When you think of the word “king,” what comes to mind? Power? Prestige? Glory? Here is one word you might not associate with being a king: rejection. Yet the connection between the two is especially important throughout Scripture. King David was not the first king of Israel, but the second. And prior to Saul being selected as the first king, another king was actually rejected. How so? When the prophet Samuel entered old age, his sons were appointed judges over the people. Alas, they proved to be corrupt, accepting bribes and “perverting justice” (1 Sm 8:3). The elders of Israel demanded that Samuel appoint a king “over us, as other nations have, to judge us.” This upset Samuel, who prayed to God about the demand. The response given to him was quite significant: “Grant the people’s every request,” God told the prophet. “It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king” (1 Sm 8:7). God allowed the people to have an earthly king, but warned them that “if you do not obey the Lord and if you rebel against his command, the Lord will deal severely with you and your king, and destroy you” (1 Sm 12:15). In sum, earthly kings cannot compare to the One, True King.
Saul proved to be a failure, despite some early success. David was much better — a man after God’s own heart (1 Sm 13:14; Acts 13:22) — but hardly a perfect man. Solomon began in spectacular fashion and ended in spectacular spiritual ruin. David remained the benchmark, for he managed to consolidate Israel as a cohesive nation and powerful kingdom. The later writings of prophets are filled with the anticipation of another, future David — a ruler who would revive the golden age of Israel and free the people from oppression.
Jesus had to address and overcome that political and material perspective as he went about revealing that he was the heir of David, the true King and the awaited Messiah. It was not an easy task, and it involved plenty of rejection. First, Jesus had to reject attempts to forcefully make him a king after the desires of the crowds (see Jn 6:15). Then he had to respond to the accusations and questions about his kingdom. When asked by Pilate, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied cryptically: “You say so” (Lk 23:3). He then offered a reasonable point: “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight…” (Jn 18:36).
As Pope Pius XI stated in Quas Primas (“In the First”), his encyclical that introduced the feast of Christ the King, the kingdom of Christ “is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things.” This kingdom “demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”
But, at the cross, we must choose between two very different kings and kingdoms. This is revealed so powerfully by the two thieves. Both were sinners looking directly at the King in their final moments of earthly life. The one thief could think only of himself, and so lashed out at Jesus with despairing mockery. But the other thief saw something in Jesus. He recognized an innocent man — even more, a King: “Jesus,” he exclaimed, recognizing his own sinfulness, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Rejected, God still loves. Rejected, Jesus still saves. Rejected, Christ is truly King!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.