of Christ's kingship comes into focus. Jesus tries to help the prosecutor understand, "My kingdom does not belong to this world" (v. 36). Pilate knows only the kingdoms of this world. If someone speaks to him of the reign of Tiberius, he immediately thinks of the immense territory over which the emperor extends his dominion, or of the time, the years in which he reigned, or even of the sovereign authority that he exercises. He also has in mind the well-defined characteristics of the kingdoms of this world: they are carried out by people driven by ambition, they are based on the use of force and money, they must be defended with weapons, the strong impose themselves and command, and the subjects must be submissive and obey.
Jesus' kingdom has nothing in common with these kingdoms. He does not kill anyone; he goes himself to die; he does not command others, he obeys; he does not ally himself with the great and the powerful; he places himself on the side of the last, of those who count for nothing. To possess, conquer, and exterminate are signs of strength; for Jesus, they are indications of weakness and defeat. For him, great is the one who serves.
Pilate does not understand what Jesus is talking about; he can only ask him a general question: "Then you are a king?" (v. 37). Jesus always reacted harshly to those who tried to make him adhere to the kingship of this world; from the beginning he considered it a diabolical proposal (Mt 4:8-10). He disappointed the messianic expectations of his disciples; he fled when the people wanted to proclaim him king (Jn 6:15). But now that he is defeated and his time is numbered, now that there is no longer any possibility of misunderstanding, in front of the representative of the pagan world, he solemnly proclaims: "You say I am king."
Then he explains, "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (v. 37). Not to teach truths, as the wise men did, but to bear witness to the truth. For the Greek philosophers, the truth was discovering the essence of things; it indicated the fall of every veil, every secret about the meaning of their existence. Linked to this philosophical truth, the historical truth consisted of telling objectively, in reporting the facts precisely as they happened.
The Jewish way of understanding truth is different. In the Bible, truth is faithfulness to the given word; it is stability and perseverance; it is what or who can be trusted. God is truth because he never denies himself, keeps his promises, is animated by a love that nothing and no one will ever be able to break (Ex 34:6). For a Jew, truth is not something logical but concrete; it is what happens in history.
To console and enlighten the seer of the book of Daniel, troubled by the dramatic events of the history of his people, the Lord reveals to him what is written in the "book of truth" (Dn 10:21). This image indicates that God has manifested to him the plan of salvation that he is about to put into action. Truth is the Lord's plans of love; knowing the truth means understanding these plans and allowing oneself to be involved in their realization. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth because he incarnates God's plan; he brings it to fulfillment, for this reason, he is the truth (Jn 14:6). By his presence in the world, he demonstrates the Lord's fidelity to his covenant with people by his whole life spent out of love.
Now many expressions used by John should become more apparent. To do the truth (Jn 3:21) and to walk in the truth (2 Jn 4) indicate adherence to Christ with one's whole life; the Spirit of truth (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13) is the divine impulse that, after introducing one to God's plan, gives the strength to remain faithful; the truth makes one free (Jn 8:32) because only those who lead a life in conformity with the Gospel are truly free, those who deviate from it become slaves of their passions and idols.
Jesus concludes his explanation of his kingdom by declaring, "Everyone who belongs the truth listens to my voice" (v. 37), and Pilate, who understands less and less, replies, "What is truth?" The prosecutor is not interested in the person of Jesus but in whether or not he poses a threat to the power of Rome. He is refractory to God's plan, thinking about the kingdom of this world, not the truth. Insensitive to Jesus' voice and tired of hearing words that make no sense to him, he interrupts the dialogue.
He is the symbol of the unbelieving world that refuses to listen to the word of truth: it finds no reason to condemn him but does not dare to take a stand and ends up giving in to death choices. However, it is not on the decision of the Roman procurator to deliver Jesus to be crucified that the curtain falls on the drama of kingship. Pilate had an inscription placed on the scaffold in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that it could be read and understood by all: "Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews" (Jn 19:19).
Without realizing it, the representative of the most powerful kingdom in this world officially recognized the kingship of Jesus. When the high priests protested and demanded that he correct it, he declared that the declaration was irreversible: "What I have written, I have written" (Jn 19:22). He, the repository of the emperor's authority, could not change it: the victory of the defeated had begun with their king raised on the cross. No kingdom of this world was now able to stop their advance.
This was God's great surprise.