Having to read the “Crowd” parts during The Passion on Good Friday, is always an uncomfortable fifteen minutes for me. “Crucify him!” sticks in my throat and “I do not know him” is unpleasant. But, for me, no phrase cuts to the heart like “We have no king, but Caesar!” (Jn 19: 15)
That line gets to the root of the rejection of Jesus. When God called the Hebrew people to follow him to become a new nation, the deal was that God would be their God and King, and they would be God’s loyal, faithful people. When the people finally finished their time wandering in the desert and the nation of Israel came into being, the people understood that God was their King. But, humans are fickle and within a short period of time, they asked for a human King. God allowed it, but warned them that it wouldn’t go well (it did not go well).
“… ‘appoint a king over us, like all the nations, to rule us.’ Samuel was displeased when they said, ‘Give us a king to rule us.’ But he prayed to the LORD. The LORD said: ‘Listen to whatever the people say. You are not the one they are rejecting. They are rejecting me as their king. They are acting toward you just as they have acted from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this very day, deserting me to serve other gods. Now listen to them; but at the same time, give them a solemn warning and inform them of the rights of the king who will rule them.’” (1 Samuel 8: 6-9)
They said they’d deal with whatever came up. But, they always knew that—human king or not—God is the true King of Israel.
So, when John wrote that line into the Gospel, it was an expression of certain members of the Jewish people’s disregard for God’s supremacy—these few sought their own glory, not God’s—and their willingness to collaborate with the pagan emperor who symbolized the desecration of Israel’s holiness, disrespect and disregard for God was a rejection of every gift God gave to them as God’s people—particularly the gift of himself in Jesus.
But, The Passion isn’t just about something that happened 2,000 years ago—it’s about what happens on earth every day, what happens in my life every day and what happens in my heart every day. That line is not just about a select group of individuals who rejected God’s presence in the person of Jesus for their own gain. That line is about me rejecting God’s presence in the person of Jesus right in front of me in the poor, the marginalized, the struggling and the hurting I see (or choose not to see) every day.
When the Church, in her wisdom, requires us to speak those words, it is a reminder of who I was meant to be (a child of God), who I am called to be (a holy Church) and who Jesus died for me to be (an heir to heaven). It is a reminder of who I choose to be instead—what I give up instead, and my general disregard for God in my daily life.
Because, when it comes down to it—when I choose sin over life—I am choosing a different King than the one who brings me out of slavery into the freedom of the children of God. And this is what amazes me most about God’s unconditional love for us—God knew we would say it, God knows that we will continue to say it (on our bad days) and God is willing to die for us anyway. God continues to be the faithful King even when we say, “I have no king but Caesar.”