Within the Shadow of the Most High

Luke 23: 32-43

There were others – two criminals – led away with him to be executed.
And they came to what is known as Skull Place and there they crucified him along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left.
And it was then that Jesus said:
“Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing!”
And they divided up his clothing [among themselves] and cast lots for it.
And the people were standing watching [as if they were spectators], among them the [city’s] leading men, turning up their noses at him: “He saved others. Let him [now] save himself, if he is indeed the Anointed of God, the chosen one. [Ha!]”
And the soldiers made sport of it all, making out to pay due respect, when offering him vinegar saying: “Well if you are King of the Jews [as the sign says, now is the time to] save yourself.”
For there was a public notice explaining: “This is the King of the Jews.”
And [with all this going on] one of the criminals [joined in and] abused him: “Are you not the Anointed? Save yourself and us!”
But the other countered this, rebuking him: “Have you no fear of God since you are now under the same sentence as he is. And we indeed now receive our just deserts for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, will you remember me when you come to inherit your Kingdom?”
And he said to him: “Truly I am telling you, today [this very day] you will be with me in paradise.”

Trust in the system of criminal justice under Roman dominance may have been busy undermining itself, as we have noted, with the kind of wheeling and dealing that had Jesus traded with the insurrectionist zealot, Barabbas. But in that hour of satirical brutality, there was one person there, one person who was able to take a stand, and he too was one of the criminal class. And Jesus’ own disciples had either fled or stood afar off.

Jesus not only suffered abuse from his sworn enemies. Luke presents us with those standing by, watching proceedings as if this barbaric cruelty was simply being depicted in street theatre terms. And so, for such a spectacle, the city’s elite offer, as if by perverted instinct, their cat-calls.

Luke catches this mood by depicting such abuse in sharp contrast with the intercession of the one criminally convicted.

Father, forgive them. They simply have no idea of what they are doing!

That is not only putting it kindly, it remains the evidence that God’s Anointed did not turn away from those bent on destruction of himself and themselves but turned to them in love. The gallery of spectators, at least those who came close to get a clear picture of the agony, obviously could not face the gruesome reality. Not really. They needed to turn it into something else. The soldiers turned it into a dice game, playing among themselves for the royal robe. Jesus had been given this robe thanks to Herod’s condescending satirical brutality and this, as we have said, set the scene; for Herod and Pilate it was now as much entertainment, a distraction, and as their entertainment it was their invitation to others standing by to endure its bloody cruelty as a joke.

And so, Luke tells us, the Jerusalem elite played their obsequious part, making stupid, abusive cat-calls and their cruel conduct was confirmed by Pilate’s own prop, a multi-lingual bill-board (his equivalent for his time of a Face Book page).
Here hangs the King of the Jews!

And then, as if this is not over-the-top already, one of the criminals – no doubt in horrendous pain as his life began to ebb away – gets caught up in the blood-lust, the pagan mood and joins in.

Will there be no-one to come to Jesus’ aid in all this cruelty, in this resounding chorus of satirical abuse? Does Jesus have to suffer this thoroughly demeaning invective as a value-added part of his punishment?

And here, in the full agony of this sorry tale – a tale we now read as a story which should evoke our tears – were people just like ourselves, people who could be so cruel and unremitting in their venom even there, in the context of an execution that made an abattoirs look squeaky clean.

Here, in the midst of this miscarriage of justice, this gross administrative and government sin, is the thoroughly undignified, foul and obscene attempt to turn it into a mere theatrical event so that those who have responsibility for carrying it out can cope. Forget the needs of the three who have to be despatched from this life. They have to be done and dusted, but those involved in carrying out the execution have to get on with the rest of their lives. Treating it as a game, as theatre, was claimed to be simply part of the gruesome reality they had to deal with.

And yet, here is this other criminal, who demonstrated that this was a view that spits in the face of God himself. For him, it simply was not right. Faced with his companion’s blast of life-concluding anger, pouring out his venom onto the innocent hanging helplessly alongside him, he has had enough of this sport. He turned to his friend and rebuked him, reminding him that this was no theatre of the kind that his words suggest. He tells his fellow that this grievous moment is being played out before the Almighty’s Throne. He might as well have been singing Psalm 91:

He who dwells within the shelter
Of the Most High finds his place,
He who lives beneath the shadow
Of the Almighty’s word of grace,
Says straight up: “You are my lookout,
Refuge sure that’s built to last!
Your love is the source of power,
My life long you’ll have my trust!”

With his last gasps he makes this appeal to his still unrepentant colleague:

Have you no fear of God at all?

Yes, this is a rebuke of unrighteousness arising from the agony of crucifixion. Luke details this courage effort to distance himself from those who are wanting to pretend it is all a matter of cat-calls and abuse. In the presence of the One who has been satirically proclaimed as king, this dying criminal refuses to be part of a game that reviles Israel’s hope of a coming Messiah. We do not know anything else about this man. The two of them were executed together for their crimes. It may be a fair question to ask whether the two of them had been convicted along with Barabbas for insurrection. Luke does not tell us. Yes, Jesus is interchange for the one who has been granted the Passover release.

We do not know whether these two were Barabbas’s accomplices but with Jesus hanging there too we are left to wonder. Luke hasn’t deemed it necessary to say so. What he does tell us is that this man, dying with Jesus, turned to him and asked him for his merciful attention.

Remember me, Jesus, when you come to inherit what is rightfully yours in God’s Kingdom!

And Jesus’ response – can it ever be penned without tears, stated in words without a lump rising in the throat? – is to tell him, a criminal who will die a criminal’s death, that having given his allegiance to God’s servant in this way, means he will inherit a share with him in his Father’s vineyard:

Truly, I am telling you, today, this very day, you will be with me in Paradise!
  • How did Pilate and Herod respond to the challenge of having to pass judgement on a Galilean Rabbi who had been betrayed into the hands of those who had long conspired against him?
  • How did the soldiers, provoked by the lamentation of the women and the song with which Jesus joined in their paean of woe, conscript an extra for the drama in which they were required to play their part?
  • Why should they have played dice while these dying men breathed their last? Why grab the opportunity to score a royal robe?
  • Why should the city’s elite have felt constrained to be there, let alone resort to satirical cat-calls? Why should the soldiers, whose job it was to oversee this barbaric punishment until the victim had died, mimic such cruel abuse?
  • And then Pilate whose sense of justice failed him, also grabbed the opportunity to advertise his strong arm, using Jesus’ cross as a bill-board announcing his intolerance of this all too Messianic Jewish hope. Was it not a pantomime anyway? Did he not seek to advertise his judgement on this case so all could read his billboard, whatever their language?

And then one of the criminals chimed in, only to be countered by his associate:

Have you no fear of God?

This indeed was no play. This was not theatre.

If this is to be seen by you, with your foul dying breath, as theatre, look again, look again at what we have here. Here is a righteous man alongside of us! Does he not remind you of your need to plead to God for mercy?

But that was not all. He turned to Jesus and Jesus replied with kindness and with compassion.

Truly, I am telling you, today, this very day, you will be with me in Paradise!

His turning to Jesus had been confirmed by Jesus’ own assurance; Jesus speaking to him minutes before both of them breathed their last. Luke’s informant here seems to be via the Centurion who was on duty and who listened in wonder to this exchange.

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