Reflection: It’s often said, indeed we talked about it just last week, that you see a person’s true self when that person’s body and spirit are under great pressure. When the church says that Christ crucified reveals God’s true self, it’s saying something similar. It says that the reign of God is most clearly revealed in Jesus under pressure of ridicule and scorn, under pressure of wood and nails.
The inscription above Jesus’ head as he hung on the cross read “This is the King of the Jews.” For many of us it brings to mind the glorious words of The Messiah - King of kings and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever. So appropriate for this man we celebrate as the Messiah. And so appropriate for us to read on Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday when we focus on the divine aspects of Jesus.
But this sign was not an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity, a sign of respect, or honour. It was placed over his head as public irony, an act of public shaming of Jesus, and for the entire Jewish people. Roman soldiers don’t bow down to him and regard his respectively as befits a sovereign. They mock him! The Jerusalem leaders ridicule him!
This chapter begins with a series of trials, in which Jesus appears before Pilate, then Herod, and, finally, Pilate again. What Luke’s account of the trials shows is Jesus’ innocence. Yet, the crowds and the Jerusalem leadership persist and, finally, Pilate “handed Jesus over as they wished” (23:25). Before arriving at the place called “The Skull,” one Simon of Cyrene is tapped to assist Jesus in the carrying of his crossbeam to the place of his crucifixion. The verses we have just heard begin after this walk of shame.
As if a death among “criminals” was not sufficient, Luke describes the Jerusalem leaders “scoffing” at the so-called “Messiah” who was unable to save himself.
Then, the narrative provides reactions from five different groups:
Leaders scoff; soldiers mock. A fellow prisoner taunts. And the crowds watch on. And Rome announced its public position with that mocking inscription: This is the King of the Jews.
The disagreement between the two criminals may be the most revealing part of the story. The narrative pays more attention to this than any of the other reactions, so perhaps so should we.
In the other two synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Mark, the two criminals each “revile” Jesus. But in Luke’s account only one criminal continues to ridicule Jesus – challenging Jesus’ messianic capabilities with: “Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). It is a selfish request (like many of our prayers) - “don’t just save yourself, save us also.” But Jesus remains silent.
The second criminal takes a different tack. Luke places a rebuke on this other man’s lips - making the distinction between their crimes and the one crucified in their midst saying: this man has done nothing wrong.
This prisoner’s announcement of Jesus’ innocence is unique to Luke’s Gospel. Luke, it seems, wishes to stress the crucifixion of an innocent Jesus. Pilate “found, in him, no ground for the sentence of death” (Luke 23:22). Herod would agree with Pilate’s assessment (23:15). And, in our passage, the second criminal offers his own intuition on the situation: “this man has done nothing wrong” (23:41). When Jesus dies, the centurion’s confession sums up all the others in the chapter: “Certainly this man was innocent (23:47).
Whatever else might be the meaning of the crucifixion in the first-century, crucifixion was a public performance in order to produce a public shaming.
Even his clothes were, immediately, accounted for (via the casting of lots). With its inscription over Jesus’ head, Rome, not the Jewish authorities, not Jesus own followers, but Rome - announces, “This is the King of the Jews.”
And if we think the Jerusalem leaders would have been pleased with this shaming, they would not. Because this Roman organised performance was an embarrassment for all Jewish people, not just this one troublesome Jew. Crucifixion was Rome’s method of execution and this was their public show.
Rather than blood and gore, Luke concentrates his audience’s attention on the public shaming rather than the individual brutality Jesus would have certainly received.
Is Jesus innocent, as Luke insists? To us, as well as to Luke the answer seems obvious – yes he was! Jesus first followers claimed Jesus as messiah (anointed king), but he was not the kind of messiah which warranted such an execution. He had not build an army with which to rid Israel of the colonising Romans. In that sense Jesus was innocent.
But from Rome’s perspective, he was a trouble maker at best, treasonous at worst. He was talking of an alternate kingdom which necessarily means the current kingdom is under threat. Jesus was crucified on the grounds that he is subversive. Messiah means simply ‘anointed king’ so claims of being the Messiah were treason.
King of the Jews makes the charge against Jesus explicit and the sign placed over the cross as a warning against any other would-be messiahs. Because such a figure was widely expected to overthrow the Romans and bring liberation for Israel.
The irony is that Jesus had, time and time again, said that there would be a great reversal. That the least would be the greatest, that the greatest among you will serve. Had he not called into question the dominant and prevailing models of power?
So we have in Luke, a man charged for being ‘King of the Jews,’ being hailed as the ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘messiah’ by his followers.
Bill Loader suggests that an easy way out of the dilemma which the narrative poses is to emphasise that Jesus was no threat at all. It was all a terrible misunderstanding. Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom within, nothing to do with the broader political concerns.
We could read Luke that way: forgiveness of individual sins is the goal, offered generously even to his despisers, and even available for ‘criminals. Luke has even removed from his narrative the dangerous suggestions that Jesus may have spoken against the temple, which Mark has reported.
Was Jesus then a messiah, a Christ, of a rather harmless kind, concerned primarily with the inner or other world? Were those who colluded in his execution totally wide of the mark? Was it all a terrible misunderstanding?
Certainly Luke is at pains to emphasise that Jesus was innocent of the charge. He has both Pilate and Herod Antipas say so.
But, as the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire. Something was smouldering in the Jesus movement. Not a military revolution but something that gained a following of a kind that presented a danger to the status quo. It is not possible to make sense of this without recognising that there were indeed elements of potential subversion in the Jesus movement.
Luke presents Jesus from the very beginning as one who is addressing Israel’s hopes of liberation. The songs of the birth narratives are full of it.
Jesus marches into the synagogue to link his mission to Isaiah 61 in 4:16-20. He announces good news to the poor, hungry, those who wept. He asserts and expresses the value of those considered valueless. He gathers people and announces change.
Make no mistake, he is not beginning a school of meditation for personal enrichment or quiet contemplation; nor is he promising a utopia at another time and another place (in some heaven light years away). Rather he is announcing change and upheaval, and embodying it already in himself and in his community.
Dangerous? Certainly not harmless for those with a vested interest in the status quo.
There is one final irony in a narrative that is full of ironies. The king is a gendered expression. But the issue is bigger still. Asserting Christ the king as an image of ethereal splendour with all the trappings of royalty, in word or in song reinforces standard images of greatness as male, might and domination. Asserting Christ the king as a counter image, of a life poured out in compassion in life and even in the midst of the cruelty and corruption which keeps the poor poor, is a subversive declaration. It makes possible a re-vision of what rulers might look like.
To affirm that Jesus is king is to affirm a different kind of kingship. Not a kingship of power and control, nor one which abdicates itself into an inner or other world. But a kingship which spreads a revolution of love and grace and justice.
The crucifixion confronts the norms of power with a new way of being. That was, and continues to be, subversive. It is a challenge to those who seek power for their own purposes rather than using power for the common good.
Luke’s re-telling of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, juxtaposes the power of the Roman Empire and the power of the Christ. He is tortured and executed in a way that is meant to degrade, to deter others from following in Jesus footsteps, from working towards God’s reign on earth.