Proper 29, Year C, Track 2
Everybody in the scene was doing what they thought was right. Or as parishioner Charlie Russell is fond of saying: “Behavior is always rational to the person performing the behavior.” When you look around the place called “The Skull,” everyone there was acting according what they thought was right and sensible.
The soldiers were just doing their duty. They serve the Roman army. Stationed in this pathetic corner of the Empire, their job is to occupy the region for Rome and to keep the Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome.” Every soldier was to follow orders in order to maintain order in this perpetually rebellious region afflicted with religious zealots and terrorists. The soldiers were professionals, volunteers with hopes for serving a 20-year term and retiring with a generous discharge and incentives to live in communities created especially for the retired military. And on this day, they enjoyed an opportunity to play a game of lots on the chance of acquiring a robe from one of the criminals they were ordered to execute.
The three criminals had been tried by Roman law, a sophisticated legal system so respected that it became a basis for legal practice throughout Western civilization. The criminal hanging in the middle had entered Jerusalem earlier that week in a procession matching the prophetic expectations for a future Jewish Messiah-King. Jews hoped that God would send an anointed leader who would expel the occupiers from their homeland and establish an eternal rule of justice and security for their people. Rome was sensitive to any purported messianic activity. Caesar had no patience with challengers, so Pontus Pilate publically executed this “King of the Jews” to show what happens to anyone with messianic hopes.
Jewish leaders had to be sensitive to Rome’s sensitivities. Jesus had become a problem for them. Jesus had attacked the Jerusalem Temple, interfering with their lucrative business interests administering the sacrifices. The Temple had a profitable monopoly on divine forgiveness. But Jesus taught that God freely forgave anyone just for the asking. And he overturned the tables of the money changers. And he acted in some ways that drew attention to him as a possible Messiah.
After the rumor that Jesus had raised a dead man back to life they called a council meeting. “Let him go on like this,” someone said, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48) The High Priest Caiaphas made the sensible political calculation. Indeed, it is better for “one man” to die than for the “whole nation to be destroyed.” (11:50) Their job was to protect their faith, their culture and their people. They made a rational, reasonable choice.
They didn’t have too hard a time manipulating popular opinion to be cooperative. The crowds on the previous Sunday crowds had hailed Jesus as the coming Messiah. But then he didn’t raise an army or do anything the things ordinary people expected a Messiah to do. So it was pretty easy to turn the public against this pitiful, weak, passive Messiah. Better to favor a real tough guy like Barabbas. So the crowd cried “Crucify him,” and now they could watch the public spectacle, like our ancestors used to watch public hangings. And, who knows. What if he is the Messiah? Now he can prove it. Just come down from the cross and defeat the Romans. Otherwise, he’s only another fake. So, let’s watch to see what happens.
The officials believed that public execution is a deterrent to crime: Look! This is what will happen to you if you follow this criminal’s path. It is likely that the other two executed with Jesus were also involved in some form of rebellious activity. In those days there were underground bands of Jewish freedom fighters who looked for opportunities to attack unwary Romans or to assassinate their Jewish collaborators in the Name of God. They were called zealots or bandits or sicarii or terrorists. Or patriots or freedom fighters or holy warriors. Rome dealt with them decisively.
So we have this story in today’s gospel, where one of the dying men, hoping against hope, joins the mood of the crowd. Go ahead, Messiah. “Save yourself and us!” But the other dying criminal seems to be a man of empathy. Leave him alone; we’re all dying here. We knew the risk, and we chose our path. But this man doesn’t deserve it, he says.
Then this unnamed criminal speaks simply to his dying companion. “Jesus,” he says. The only person in the New Testament to address Jesus directly and intimately by his first name. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a gentle word of compassion. Jesus tells him gently, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Everybody in the scene is doing the best they can. They are all doing what they think is right. Behavior is always rational to the person performing the behavior.
But this is a scene of colossal wrong. Jesus is innocent. He’s done nothing but love. His entire life has been a life of healing, compassion and love. Yet, the best legal system in the world and the best religious system in the world fail miserably. Our human structures fail us. And every person in this scene has rationalized and justified their participation in this violent miscarriage of justice.
So how does Jesus respond? With his dying prayer, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And I believe that God answers Jesus’ prayer from the cross. God forgives them all. God forgives us all.
On the cross, we see God in Jesus absorbing all of the structural, systemic evil in the world, and returning only love. On the cross, we see God in Jesus absorbing all of the personal human wrong and failure and pain and evil in the world, returning only love. This is the creative energy of God breaking the vicious circles of wrongs, overcoming our broken human condition with love, forgiveness and new life through resurrection. It is the only way out of this mess.
The challenge for us is to live in this new reality. Looking with compassion upon today’s Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, today’s soldiers and crowds, today’s religious and criminals, today’s broken systems and people, and to pray with Jesus, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” None of us really know what we are doing. And yet, we are forgiven for not knowing what we are doing.
We’re all dying here. Nobody gets out of this mess alive. So can’t we be a little like that other criminal? Can’t we look at our dying fellow human beings with just a bit of compassion and empathy? A little bit of gentleness and empathy can open the door to Paradise.
Father, forgive us; we don’t know what we’re doing. Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.
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