In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most of our crucifixes have a small plaque above Our Lord’s head with the English letters: INRI. The letters aren’t actually English. They are Latin. They stand for the title: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
That was the charge that was brought against Jesus by the Sanhedrin when they brought Him to Pilate. All four Gospels report that Pilate asked Our Lord if He was the King of the Jews. But only St. Luke gives it to us from the mouth of the Sanhedrin. They say to Pilate: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”
They hate Him and want Him killed because He refused to be a political king. Their loyalty isn’t really to Caesar. It is to themselves. Since Jesus won’t serve them they way they desire, as a king, they bring Him to Pilate with the false charge that that is what He is trying to be.
They interpret the word “Christ” for Pilate. “He says that He Himself is Christ, a King.” Christ in Greek, or Messiah in Hebrew, means “Anointed One.” Kings and priests were anointed. So while what they say isn’t true, neither is it exactly true. They learned well, as have we all, from their father the devil. The rabbis before Christ often speak of their hope in King Messiah and on Palm Sunday the prophesy, “Behold, your King comes to you” was fulfilled. Yes, He is Christ, and yes, that means He is the King, and, yes, He forbids the worship of Caesar though not the tax.
So the charge is true, even though they think it is false. They are spinning it for Pilate’s ears and accidently confessing the Truth, not unlike the time that Caiaphas said, “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Reminding, perhaps, also of Balaam’s inability to stop his own prophesy or blessing of Israel even when he had been paid to stop.
The Romans looked down on kings. Pilate wouldn’t have like the tax bit, but he also didn’t like kings. Though the Romans lived under a tyrannical despot, they wouldn’t allow him to call himself “king.” That, it seems, was probably the fatal error of Julius Caesar. He has allowed some to start calling him “king” so they killed him. Augustus may not have been the general on the field of battle that Julius was, but he learned that lesson well. He was probably the most clever bureaucrat and despot the world has ever known. He could wax on about how he was simply a humble, public servant, who ruled only so long as that was what the people wanted, while he had his enemies killed in their sleep. And he never let anyone call him king.
We shouldn’t sneer too much at the Romans. Americans are no strangers to this conceit. If we notice that the Roman Senate was a sham at the time of Augustus, then we should notice that our own political process and establishment is radically different than that which was first put into place. And almost all of what passes for political speech is nothing but clichés without meaning.
In any case, the Romans imagined themselves the heirs of the free Greek cities. They didn’t like kings. The Sanhedrin plays to Pilate’s prejudices. Of course, Our Lord was nothing like Julius and quite the opposite of Augustus. Augustus refused the title but took, by force, all the power. The Lord suffers the title: He is the King of the Jews, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. But He refuses all power. He goes as a Lamb to the slaughter. He rides into Jerusalem, humbly, into the death trap, into the vineyard that killed His Father’s servants, with no political or military gain. He rides to the gallows not to dispose of His enemies but to be disposed of, not to enact justice but to suffer injustice. His is not a Kingdom of violence or power, but of Sacrifice and Mercy, where the least is the greatest, and where the greatest, the innocent and righteous, lays down His life and dies for the benefit of the least, for the guilty and unclean.
So after the crowd is fed on the mountainside that fateful Galilean Spring, they get the idea that the Lord would make a pretty good king. He could multiply swords as he multiplies bread and they’d never have to work again. They try to seize Him and force Him to their purpose.
The crowd came with little understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth is, coming mainly for His miracles. Them, having received one of the greatest miracles, they are still blind by their sin. So also are the Holy Apostles.
It is only with the perspective of His generous death and resurrection that the miracle really makes sense. He is inviting them to green pastures beside still waters. He is offering them the Bread of Life. In hindsight, the miracle echoes the Holy Communion. The Lord takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Everyone is satisfied but nothing is lost. There is more in the fragments than there was in the beginning. It is not hard to see a parallel idea or an illustration to the doctrine of the miraculous presence of Our Lord’s body and blood in the Holy Communion that can be eaten by men but not diminished.
There are many lessons we might take from this event . Philip comes dangerously close to despair and to sloth. The task of feeding so many people seems impossible so he is tempted to do nothing, to give up. The example of the boy who gives his meager lunch to the Lord is inspiring. Here is a picture of faith and of putting goods to work in the service of the Lord. The Lord’s compassion and the parallels between this account and the manna in the desert, Psalm 23, and other miraculous feedings remind us of how generous the Lord is. The Lord provides for us. We haven’t got this far on nothing but bread and water. We have had joy in food, pleasure in nature.
But I think the most significant lesson is this: He won’t be a king after our design. We can’t control Him or manipulate Him. We can’t use Him for our own purposes or agenda. In recent years there was this diabolical movement called the prayer of Jabez that tried to use a formulaic prayer from the Bible to make God give people prosperity. It was particularly crass and in hindsight quite stupid, but many poor sheep were sucked in. And there have been others, and we, ourselves, have toyed with these things. Maybe we were on to the prayer of Jabez and maybe we weren’t, but whether we were or not, we’ve all tried to fit the Scripture to our doctrine. We’ve all tried to fit our doctrine to our culture. When sis moves in with her boyfriend outside of Holy Wedlock we try to find an excuse for sin based in a definition of love found in the Beatles. We’ve all wanted a King who was accountable to us. Or we’ve just been like the Germans in World War II who wore belt buckles that said, “Gott ist mit uns.” God is with us. Well, sort of, He was, but He was with us, too. Much of what passes itself of as patriotism in our nation is just jingoistic nationalism and sometimes God is invoked though God wants nothing to do with it. Repent.
The crowd on the mountain was bad. But, at the same time, despite our confusion and sinful desires, He still has compassion. The crowd is rotten, but that doesn’t stop Him. He still loves and feeds them. He receives and eats with sinners. He is our King. He has been anointed for us. He rides into Jerusalem in fulfillment of prophecy. He wears the crown of thrones and is lifted up from the earth on the throne of the cross on our behalf. Yes, Pilate and Herod mock Him with these titles. They mean to show that they are stronger than any king of the Jews. The Sanhedrin undermine their own position. Fools. They meant it for evil, but He means and uses it for good, and that, for our good. Thanks be to God!
Most of our crucifixes have a small plaque above Our Lord’s head with INRI written on it. Those letters stand for the title: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” He is our King by grace. He has joined us to true Israel. O come, children of Abraham, let us worship Him.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.