Good Friday: The Seven Last Words
The First Word
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
One of my friends, a member of my former church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Bob was on a group text thread with his cross-country and track runners as they fled.
Bob messaged me the night of the shooting to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery. He asked me to pray for them. He asked me to add them to the church’s prayer list. “Pray for Maddie,” he texted, “she has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.”
I saw the text bubbles bounce on the screen of my iPhone as Bob typed more I couldn’t see until it came all at once:
“I’m not in denial or shock. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did. Don’t talk to me about forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t enough. How does forgiveness make this right? There has to be a cost. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Just before the soldiers strip him naked and shoot dice for his clothes, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
We of course believe such a prayer for the Father’s forgiveness sounds like something Jesus would pray to the Father; after all, we take Jesus to be so patient and kind a teacher of love that, if we’re honest, we’re not sure why anyone wanted to kill Jesus.
Yet our presumptions about Jesus don’t square with what Jesus says immediately before Jesus prays “Father, forgive them for they not what they’re doing.”
On his way to be crucified at the place called The Skull, Jesus turns around to face the crowds who taunt him from behind.
Don’t forget— this happened on the sabbath, on a passover weekend.
Like Americans who took picnic baskets to watch the slaughter of Civil War battles, these crowds who mock him have chosen to spend their holiday by turning his torture into an entertainment.
And Jesus unloads on them in a way that sounds unlike the Jesus we think we know:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore.””
Blessed will be the barren— Jesus’ words are uncharacteristically harsh, especially so if Jesus is right that they know not what they are doing.
But is Jesus right to impute ignorance to them?
It certainly seems like they knew what they were doing.
And Judas and Peter too.
Ditto the clergy and the soldiers and Pontius Pilate— if Pilate didn’t know what he was doing, then why did he wash his hands of the whole affair?
No matter what Jesus says from the cross, they all know precisely what they’re doing; for that matter, that they all know what they’re doing— that is, the fact that their sin is not unwitting sin— is precisely why Jesus is on the cross.
This is important—
All those obscure sacrifice rituals prescribed to Israel in Leviticus and Numbers, all those passages that frustrate every sincere effort to read the Bible cover to cover— if you ever get through them all, you might notice the attribute that holds them in common.
All those sacrifices in the Old Testament were given for Israel to atone for unintended sin. The only atonement mechanism available in the Old Testament was for the sin you did when you didn’t know what you were doing.
There is no sacrifice in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. There is no mechanism in the Old Testament for the forgiveness of sin when you knew exactly what you were doing.
There is no sacrifice that makes atonement for deliberate sin.
This is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews means when it describes Christ’s cross as the sacrifice for sin, once for all. For unwitting sin and for willful sin. This is the shock of the Apostle Paul’s announcement that while we were yet (willful) sinners Christ died for us.
For the ungodly, Paul preaches.
A sacrifice for the sin you sinned when you knew exactly what you were doing.
So it matters not whether Jesus is right or wrong about them knowing not what they do, for he himself is the final form of forgiveness for all wrong, witting and unwitting.
Those like my friend Bob are right. There is indeed a cost to be paid for the wrong we wreak in the world. The God who says “vengeance is mine” bears that cost in his body, turning the other cheek all the way to a cross.
It matters not if the people for whom Jesus prays knew or knew not what they were doing.
The matter that matters is what the Father is doing in Jesus, for the Jesus who prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is the Father’s prayer for the world.
Jesus is the Father’s prayer for the world.
And the people formed by him who is the Father’s prayer, the people that God puts into the world to be shaped patiently by his forgiveness and peace, they are God’s answer to the prayers of people like Bob, crying out for the wrong we wreak to be made right.
That is to say—
God’s justice is Jesus.
The Second Word
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of an abbey in Algeria. After the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor.
Anticipating his murder— he was beheaded by radicals in 1996– Christian left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death.
His letter is a moving sacrament to our faith, which he concludes by addressing his would-be executioner:
“And to you too, my dear friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ ‘[go with God] in whose image you too are made. May you and I meet in the kingdom of heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our Father. Amen! Insha Allah!”
If Christian de Cherge expresses hope that he’ll meet his murderer in paradise, the two of them thick as thieves by God’s grace, we likely judge it a beautiful gesture of faith.
If the murderer asks the monk “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” and if the latter promises the former “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise—my Paradise” how would we judge the exchange?
Likely, we’d think the criminal a fool, asking a rabbi for what’s not his to grant, and I suspect we’d say worse about the rabbi making promises upon which only God can deliver upon.
We’d chalk both of them up as crazy, foolish heretics.
Both Luke and John, who give us this second word from the cross, would want us to hear the irony in the exchange.
Jesus is nailed to a tree, not only helpless but, according to God’s own Law, godforsaken (which is why all his friends abandon him), and yet— the makeshift sign above his head has him right— he reigns from his cross as a King, granting admission to his Kingdom to…who exactly?
Most translations say that Jesus dies alongside two “common criminals” but, in Luke, Pilate tells you all you need to know.
The two crucified with Jesus— and so, presumably Jesus also— have been convicted of “perverting the people,” the term used by Pilate for insurrectionists.
The two crucified with Jesus are zealots, activists who believed the Kingdom of God could be achieved by arms, making it all the more ironic that the unmerited admission they receive into that Kingdom comes from Jesus, the King who takes up a cross rather than a sword.
Though Luke would have us understand the revolutionary at Christ’s side as having been unfaithful in much, here he is faithful in more: “Jesus,” he asks, “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
Only a Jew schooled in the psalms would know to ask that question of the crucified Jesus. Such a Jew schooled in the psalms would know also the problematic nature of a cross-bearing King.
Like Paul, such a Jew would recall that according to the Mosaic Law crucifixion identified the crucified as accursed by God— this is why his own disciples have all abandoned him.
They’ve done so not because they believe his Kingdom mission ended in failure; they’ve done so because they believe by their own scriptures that his Kingdom mission has ended in godforsakeness.
This is why the two disciples on their way home to Emmaus— two disciples who, Luke makes sure to tell us, have heard the Easter news— don’t hasten to his empty grave.
Resurrection or not, they’re too godfearing to have anything to do with a crucified King.
And this is why the Risen Jesus, when he encounters them incognito on the way to Emmaus, must re-teach them the entire Bible. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke tells, “Jesus taught to them the things about himself in all of the scriptures.”
“Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?”
Knowing what this Jew knows of the Bible, about the accursed nature of crucifixion, this is something more than a foolish request.
The question only makes sense if Jesus can fulfill such a request.
This thief beside him can already see what those two on the road to Emmaus require the Risen Christ to reveal.
The crucified Jesus is the promised one to redeem Israel and through Israel, the world.
This thief, schooled as he is to look past the cross to discover the King, likely would know he’s not put the question precisely right by asking Jesus “Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?”
Such a Jew would know the Kingdom of God is not a place— a point Jesus has attempted to make in parable after parable.
The Kingdom of God is not a where but a who. The Kingdom of God is not a place but a person. Of course, this is why Jesus can grant his request.
The crucified Christ is not only the King.
The crucified Christ is the Kingdom. “I am the Resurrection and the Life [eternal]” he tells his friend’s grief-stricken sister. Jesus is paradise.
This happy thief beside Jesus has already received the answer to his prayer.
The Third Word
“Woman, behold thy son!
When first she learned of God’s mercy made flesh in her belly, ex nihilo, Mary erupts into song:
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.”
Every line of Mary’s song is laden with the scripture Mary would’ve learned as a girl.
She sings not because God has given her a child but she sings because of what that child will mean. She praises God for cracking open the heavens and pouring out justice upon a world thirsty for it.
She extols the Father for the Son, her son, will be the One to relieve the proud and powerful of their swelled self-importance and he will be the One to fill the poor with more than money can buy.
It’s a dangerous song.
It’s a seditious song.
It’s a cry from the bottom of the social ladder.
Except when Mary hears the news that she is to be a Second Eve bearing the New Adam, Mary takes all the future-tense “wills” of her Bible and she puts them in the past perfect tense for her song.
She takes all the promises from her scripture and sings of them as though they were as good as done.
She takes the hopes of her people and sings of them as having already been accomplished: “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.”
To sing such a song spontaneously can only mean that someone taught Mary the song— Hannah’s song— making it likely that Mary taught Jesus to sing too “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.”
But now his disciples have all scatteed and Mary is brought low, watching as her boy is lifted up on a cross to be emptied and sent away from this world by the proud and the powerful still in their thrones.
Mary watches as they fill his hungry mouth not with good things but gall. “He has shown strength with his arm,” Mary had sang, but now she watches as they break his bones to quicken his death because the passover sabbath is hastening.
When he was twelve, she’d lost her boy on the journey home after they’d celebrated the passover in Jerusalem.
She loses him again in Jerusalem during the passover.
Only, this passover Mary’s firstborn son is the lamb.
The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is taken away from her by the sins of the world.
The blood of the passover lamb is sprinkled not on the doorpost but on a cross.
The passover script always begins with the children asking the parents “What does this mean?” but now Mary likely is the one asking that question of the Father.
“What’s the meaning of this!?”
Unlike Isaac for Sarah, there’s no ram hidden in a bush.
The Father who is the Son does not spare himself the sacrifice.
Standing there amidst the mob, hearing him cry out that God’s forsaken him and beholding him naked and bleeding from having told Caiphas and Pilate and all the priests and Pharisee that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority— as she beholds him, I imagine Mary wishes she’d never taught the Son to sing “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts/he has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.”
The Fourth Word
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Fill in the blanks:
If I say “The Lord is my shepherd…”
If I say “Yea though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”
What do you say next?
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and…”
Almost everyone knows the twenty-third psalm by heart. It’s like “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.
You hear it everywhere— certainly almost every time someone dies.
So what would Mark have us make of this line from Psalm 22 when Jesus dies “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Does Jesus stop believing on the cross?
Or rather, does his cry of anguish suggest that Jesus believes God has abandoned him?
You know the twenty-third psalm from memory because you’ve had occassion to hear it and recite it over and over again.
But what if I told you that, as Jews, the audience gathered at Golgotha would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory.
As Jews, they would’ve sung the psalms, working their way in order, a minimum of three times a day. The psalms were an integral part of the daily office. The psalms were taught to children, orally, from before the children could form for themselves the harsh consonants of Hebrew.
The Jews at the foot of his cross would’ve recognized the psalter’s line about godforsakeness. They would’ve known the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
They would’ve known “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line from the twenty-second psalm.
And they would’ve known the next line of the psalm sings: “Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
Christians typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness to proof-text an interpretation of Christ’s substitutionary death as penal; that is, we hear this verse of song as suggesting that our sin must be particularly serious and the Father’s wrath especially serious for the Son to suffer even the suffering of complete godforsakeness.
God has abandoned Jesus, we conclude, just as God would abandon sinful were it not for Jesus, the vicarious sinner.
Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word, we imagine, he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners.
But as all the Jews who heard Jesus would surely know “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s twenty-second psalm. They could’ve sung the rest of Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday.
Jesus’ listeners would’ve known this psalm which begins with godforsakeness ends—it builds towards is more like it— on a different note entirely.
The psalm that begins with an anguished cry of godabandonment concludes with confidence in God’s vindication:
“You who fear the Lord, praise him!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is not Christ’s final cry from the depths of a suffering we sinners deserve.
It is the first line of Christ’s faithful affirmation that Death is being defeated, and that his faithful life unto death— even death on a cross— will be vindicated.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s not hell made audible.
It’s an overture to Easter.
The Fifth Word
The first bedside where I ever sat watch and waited for death to take someone: it was at a hospital outside of Philadelphia.
I was just a student pastor at the time.
All I knew of death came from books.
He was an old man. His name was on the church roll, but he’d never really been a part of the congregation. I hadn’t even met him before. I didn’t know what I was doing.
I was prepared for all sorts of highbrow, wide-ranging philosophical conversations about life after death. The way I had imagined it in the car— it would be something like Tuesdays with Morrie but with a little Kierkegaard and John 14 thrown in for good measure.
I didn’t know enough to know that discussions like those are for the living.
The dying, literally, can’t waste their breath on speculation.
I sat next to him in his hospital room for what felt like hours and I held the cold, translucent skin of his hand in mine.
In the hours I kept vigil with him all he ever had the strength to say was: ‘I’m thirsty.’
So instead of giving him my wisdom on eternal life, I gave him some water.
Instead of offering absolution, or even a prayer, I offered him a drink- with a pink sponge at the end of a white, plastic straw on cracked dry lips that barely had the strength to open.
“God I’m thirsty,” he said in a rasp that rattled out from somewhere hollow in his chest. “I’m so thirsty.”
In the garden last night, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew a sword, hoping to resist them.
And Jesus rebuked Peter: “The cup the Father has given me,” says Jesus, “am I not to drink it?”
Now, on the cross, Jesus says he wants a drink. And he says it, John tells us, “to fulfill scripture.” But, which scripture exactly?
Jesus intends to fulfill Psalm 69.
Psalm 69 is a poem for all those who suffer unjustly, and in the twenty-first verse of the Psalm the poet writes: “…for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink…’
It’s Psalm 22 again that Jesus fulfills. That same Psalm laments “I am poured out like water/my mouth is dried up like clay/and my tongue sticks to my jaws/you lay me in the dust of death.”
Of course, the answer is all of the above.
Jesus intends to fulfill all of it. Not just Psalm 69 or 22 or 42 or 102.
But all of it. All of it from Genesis to Golgotha, from “Let there be light” to “Let not your hearts be troubled. And everything in between.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.”
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
The blood of Jesus, says Luke, “makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.”
And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was “destined since before the foundation of the world.”
The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross.
When Jesus says “I thirst” everything God has ever intended is at last coming together.
It’s just two words: I, thirst.
But it’s everything.
And it CLAIMS everything.
I spent a year working as a chaplain at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. Altogether there were probably ten or so chaplains, and we all came from different traditions.
In our training, we were told the policy of the chaplaincy department was that we must never impose our personal religious beliefs on a patient. Actually, we weren’t even encouraged to share our beliefs with patients. Instead we were expected to practice a “ministry of presence.”
Not until you’re older and know what you’re doing do you realize that such a ministry of presence is what Stanley Hauerwas means when he says “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”
As chaplains we were expected to treat faith as something that was only useful.
We were not expected to treat faith as something that might be true.
Every week or so I had to work an overnight shift as the on-call chaplain.
I remember one night. It was well-past midnight and my pager summoned me to the CCU: a man in his sixties had suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. When I arrived at his room, he was unconscious and surrounded by beeping monitors.
His wife was sitting next to him. Just like I’d been trained, I offered comfort. I empathized. I asked open-ended questions, and I helped her process the swell of emotions she was experiencing.
She had an insistent sort of Southern accent. And I remember how she said she wasn’t afraid of her husband dying. She didn’t want him to suffer and, sure, she wanted more time with him, but that she wasn’t afraid of him dying.
And like a good chaplain, I asked her what she meant.
She explained how Jesus’ death on the cross had defeated Death so even if her husband couldn’t be with her, she knew he’d be with God.
Like a good chaplain, I said: “Is that what’s true for you?”
And she looked up at me and sort of raised her eyebrow and said: “True for me? Son, the way I see it— the Gospel’s like gravity. It’s true for all or it’s true not at all.”
With Jesus’ “I thirst,” John wants to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. For the healing of the world.
The cross lays some uncomfortable claims on us.
You see— if the Gospel is true— it’s not simply true for me or true for you.
It’s the true story about the world and everybody in the world.
It’s the truth that from before creation began the heart of God has been bent towards the cross and that in Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross we witness as much of God as there is ever to see.
Of course, the rub is that if the non-violent love of Christ reveals the grain of the universe, then there is no way we can truthfully resort to coercion to convince others of that truth.
The Sixth Word
“It is finished.”
It’s important that Jesus announces “It is finished” in the Gospel of John, for its in that Gospel that John litters the story of Jesus’ passion on passover to allusions to another holy day, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
According to the instructions God gives to Moses in the Book of Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the high priest who represents all of God’s people. After the minutiae of necessary preparation, the high priest is brought two goats.
Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done.
One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple— the Father’s house— of sin.
The second goat is brought to him alive.
The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel.
The priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on the goat.
And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness.The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death.
Yom Kippur isn’t about God wanting to punish you for your sin. Yom Kippur is about God wanting to remove your sin.
The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry God. It’s about God removing that which separates us from God.
While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.
When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness.
So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel.
Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job.
That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin. The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’
Ahzahzel means “taking away.”
The Gentile would lead the scapegoat into exile while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’
Take it away. Take our sin away.
John’s Gospel places Jesus’ death on the passover— that’s why there’s no last supper in John’s Gospel, for Jesus is the passover lamb.
But it’s not as simple as that.
John’s Gospel tells you the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement.
The Gospel shows you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom? The high priest.
The Gospel shows you the high priests accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when, in reality, all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him.
The Gospel shows you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating this “King of the Jews.” Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it.
The Gospel tells you that the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd. And Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus? What do the crowds shout? Not “Crucify him!” Not at first.
First, the crowds shout “Take him away!”
Then they shout “Crucify him!”
And then he’s led away, like an animal, to Golgotha, a godforsaken garbage dump.
John’s Gospel tell you its Passover, but what John shows you isn’t just a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat, one who, as John the Baptist said, ahzahzels the sins of the world.
Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness the red cord that had been tied around the goat was taken off.
And the cord was hung on the altar in the temple where, over the next year, Jewish tradition says the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin.
However, according to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white. The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah.
According to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat. The whole process of atonement stopped working.
It was no longer effective, says the Talmud.
70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD.
In other words….
Around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted ‘ahzahzel’ the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai- stopped working.
Says the Talmud.
Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly.
Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all.
There’s a reason you don’t see any goats around here— it is finished.
The Seventh Word
“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”
“And having said this,” Luke concludes for us, “Jesus breathed his last.”
Or, as the King James Version puts it: “Having said thus, Jesus gave up the ghost.”
Just as it sounds odd to hear that in her belly Mary bore the Maker of Heaven and Earth, it should strike us as every bit as odd to hear that Jesus Christ is dead.
John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that no one can see the Father apart from the Son, which means when Jesus is dead, God is as good as gone.
Jesus has told us that he alone is the way, the truth, and the life— that no one can come to the Father except by the Son— but now his way has led him to a cross.
His way has been done away by the way of the world.
God is dead.
Elected over Barabbas, Jesus becomes the persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Giving up his spirit, Jesus becomes the poor in spirit.
Dying on a cross, Jesus becomes the Beautitudes.
The Beautitudes are Jesus.
And we are the antitheses.
In all our theologizing about the story, we conveniently forget— Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.
And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world.
The people who get Jesus to give up the ghost— Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem— they were all from the best of society not the worst.
And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. Even the chief priests’ reasoning, if we admit it, is right: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…”
That’s a perfectly rational position.
It’s the position around which we’ve ordered the way of the world.
The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves.
But in the end, what Luke gives us is different, plainer and more troubling.
Luke gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us.
The theologians give us theories about why Jesus had to die, but Luke just leaves us with Jesus giving up the ghost and wondering if the cross is the best we can do?
Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to push him out of the world on a cross?
Luke gives us the painful irony—
Those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in.
And I think that is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail.
They make the cross seem almost reasonable.
They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin.
Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God.
They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are.
That’s why the crowds are always smaller on Good Friday.
We don’t want to confront the truth that, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. When the Living God comes close inevitably we defend ourselves. Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross.
We leave in silence on Good Friday because there’s not yet any good news here.
There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this:
A confrontation with God— a God who wills only to be gracious— that ends with Jesus dead.
The Gospels leave us with the bitter irony that the only person who can touch us and heal us and forgive us and make us whole is dead.
Forsaken and shut up in a tomb.
Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.