Reign of Christ Sunday: Jeff Bezos, Jesus, and other Kings

My wife and I used to go every year to a fundraising dinner at a Presbyterian Church where our friend was the pastor. It was an all you can eat lobster dinner, followed by a silent auction. A local funeral home bought our meals, so we knew for sure we had to buy something.

Our friend is an amazing baker. Her contribution to the auction was a gift certificate good for a pie a month, for a year. Your choice of filling. I bought it every year.

There was a charity gala in Hollywood last weekend, for a nonprofit called Baby2Baby, which provides essentials to children living in poverty.

It was a ballroom full of A-list celebrities. Pretty much the same guys I see at the Legion. Hollywood executives, screen stars, models, recording artists, gazillionaires, and people famous for well, being famous. Celebrities who can’t sing, dance, act, write, make or do anything, and probably have a personal assistant to tie their designer shoes.

One of the guests was Jeff Bezos, the second wealthiest human on the planet. His wealth is estimated at over 190 billion dollars, and it increases by $147,000 per minute. That’s a lot of pie.

The big news was not how much money this gala was raised. They brought in 8.5 million American dollars. Which is lovely, I think.

I often have mixed feelings about charity fundraising. I’ll walk on the Coldest Night of the Year to support Windsor’s Downtown Mission, because I hate the idea of people going hungry, or sleeping outside. But I feel I should be doing more. Rather than just collect money to help those who’ve been cast to the waste heap, we need to change our society, so we throw less people away in the first place.

So anyway, at this gala where they raised a huge amount of money to help children living in poverty a very uncharitable thing happened.

Jeff Bezos donated a half million dollars, and there were audible groans from the crowd. Not exactly booing, but groans that meant, “Is that all Jeff? Couldn’t you do a little better?”

Seriously. The guy donated enough cash to buy 14 thousand boxes of Pampers, and people in the crowd grumbled like he’s Ebenezer Scrooge.

The appropriate response when someone makes a donation is thank you. Period. Regardless of the size of gift, the response is the same. Thank you.

There were hundreds of people there, and this man gave a huge proportion of the 8.5 million raised.  What I find interesting is the expectation that just because Mr. Bezos is exceedingly wealthy, he’d be more generous. They expected more from him than from themselves.

Celebrities are our contemporary equivalent of royalty. They are kings and queens of the internet with huge followings. People live vicariously through them, know all about them, and talk about them like they just had a beer with them at the Legion.

There is a fantasy element to this. Most of us will never own a company that builds space rockets, but we can follow their exploits, in the same way we follow the right-hander who’ll get 14 million a year to pitch in the major leagues. We can live vicariously through their stories.

We look up to celebrities, and attach all kinds of qualities to them, that aren’t real. We want them to be nicer, better looking, richer versions of us. We buy into the dangerous, ridiculous lie that there are different classes of people, and that some are better than others.

We all have nobility, and pride, and goodness in us. We all have greed, and ego, and depravity in us. We are all saints and sinners, and no-one is better, no matter the number of digits in their bank account, or the history of the blood that runs through their veins.

Think about how Jeff Bezos makes his money. Amazon uses mostly minimum wage employees to buy, sell, and ship consumer goods made by other people, mostly in China for even lower wages. He’s a ruthless businessman. Thousands of people got COVID working in his warehouses. Why would we expect him to be a nice guy?

Over the centuries, we have done the same thing with actual royalty. We pray for their well-being, call them things like “gracious”, and try to get them to visit our town. We expect them to be kind, friendly, and to really care. Some are wonderful, but even if they aren’t, we want them to be.

Back in the day, if the monarch wasn’t kind and caring, it could be very, very bad for the rest of us. In some places in the world, this is still true. The only practical difference between a king and a tyrant is their behaviour.

Trace the family tree of many royal dynasties back far enough, and you don’t find a genteel tea-drinker who cuts ribbons to open bridges and hospitals. You find a ruthless, bloodthirsty warrior chief who smashed heads, burned villages, and slaughtered rivals. 

The fortunes of the European royal houses were made by investing, largely in shipping and trade. As their agents claimed and conquered India, Africa, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, they needed to control the price of what was produced, and brought to Europe to sell. They needed cheap labour. Around the world, representatives of European kings and queens bought and sold enslaved humans as property.

They exploited local populations for whatever they could get, ultimately taking the very land they lived on.

This is not ancient history. There are people living today, whose grandparents were bought and sold. The last African American survivors of enslavement died in the early 1970’s.

Around that time, our residential schools were going full tilt, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were scooping First Nations children from their families, and doing it all in the name of Queen and country, to try to re-make them into “better” people.

The Bible warns us about the abuse of power. Early in the history of Israel, the people approached their prophet, their religious leader, and said, choose us a king. We need a strong warrior to lead us and protect us from our neighbours. They have kings and we worry they’re coming for us.

The prophet said, basically, be careful what you wish for.

A king in those days was a warlord who ruled not by wisdom or compassion, but with fear, force, and the willingness to inflict violence on others.

The people said, not quite in these words, yeah, we know, we can see what the kings next door are like. But we need one, or they’re going to get us. So please, pick us a good one.

Over time, this developed into the idea that God raises up and support the dynasties of certain families, who the church taught had the God-given right to rule over us commoners.

Our Gospel story described an encounter between Pontius Pilate, and Jesus. Pilate was the Roman Governor, who represented and wielded the power and might of the Emperor of Rome.

Pilate was posted on the edge of the Roman Empire, with battalions of soldiers under his command, to protect the trade routes from Palestine back to Rome, maintain the flow of goods and money, and keep the commoners under control.

Pilate had to sort out what to do with this peasant Jesus who had a following and was raising a ruckus. His message was innately challenging to the good order of the Empire.

Jesus treated everyone as an equal, deserving of dignity and respect. Regardless of their station, their rank, their nobility or lack thereof, Jesus taught, with words and actions, that each person is a beloved child of God. Decades after Jesus’ earthly life, the apostle Paul would put it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Jesus was a king, he’d be a different kind of king. He’d be fair and just, moral and ethical. His methods would be love, compassion, empathy, and patience. He’d be trustworthy, kind, and good.

Pilate might be interested in these ideas in a philosophical way. What is truth? But Pilate was in the empire business, and needed to know if Jesus was a problem.  If Jesus had the backing of a political movement, he represented a threat that had to be dealt with the way kings deal with threats. Send in the troops, or the RCMP. We can’t have the commoners getting uppity, expecting fair treatment. We need cheap labour and order in society. Everyone must stay in their place. Get back to the fields. Black Friday is coming, we need you to work overtime at the warehouse.

Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday was added to the Christian calendar by a Roman Catholic Pope. His motivation was complicated, but we can take the opportunity to ask some good questions.

Do we really believe in different classes, that some people are better than others?

Are Kings put in place by God, or by human maneuvering?

What kind of King would Jesus have been, given the opportunity?

Who or what is actually in charge of our lives? Who or what do we bow down to?

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next week we are in Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas.

In our part of the world, as we head into the colder months, and worry and pray for folks who are homeless, and those folks in BC whose lives have been devastated by floods, we remember that we are not waiting for a warrior king to born.

The one who is coming is not about power and might. The one who is coming will be born anew for us as a vulnerable, needy, helpless little child, who teaches from the start, about love. Amen