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.’
On Christ the Ruler Sunday, we are invited to contemplate the nature of leadership. After his arrest, Jesus went before Pontius Pilate and then he stood before king Herod. Neither wanted responsibility for Jesus’ death. They literally and figuratively washed their hands of him. Jesus was a popular preacher, teacher, and healer. They knew that if they were responsible, the crowds might threaten their power. And so they manipulated the system to accrue more power, wealth, and prestige. These rulers, like so many before and after them saw power as something to be protected, and people as a means to an end. They focused on maintaining their power, not using it as a way to serve the people.
And now, we see Jesus. Upon the cross—lifted up as a message to other would-be-messiahs, “If you mess with the status quo, if you try to threaten those in power, this will be the result.” On his cross, Jesus cries out to God for mercy, because those around him do not know what they are doing. Jesus does not call upon his God to rescue him and smite the wicked—he asks his loving parent—our loving parent—to forgive those who persecuted him.
I don’t know about you, but when I read this, I can’t imagine Jesus was stoic and dignified—like the hero of some Greek tragedy bravely facing his fate… Instead, I hear agony, desperation, and anger.
And yet, even as he is struggling with every last breath, fighting for each precious word, Jesus uses those last words, those fleeting breaths, to serve others. In these last moments Jesus continued to serve—interceding on behalf of his murderers and comforting a dying human being who just so happened to be a petty criminal.
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