"The Beggar-King"

Proper 29.B.21 Christ the King Sunday
Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

As we celebrate Christ the King Sunday I would like to share with you Margaret Silf’s story of “The Beggar-King”. There once was a king who had no son, and longed for an heir who would succeed him to the throne. So he posted a notice, inviting young men to apply to be considered for adoption into his family, and to become his heir. All that he asked of the applicants was that they should love God, and love their neighbor.

A poor peasant boy saw the notice, but he thought he would have no chance of being adopted by the king because of the ragged clothes he wore. So he worked very hard, until he had just enough money to buy an acceptable set of clothes; by no means fine clothes—but good enough. Wearing his new clothes, he set off to the royal palace, determined to apply for the position of the king’s adopted son.

As he approached the palace, the young man encountered a poor beggar on the road. The old man was pale and shivering with cold, and the boy, who was well accustomed with how the man felt, had compassion. What was he to do? Looking at his new clothes, for which he had worked long and hard, and again at the beggar, who was clearly suffering, he reasoned that he was young and strong, and could endure the cold, but the old man was elderly and appeared frail, and so he exchanged clothes with him.

As he was now back to wearing beggar’s clothes, it hardly seemed worth the effort of going on toward the king’s palace. But, having come so far already, the young man decided to keep traveling, thinking to himself that at the very least, he would be able to glimpse the magnificent palace, which he had never seen.

When he arrived, it shouldn’t surprise us that he was greeted by snorts of derision and the rolling of eyes by the king’s courtiers—and other applicants who had come to put their best foot forward to gain an interview with the monarch. So, you can imagine the young man’s surprise, and the shock of the others, when he alone was admitted into the presence of the king.

The young man looked closely at the king. There was something strangely familiar about him. At first, he couldn’t work out what it was, and why he felt so at home in his presence. Then he realized that the king himself was wearing the clothes that he had given to the old beggar just a few hours ago along the road.

The king came down from his throne and embraced the young man, holding him close in his arms he whispered “At last you are home. Welcome, my son.”

In today’s Gospel lesson we discover that the royal status of Jesus is a major point of the interrogation by Pontius Pilate. At first glance, the picture of Jesus hardly seems kingly. Our Savior has been beaten and dressed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns placed upon his head. There he stands before Pilate, a visual mockery of kingship.

Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” And, as Pilate does his best to lob the problem of Jesus back into the court of the Jews, Jesus says: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus, here, is challenging Pilate’s notion of kingship. Here’s the problem. Pilate’s only context for the idea of kingship is political, not theological—he was a man who suffered from a lack of religious imagination. From Pilate’s perspective, Jesus wasn’t wealthy, he didn’t arrive in town with an array of troops to secure his position. In fact, the man standing before him looks like any other bedraggled Jew dragged before the Roman authorities. How, indeed, could he be king?

I suppose that in some ways, the same problem which confronted Pilate (namely, a lack of imagination and perspective) afflicts many of us as well. We, Americans, tend to have a difficult time comprehending the idea of kingship. Most of what we understand about our relationship with kings involved George III in 1776, and we all know how that turned out. Kingship, for many of us in this country, is something of a philosophical conundrum. We elect presidents. I few don’t approve of their policies we vote them out and elect someone new. Kings….well, they don’t abide by the popular vote.

In addition, we (like Pilate) often suffer from a limited perspective of how kings should look. Ask most anyone to describe a king and they will mention a crown, wealth, castles and a throne. Kings are privileged—and remote. They are powerful and (let’s face it) frequently isolated from the majority of their subjects. Imagine casually striking up a conversation with Queen Elizabeth as the two of you wait in line at a grocery store.

Take a moment and think about Jesus as a King in disguise. The incarnation (the embodiment of God in human form) is God’s way of experiencing what life is like for those of us consigned to the mortal realm—rather like the king in the fable which began today’s sermon.

Several years ago there was a television show called “Joan of Arcadia”. (Alas, I checked, and it is not streaming anywhere—which is a shame because it was a great show.). Each week, God could be counted on to make a cameo appearance. In one episode God might show up as a high school student, in another, a grumpy cafeteria worker, a haughty electrician, a bespectacled little girl in a playground and a winsome mail carrier. Few times could the viewers be counted on to know who God was—until God spoke, and Joan recognized him.

Imagine Jesus’ foray into our world in much the same manner—and ask yourself this question: Would you recognize the King if he were to come again? And, perhaps even more importantly, would the King recognize you as his child? The story of the Beggar-King is poignant for this very reason. The King is searching for an heir—and he is searching for his heir based upon one very specific quality—a quality that is not dependent upon how that child is to “look”. The King is looking for an heir who evidences humanity—the capacity to care for “the least of these”. The King is not looking for outward beauty, fine clothes, a college degree, entrepreneurial skills or letters of reference. What the King is looking for is an heir who is willing to take the clothes off his or her back and exchange them with a shivering beggar. He is searching for an heir who has the capacity to extend compassion.

Our task is to look for the King of Love, who appears to us quite frequently in disguise—and to recognize him in the faces of the weak and the powerless; and then to extend our hand in friendship and love, in the knowledge that if we do this, the King himself will recognize us as well—not simply as his subjects, but also as his friends. In Jesus’ name. Amen.