On Two Princes and a King
[Ezek.34:11-12, 15-17; 1Cor.15:20-26, 28; Mt.25:31-46]
Today, on the Feast of Christ the King, we’ve all been invited to reflect on our lives so far. To help us do this, I have two princely stories for you.
The first is Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince (1532). It’s his guidebook for ambitious people, using everything he’d learnt working as an Italian diplomat.
This story is basically all about power: how to get it and how to keep it. If you’re an aspiring prince, Machiavelli says, be prepared to use all sorts of tricks like secrecy, deception and force to get what you want out of life. You might even have to do something evil from time to time.
Sure, faith and virtuous living are good things, he says, but they can limit you. So, it’s better to separate politics from religion; it’s better to separate private and public morality. After all, naked ambition is an art in itself.
‘A wise prince,’ he says, ‘must build a foundation on what is his own, and not on what belongs to others.’ And he adds, ‘it’s better to be feared than loved’. [i]
Machiavelli’s book is 500 years old, but lots of people still like his ideas. Shakespeare used them to create villains like Iago and Lady Macbeth. And more recently, we’ve seen similar characters like Lord Varys in Game of Thrones and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos.
Today, many politicians and other people use these techniques to get what they want out of life. Are you among them?
The second story is Oscar Wilde’s tale of The Happy Prince (1888). This prince lived a very sheltered, but happy life. When he died, the people erected a statue of him in the town square. This statue was gilded with leaves of gold, it had sapphires for eyes and a large red ruby on the handle of its sword.
One cold evening, a little swallow flying south stopped to rest under that statue. As he rested, some water droplets fell on him. He looked up and saw the prince crying.
‘Why are you crying?’ the swallow asked.
‘When I was alive, I saw no suffering,’ said the prince. ‘But from here I can see lots of unhappiness in the world. I’d like to help, but I can’t because I’m stuck to this pedestal. I need a messenger. Can you help me?’
‘But I have to go to Egypt,’ the swallow replied.
‘Please stay this night with me,’ the prince said.
‘Very well, then. What can I do for you?’ asked the swallow.
‘Nearby, there’s a mother nursing a sick child,’ the prince said. ‘She can’t afford a doctor. Take the ruby from my sword and give it to her.’
The swallow took the ruby and gave it to the woman. She was overjoyed. The doctor came, the child recovered and the swallow returned to the statue.
The next day, the prince asked him to stay another night. He also asked the swallow to give one of his sapphires to a little match girl down the road. She’d sold no matches that day, and was afraid she’d be beaten when she got home. Again, the swallow did as he was asked.
As he ran these errands of mercy, the swallow became aware of all the poverty and suffering in the town. He liked helping the prince. Each day he stripped gold leaves off the statue and gave them to the poor and needy.
Finally, one morning, the little swallow was found dead below the prince’s statue. The statue itself was completely bare, stripped of all its ornaments. The Happy Prince had given away all he had to help others. [ii]
Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, at a time of enormous political upheaval, when tyrants like Hitler and Stalin were leading whole nations astray. Pope Pius wanted to remind everyone that it’s God who created our world, and that Jesus is our only sure hope for the future.
Today, things aren’t much better; the world still has its tyrants. So, this is a good time for us to reflect on our lives so far.
Are we drawn to the style of Machiavelli’s manipulative prince, who does whatever it takes to get what he wants? Or are we more like the Happy Prince, who sacrifices himself for others?
At the Last Judgment, when our turn comes, we’ll be reminded that Jesus had clearly asked us to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, to visit prisoners …
And we’ll remember that whatever we did in love and compassion for others, we did for Jesus himself.
On that day, can you honestly say to Jesus, ‘Yes, I did all I could’?
[i] Nicolo Macchiavelli, The Prince. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#link2HCH0021
[ii] Oscar Wilde, The Young King and Other Stories, Penguin Books, Essex, 2000 https://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/2010againstpoverty/export/sites/default/extranet/news_documents/188_The_Happy_Prince.pdf