Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 22, 1989, p. 1083. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christ rules those who have received the redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness that result from his death on a cross.
"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land" Jer. 23:51.
The Scripture readings (Jer. 23:1-6, Col. 1:13-20, Luke 23:35-43) will not allow us to push Christ’s kingship off to a heavenly fantasy world. They remind us that reconciliation applies to "all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Col. 1:20) The peace of the gospel required a violent and irrational death. Jesus, the image of God in whom the cosmos was created (Col. 1:15-16) , suffered the most degrading punishment reserved for slaves and despised criminals. Patristic commentators on the redemptive death of the Son of God emphasized the need for a sacrifice great enough to atone for the sinfulness of humanity (cf. Col. 1:14) Neither ritual animal sacrifices nor human suffering could achieve this end.
Christ rules those who have received the redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness that result from his death on a cross. We would never expect that one described as the incarnation of divine fullness (Col. 1:19) would enter into his rule by dying like a criminal. The Gospels underscore the irony of Jesus’ crucifixion by describing how he was mocked. Luke rubs the message in by repeating the mockery three times (Luke 23:35-39): the rulers of the people mock the idea of a savior who cannot save himself, the soldiers mock him as a powerless king on the point of death, and one of the criminals crucified with Jesus rails at the anointed of God who cannot save either himself or those dying with him.
We should not be too quick to condemn these mocking voices. People expected that the divinely anointed leaders of the last days would redeem them as God had once redeemed the nation from slavery in Egypt. The promise of a divinely installed shepherd and king from the Davidic line that we read about in Jeremiah 23:1-6 does not point to some other world. It promises that the Jewish exile will end. The people will dwell securely in their land under the leadership of a king whose symbolic name will be "the Lord is our righteousness" (Jer. 23:6) Such a promise undercuts other rulers’ claims to legitimacy or divine support. The rule of justice and peace will not be created by the political configurations of the present age. They have already been condemned by God for destroying what should be protected.
Jeremiah holds the earlier kings of Israel responsible for scattering the people in exile. Luke makes the rulers of the people the first to mock the crucified Jesus. The people are presented as silent witnesses to the scene. Yet their mockery has an ironic quality. When the Roman soldiers, who represent the real power in the land, mock Jesus as king of the Jews, both the people and their leaders are included in the gesture of contempt. Unlike the Jewish leaders and the criminal, the soldiers do not expect Jesus’ act of saving himself to include them. Jesus merely provides the occasion to express their disdain for a weak, conquered people. His execution demonstrates the sovereignty of Rome.
Luke’s version of the crucifixion does not permit the mockery to turn the scene into a piece of political irony. Instead, the evangelist uses a tradition about the repentant criminal to provide a dramatic example of how Jesus in fact becomes savior from the cross. During the trial scene, Pilate repeatedly states that Jesus is innocent. The second criminal also reminds us that Jesus has done nothing to deserve the death he suffers. He then goes beyond the mere recognition that Jesus is an innocent victim (hardly the first or last in human history) to acknowledge Jesus’ kingship, asking that Jesus remember him when he comes into his rule. Jesus is not a failure; he is on the way to becoming king (Acts 2:32-36) The risen Jesus must teach this lesson to his confused disciples (cf. Luke 24:26) The criminal recognizes both the justice of his own sentence and the true possibility for salvation in Jesus. His reward, even greater than the favor requested, is a place with Jesus. "Today you will be with me in Paradise." Is paradise the Magic Kingdom? Not quite. We can only enter Jesus’ kingdom if we shed the flawed, human perceptions of power and rule evident in the beginning of the story and, like the criminal, turn toward the crucified messiah.