Christ the King
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24 November 2019
Luke 23:35 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!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Luke 23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The account of Jesus’ death in all four Gospels is fundamentally the same and yet different according to the understanding being promoted by each writer. (The last words of Jesus in each Gospel would illustrate this variety.) In the third Gospel, the death of Jesus is portrayed as that of a prophet-martyr, consistent with the presentation of the figure of Jesus throughout the Gospel and the Acts. The story of the Good Thief is unique to Luke and offers a great insight into his theology of the cross. This is highly paradoxical kingship, of course. God now rules through the vulnerability of Jesus. Vv. 32-34 are included for context.
Kind of writing
Once more, this is a chreia, an anecdote designed to disclose some essential aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry. Being at the very centre of the story of Jesus, these verses carry special significance.
Old Testament background
In the Hebrew Bible, there isn’t very much about a future Messiah. However, Psalms 2 and 110 were taken to refer to God’s anointed (see Acts 2:29–36 and Luke 20:42-43).
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed (= literally messiah), saying, I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. (Psalms 2:2, 7)
The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your foes (Psalms 110:1–2)
New Testament foreground
“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:29–36)
On the innocence of Jesus
Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” (Luke 23:4) Cf. Lk 23:22.
Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. (Luke 23:15) Cf. Luke 23:47.
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Corinthians 1:21–25)
Verse 35 In v. 35 the people watch and in v. 49 Jesus’ acquaintances watch. Luke invites his readers likewise to contemplate the saving events. The leaders play a role in the death of Jesus (Luke 23:13, 35; 24:20). Scoffing came up earlier in 16:14.
In our verses, the word save as verb and noun is passed from mouth to mouth in an almost profligate fashion. The word group “save, salvation and saviour” is at the heart of Luke’s proclamation. Save (Luke 6:9; 7:50; 8:12, 36, 48, 50; 9:24; 13:23; 17:19; 18:26, 42; 19:10; 23:35, 37, 39; Acts 2:21, 40, 47; 4:9, 12; 11:14; 14:9; 15:1, 11; 16:30–31; 27:20, 31); salvation (Luke 1:69, 71, 77; 19:9; Acts 4:12; 7:25; 13:26, 47; 16:17; 27:34); saviour (Luke 1:47; 2:11; Acts 5:31; 13:23).
The invitation to save himself echoes both the temptation narrative (Luke 4:9-13) and the scene in Nazareth at the start of this Gospel (He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’ [Luke 4:23]). Finally, the mocking ironically underscores important dimensions for believers, that is God’s Messiah (Luke 2:11, 26; 3:15; 4:41; 9:20; 20:41; 22:67; 23:2, 35, 39; 24:26, 46; Acts 2:31, 36; 3:18, 20; 4:26; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), his chosen one (9:35 at the Transfiguration).
Verse 36 Sour wine in Matthew and Mark is linked to Elijah. However, in Luke’s theology, Elijah has already left the stage at the Transfiguration. Hence, the wine is reduced to being part of the mocking.
Verse 37 Again, ironically, the soldiers proclaim the true identity of Jesus. He is indeed the King of the Jews and he will save not himself but all of humankind.
Verse 38 In the same vein, the notice underlines Jesus’ kingship. The notice itself is primarily political. For the Romans to pay attention, it had been necessary to “convert” an essential religious charge into a political one. Always sensitive to unrest, the Romans took the bait. Cf. But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
Verse 39 This story expands a comment in Mark and Matthew that those crucified with him also derided him. The following scene and dialogue with the Good Thief are found only in Luke’s Gospel, profiling sin, exclusion and conversion.
Verse 40 Fear, in the Bible, usually means not fright but religious awe. The Good Thief implies that the mockers are not on the side of God and calls his companion to a true estimate. The Good Thief is the last in a line of disreputable characters in Luke’s Gospel who paradoxically proclaim the Good News. There’s hope for us all…
Verse 41 A moving and compelling theme in Luke’s telling of the crucifixion is the innocence of Jesus, which is attested by a wide range of figures: Herod Agrippa, Pilate, the women of Jerusalem, Jesus himself, the Good Thief and the centurion (his words are changed to “Certainly this man was innocent”). So, Luke will have us ask, why did this man die? The Good Thief does not at all protest his own innocence.
Verse 42-43 The gospels try to bring the death and resurrection close together. Matthew does this by means of opening the graves(!). John achieves it by calling the death the “lifting up”, which includes resurrection. Luke’s approach is by means of a promise of paradise made before the death of Jesus himself. For this anticipation before death, compare: But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55–57). As often noted, the “today” of salvation is part of Luke’s theology, even from the very start. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11). Compare: Luke 2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 12:28; 13:32–33; 19:5, 9; 22:34, 61; 23:43.
Pointers for prayer
1. Today’s feast puts before us Jesus who never used power to his own advantage. Whom have you known who used power for the benefit of others rather than for their own self-interest? When have you used power in this way?
2. The power of God is shown in an unexpected way in the Crucifixion, not in a wonderful display of spectacular dominance, but in Jesus sharing our human weakness. When has the honesty of another sharing his/her human vulnerability with you had a powerful effect? When has your honesty in that way had a positive effect on another?
3. Jesus is an example of someone in apparent helplessness. It was his trust in the love of God with him that helped him through. It was only later with the hindsight of the resurrection that the moment of helplessness could be seen as one in which the power of God was present. Have you had experiences on which you can look back now and see that the power of God was at work in your moments of helplessness?
4. The scene also puts before us the liberating power of forgiveness. The forgiveness of Jesus brought new life to the criminal hanging on the cross with him. When have you found that forgiveness given, or received, was a source of new life for yourself or for others?
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you gave us your Son, the beloved one who was rejected, the Saviour who appeared defeated.
Yet the mystery of his kingship illumines our lives. Show us in his death the victory that crowns the ages, and in his broken body the love that unites heaven and earth.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen
Thought for the day
In A. A. Milne, we read the following scrap of dialogue:
“What day is it?” It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favourite day,” said Pooh.
Today has to be our favourite day because it is the only day we’ll ever have. As St Augustine alarmingly noticed, the past is over, the future is not yet and the present, fleeting moment is the future becoming the past. And yet, this flying time is our “today of salvation,” a day like no other, not to be repeated. See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2) The pulse of life is the heartbeat of God.
In this present moment, Lord, help us to put our fingers on the pulse of life, living fully life in abundance. Amen.