This passage seems like an odd selection for Christ the King Sunday. Shouldn’t it be part of the readings leading up to Easter. Well yes it should and often is. What has it to do with Christ the King Sunday?
You might remember that the inscription above Jesus’ head said, “This is the King of the Jews.” This was not intended as a statement of fact but sarcasm. It was an act of public shaming for the entire Jewish people. Roman soldiers mocked Jesus; Jerusalem leaders ridiculed him. Jesus wasn’t a “king” in the traditional sense. Just to refresh your memories. The chapter begins with a series of trials, in which Jesus appeared before Pilate, then Herod, and, finally, Pilate again. All the trials proved that Jesus was innocent. The crowds and the Church leadership persisted. Pilate gave in and Jesus was sentenced to death.
Crucifixion was the Romans favourite form of execution. It was a public shaming. Rather like hanging in this country in the middle ages right through to Victorian times. To add insult to injury Jesus was executed between two criminals. The criminals argued over who Jesus was. That disagreement may be the most revealing part the story. In today’s account, only one criminal continued to ridicule Jesus. Taunting him about being the Messiah. “Save yourself and us!” His request, of course, was as selfish as his life probably had been. “Don’t just save yourself; save us as well.” I can understand the attempt to use Jesus’ power as a useful resource for personal gain. Jesus’ response was to say nothing.
The second criminal took a different tack. He recognised the distinction between what they had been guilty of and the innocence of Jesus. He said, “this man has done nothing wrong”
Luke differs from the other Gospel writers in stressing that Jesus was innocent. Pilate found no grounds for the sentence of death. Herod agreed with him. Only the one unnamed criminal recognised the true identity of Jesus as the messiah. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” he said. Jesus replied, “today, you will be with me in Paradise” It’s thought that those are the only truly authentic words spoken by Jesus in this passage. Significant words that acknowledge Jesus’ real identity.
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 Jesus’ clothes were considered disposable. They were distributed by a raffle. Rome took every chance of annoying the Church authorities by putting over Jesus’ head that famous inscription “This is the King of the Jews.” The Romans were organising a public performance. This was their show and if they could embarrass the Jews they were going to enjoy the spectacle even more.
What is interesting about this account in Luke is that there is no reference to blood and gore.
It was not about “blood” despite how the medieval church and that awful film of 2004, The Passion of Christ, imagined the scene. Although Jesus received sufficient abuse throughout the trials, Luke concentrated his story and our attention on the public shaming rather than the individual brutality he would have certainly received.
Perhaps, after all, this is the best passage for Christ the King Sunday. It is a story of the crucified Christ. It is the story of how Rome treated notable people with a public performance of humiliation. Crucifying Jesus between two common criminals was part of that humiliation
What they did not realise was that their action had the opposite effect.
Only those on the edge of the situation actually recognised who Jesus really was. Those people who were considered of less importance. A criminal, rightfully condemned, recognised Jesus’ innocence and begged for mercy. A Roman centurion acknowledged the truth, of what appeared to be a loss, as a victory.
It is a story in which the meaning of Messiah is questioned. It is a story in which Christians throughout the ages have made the same mistake and are still making. Making Jesus into something he never claimed to be. We should ask the question, “What kind of king is this?”
A man who never claimed to be a king. In fact, his whole life showed the opposite. He lived a life of humility. His attitude and actions were driven by love. Love for God and love for the common man.
Given the sort of person that Jesus was leads us to ask a very important question. What kind of church should we be? Does Jesus’ way of life speak to our contemporary situation in a new way? Perhaps the two criminals crucified with Jesus represent two “groups” of people. One, the group containing those who side with the powerful against the innocent. Complaining about those who find it necessary to claim benefits in order to live. Denying seekers of asylum the right to do so. The other group who side with the innocent ones treating them with dignity and as people of worth. Which group would Jesus be in and would you follow him?