Lenten Lectio: Reflection for Good Friday

Vere, hic homo iustus erat (Luke 23:47) by Salvador Dali, 1967.

Vere, hic homo iustus erat (Luke 23:47) by Salvador Dali, 1967.

Good Friday must be one of the weirdest days for those who are not Christian. Watching Christian’s celebrate the violent and unjust crucifixion of Jesus has to be a bit mind bending. It’s natural for Christians because we typically have an eye towards Easter, but sometimes I think it’s good to sit on the uncomfortable nature of Good Friday. It’s important to understand the feelings of the disciples as all their hopes are nailed to a cross and seem to expire as Jesus breathes his last. We would do well to feel the unjust and unfair nature of the violent death of Jesus from Nazareth. Let’s look at one of the scenes from the crucifixion narrative in the Gospel of John.

When Pilate heard this word, he was even more afraid. He went back into the residence and spoke to Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus didn’t answer. So Pilate said, “You won’t speak to me? Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and also to crucify you?”
Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above. That’s why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.” From that moment on, Pilate wanted to release Jesus.
However, the Jewish leaders cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!”
When Pilate heard these words, he led Jesus out and seated him on the judge’s bench at the place called Stone Pavement (in Aramaic, Gabbatha). It was about noon on the Preparation Day for the Passover. Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, “Here’s your king.”
The Jewish leaders cried out, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
Pilate responded, “What? Do you want me to crucify your king?”
“We have no king except the emperor,” the chief priests answered. Then Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. The soldiers took Jesus prisoner. Carrying his cross by himself, he went out to a place called Skull Place (in Aramaic, Golgotha). That’s where they crucified him—and two others with him, one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a public notice written and posted on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Therefore, the Jewish chief priests complained to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews’ but ‘This man said, “I am the king of the Jews.”’”
Pilate answered, “What I’ve written, I’ve written.”
John 19:8-19 (CEB)

The bizarre and unjust nature of Jesus’ crucifixion is put on full display here. Pilate does not really want to crucify Jesus because he’s not exactly sure what he would crucify him for. The rowdy crowd outside is demanding crucifixion and Pilate is only pushed to sentence Jesus when presented with the questions of Jesus kingship and Pilate’s allegiance to the emperor/Caesar. Pilate, whether as a dig to the Jews or as a larger statement against resistance to Rome, places a sign above Jesus that reads, “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews,” written in Aramaic (local language), Latin (official Roman language) and Greek (dominant language) so everyone could read and see. By putting up this sign, Pilate becomes a sort of unwitting prophet. He has identified two very distinct issues that I think the crucifixion story is asking us to wrestle with.

On one level, it reveals that the earthly expectations of a powerful king (ala Caesar) only leads to death as an exercise of power. When the Jews exclaim, “We have no king except the emperor” they reveal a bit of their expectations about the Messiah they were wanting. A powerful, possibly militaristic, but revolutionary type Messiah who would throw off the Romans and help reinstate right worship in the Temple and restore the Kingdom of Israel to a King David level of unity. If you have a Bible that includes the books of Maccabees you might go read them to get a picture of the Messiah they were expecting. What’s at issue though is that type of Messiah, King and leader they had in mind. What the cross reveals is that type of leader leads to death. The powerful and militaristic exercise their authority and ensure their continued control through threat of violence, death and destruction. Jesus hung on the cross because he was a threat to the powers in control at the time. For the Romans he was a threat to the stability of Judea and to their methods for maintaining unity and “peace” in the Roman empire. There would have been no Pax Romana if Rome did not have their strong legions to patrol and suppress rebellions. This is more fully understood in light of the Jewish Revolt that ended in the Roman siege of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple and many people being taken into slavery. For the Jews, Jesus was a threat because at almost every turn he challenged the authority of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, et al. His “upside down” vision of the world as displayed in the Beatitudes did not fit their expectations or support their authority so he had to be eliminated.

On the other side, Jesus death as “king of the Jews” reveals the true injustice and impotence behind the power and authority of Rome and the Jewish authorities as exercised in Jesus crucifixion. The true kingship that Jesus came to demonstrate (but was rejected for) was not known by it’s violence but by grace, mercy, forgiveness, healing, setting captives free and non-violence. Jesus stood in opposition to the powers even as they were attempting to flex their muscles against him. Jesus profession to Pilate that, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above” reveals where true authority and power comes from. If I can skip ahead a bit, this is then more fully demonstrated in Easter when Jesus example is vindicated through his resurrection. Jesus is raised from the dead to demonstrate the validity of his kingship and to show the world that those who were perceived to be in power, really have no power in light of exercising humility, grace, mercy, forgiveness, healing, sacrifice and non-violence. That is where true world-changing power comes from.

The cross of Christ does not just demonstrate that Christ died for us and spilled his blood for us, it reveals in gory detail what worldly power looks like. Then later as the veil is torn and the stone is rolled away we are shown where true sin and “powers” defeating power comes from.

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