Numbered with the Criminals

Luke 22: 24-38

And thus, with the [instinctive] competitiveness between the disciples, their discussion was about who should be pre-eminent. And he said to them,
“The kings of the people [of the earth] rule them as their lords. And those who carry out their authority are referred to as the people’s benefactors. But this is not for you. For the one among you who is [already] greater let him become as a new recruit; and the one governing as a mere servant. For who is greater [among you]: the one reclining or the one serving? Is it not the one reclining? But [consider my example] I am among you as one who serves. [That is my part in this.] You are those who have accompanied me during my [period of] trials and this [service] is what I deliver into your hands because it is the Kingdom that has been delivered to me, so that with me you may dine and drink in my Kingdom at my table, to sit there judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“Simon, O Simon, take heed because Satan [that prosecuting lawyer] has eagerly sought leave to subject you to extreme vetting, sifting you like wheat. But I have interceded on your behalf that your faith would not collapse, and that when you are turned around you may be a firm support to your brothers.”
And he replied to him: “Lord, with your support, I am prepared to go to prison and even to die.”
But he answered, “I tell you that the cock will not have crowed three times before you have denied three times that you know me.”
And he said to them: “When I sent you out [to go] without bag, purse, sandals, pack, wallet and footwear, were you ever lacking anything?”
“We lacked for nothing!” they replied.
“But now the one with a pack let him take it. And likewise his wallet and even to sell his shirt [or cloak] in order to buy a sword. For I tell you, ‘And he was numbered among the lawless’ will find its fulfilment in me. For indeed, whatever has been ordained for me will be completed.”
They replied, “There are two swords here, Master!” and his reply was, “That will be enough.”

Luke’s account of this defining moment in the story of Jesus goes from a description of a truly amazing celebration of the Passover – one never to be forgotten by his first disciples and disciples ever since – to a gathering that became confused and even contentious. Jesus reasserted his authority among them, but the disciples had now to face a decisive change that had taken place.

Immediately after the sharing of the bread and the wine, Jesus’ stated that he knew he had been betrayed.

And this, Luke seems to suggest, led on to a contentious debate among the disciples about the priorities they were to ascribe, one to another, as Jesus’ followers. Who would be next in line? Jesus stops them up short and tells them that they are thinking like Gentiles; they are not actually in line with the ancient promises that God has given to Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Israel about the servant of the Lord, the Messiah who will surely come to be a blessing to all the world. Here then is Jesus’ definitive redefinition of what it means to be his disciple.

And that then is completed by Jesus’ royal proclamation. The disciples are now to view their Teacher as heir presumptive of God’s throne – the Kingdom handed to him as the One designated Prince of all Princes, he now bequeathes to those he had chosen. It is as if this is the concluding statement of the Principal of a school, a travelling synagogue, and the opening declaration of a greater office he is about to assume, and they,

… those who have accompanied me during my probation

are likewise enlisted as the highly privileged servants of his Kingdom.

Jesus, Luke says, then gives special attention to

Simon, Simon …

Is Peter therefore the example of the “one already greater among you”? Is he to take on the disposition of the “new recruit” in this Kingdom? We read this now as defining Peter’s learning curve, but it was, as we also know from Peter’s story – and also our own? – that this is a disposition that has to be learned. Jesus tells Peter that special intercession has been made on his behalf so that his faith will not fail. Can Peter at this time hear what Jesus is saying? Well, he replies very bravely and loyally:

Lord with your support ….

But Luke tells us that even with this profession of utter total commitment that Jesus sensed how precarious Peter’s path was:

What is it to be, Peter? Let’s say, three times before dawn you’ll have disowned me. Yes?

And why is it that Jesus, with such confidence, can predict Peter’s denial? The appeal ‘Simon, Simon!’ refers to his name before Jesus started calling him ‘Peter’. What are we to make of Jesus’ appeal to him by reference to his patronymic? Is he not remaining Peter of what he would be without his support?

We might say that Jesus had now concluded his teaching course, at least for the time being. He tells his disciples that the special commands he had given to them at the outset of his teaching ministry – applying the precepts of John’s prophetic call for repentance in their subsequent declaration of God’s Kingdom – had now run their course.

New conditions now pertain. What were these?

It seems as if Jesus is telling them that \they should not be thinking of themselves as he had required them to view themselves in their teaching work in Judaea and Galilee. They may still be trainee Rabbis for the Kingdom of God but his major contribution to them as future teachers is now coming to a close. He reminds them of how they learned to rely upon his wisdom in how they were to go about their work. And so he asked:

You remember when I sent you out without bag, purse, sandals, pack, wallet and footwear, don’t you? Did you ever lacking anything?” “We lacked for nothing!” they replied.

But what they now confronted was a new situation. And they had to trust him even if things seems to be all changed, if everything had gone “pear-shaped”.

But now the one with a pack let him take it. And likewise his wallet and even sell your shirt in order to buy a sword.

In other words:

Stay with me, by all means, he says to them, but keep in mind that you are now aligning yourself with one whose social standing is that of a lawless criminal.

Luke reports Jesus’ appeal to Isaiah:

For I tell you, ‘And he was numbered among the lawless’ will find its fulfilment in me. You can be certain that whatever has been ordained for me will be completed.

This is what his betrayal means. If Jesus the Rabbi is to be treated as a criminal by one of his own disciples, and thus by the authorities, the disciples can no longer reside with confidence as students in the shadow of this revered Rabbi. His comments, and especially to Peter, are to ask them whether they have the ticker to now stand with him, now that he his enemies have had their way, now that he is defined as a criminal! Their cover has been blown by one of their own – a fellow student in their own graduating class. Therefore, to stay with him at this hour means seeking the power from on high to withstand the full consequences of this evil.

Luke depicts the disciples as still not fully grasping what hour it was. That is why he reports Jesus’ words as they came to the Mount of Olives:

You should now be praying that you will not enter your own time of trial (22:40).

To return to Jesus’ declaration to Peter: we can say that the “senior student” was given fair warning of his deep spiritual vulnerability. But now, after the event, Luke confirms that Jesus gave Peter reassurance to Peter that his own failings would not prevent the prayers made on his behalf from being heard and fulfilled. Peter may have affirmed:

Lord with such support as you can give, I’m prepared to go to prison and even to die!

Now, keeping in mind what Peter must have felt about the subsequent revelation, that he was not at all prepared to go to prison let alone to die, let us just imagine if the conversation had ended then with Jesus not saying anything by way of response. Where would Peter have been when he discovered that his protestation of total commitment was – by his own denial, his own action, his own cowardice, his own betrayal – proved totally groundless? I suppose we might even say, if Jesus in his trial had not turned to look him in the eye at the crucial moment, would he have ever “joined the dots”? And where would he be? Betrayal is not exactly denial but denial is pretty close to it. Well that is enough to think about.

But Peter, after his third denial, was woken up to what Jesus had already said to him – at the time it would have been a very hurtful intervention:

Simon, Simon, I am praying for you because Satan has certainly shown he wants to take you in with your own hairy-chested statements of ‘total commitment’, full connection, … I am praying for you and I am confident that when you are restored your faith will not implode into nothingness and you, I am telling you, will be a support for your brethren. Believe it. But it won’t be without my prayers my friend; not without my prayers.

This was a deeply hurtful, pastoral comment at the time, but it became a reminder of enormous encouragement that his situation was still under Jesus’ nurture.

We say now, in the hindsight of his Resurrection and Ascension that Jesus’ trial, his suffering as a criminal, as a transgressor, as the prophet Isaiah had announced for the suffering servant, was indeed his to endure.

Those who, as a result of his suffering, believe in him as the Chosen One, the person to become victor over sin and death, might well suffer for their faith, and that has, indeed, come later. It is with the endowment of God’s Spirit, that Jesus’ followers in every age, including our own, can live now with a revised version of Peter’s profession trembling on their lips:

Lord, with your support, I’m prepared in all my weakness, should it come to it, to also be numbered with the transgressors, to go to prison and even to die!

These are no words of ‘hairy-chested’ bravado, but the stuttered and stammering confession of a mere servant, one who serves, a mere new recruit learning the ways of God’s Kingdom. Such servants, indeed such leaders and support workers of their brothers and sisters, have been told by their Lord, the One who has become their Risen and Ascended Lord, that he has their lives under his surveillance.

Since I am among you as one who serves and since you are those who have a share in my sufferings, I am delivering into your hands the Kingdom delivered in my hands, so you may dine and drink at my royal table, joining in judging the full overflowing fulfilment of the twelve tribes of Israel.
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