Saturday, July 4, 2009

This is the King of the Jews

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

- Luke 23:32-43

Symbolically powerful, Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Even at this place of death, the place of the Skull, there are two different perspectives about Jesus. One criminal derides and mocks him, the other understands that Jesus has done nothing wrong, and asks to be remembered in his kingdom. Perhaps Jesus is always there suspended between us, we always have the choice: do we deride and mock, or do we take seriously what we understand to be true? Do we ask to be remembered in the kingdom, or do we simply scoff as we ourselves suffer in a world of pain and death?

This scene is inexpressibly sad and grim in its pathos. If we think of a view of the scene from above, the three crosses on this hill called Calvary, the place of the Skull, we are looking at a scene of execution. "Calvary" comes from the Latin word for skull; in Greek the word for this place means "skull." I read in commentary that either the hill was shaped like a skull or it was a symbol for death. But I think of the dry bones, without the water of Spirit, a symbol for the hopeless. We may stand in this place, but our Lord is here with us, and - like the criminals on either side of him - we always have a choice. He is here with us in whatever dark time or place we experience, and offers us a choice. Jesus will remember the thief in his kingdom; and we always have the choice to remember Jesus. His prayer, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ is a reminder to us that even in this place of death, his mercy is with us! Love is always with us in the profoundest place of darkness. Whether this prayer is meant to convey that none of these actors in the scene understands the profound spiritual implications of what they are doing, or it's directed at the executioners doing a job who know nothing of him, I really can't say - although I believe it is a prayer of mercy ever-present to all. There will always be things we don't understand; spiritual growth is a measure of what we come to understand, and our responsibility grows with such understanding.

The leaders and the soldiers mock Jesus, and deride his seemingly powerless condition. I read in commentary that it is highly unlikely that any of the people would do so to one of their own who was being executed by the Romans. I find it profoundly moving that one of the prisoners being executed understands what is happening as a great injustice; he asks for mercy and even as he is being put to death, our Lord is thinking of his job and the salvation offered to the one who asks for it. Again, according to commentary, this repentant criminal will be the first one to enter Paradise. It is fitting, then, that this is our great symbolic reality of the place of crucifixion. In some sense, we are all there with him, the world offers us nails, we are none of us perfect. The two other prisoners on either side of him are equals, but one chooses to use his awareness and depth of understanding, and asks to be remembered. This makes all the difference.

So, even in this place of sadness and death, there is remarkable mercy and compassion. There is life, there is salvation. This tremendous drama, to which we are all onlookers, will be with us always. And the love expressed in these moments is forever with us. We all simply make our choices in this drama of profound depth, and banal evil, with so much going on side by side. Our Lord suffers his death with us, bears our pains with us, and the sign hangs upon the cross "This is the King of the Jews". He offers us all that he is, even unto death. How do we respond?

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