I have to admit that I was confused when I first looked at today’s gospel text. Doesn’t this seem like an unusual text, especially at this time of year? After all, this is not Good Friday! What does Jesus’ crucifixion have to do with Jesus being Christ the King?
Listen to the way theologian N T Wright describes the situation:
Jesus has stood on its head the meaning of kingship, the meaning of the kingdom itself. He has celebrated with the wrong people, offered peace and hope to the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. Now he is hailed as king at last, but in mockery. Here comes his royal cupbearer, only it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine that poor people drank. Here is his royal placard, announcing his kingship to the world, but it is in fact the criminal charge which explains his cruel death. (NT Wright, Luke for Everyone, 284)
Let the irony sink in. We are watching a parody being played out.
The concept of kingdom is a little hard for Americans to grasp. We don’t have a king. Our country was founded in rebellion against a king. Some explanation of the Greek word for kingdom will help us. The Greek word translated as kingdom means the power or authority to rule as king. "Entering the kingdom of God” can be understood as "accepting God's rule” over us.
Throughout his gospel, Luke tells us more about the kingdom: It is not something that can be seen (17:20). It is something within us (17:21). It is something proclaimed or preached (4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 60; 16:16). It contains secrets (8:10), but it can be sought (12:31) and given as a gift (12:32) and received (18:17). And finally, the kingdom comes near (10:9, 11; 21:31).
This parody of worshipping the king on a cross contains quite a cast of characters, but for the moment, I’d like to focus on three groups and their responses to Jesus and his kingdom. The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus, the soldiers mocked him and one criminal.
The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (v. 35). Scoffed literally means that they looked down their noses at Jesus or that they thumbed their noses at him.
The soldiers mocked Jesus. Their derision echoes the devil’s challenge during Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 9). The soldiers added further insult by offering Jesus sour wine, which was cheap vinegar heavily diluted with water. It was the drink of slaves and soldiers.
One of the criminals crucified with Jesus derided him saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (v. 39). Literally, the criminal committed blasphemy because by belittling Jesus, all who mock him are belittling the power of God.
Did you notice the similarities in the various taunts of Jesus? All three derisions focus on the saving significance of Jesus’ death—vv. 35, 37, 39. Whether they knew it or not, they were proclaiming the truth of the saving power of this king on a cross. What irony that all referred to Jesus as the Savior (vv. 35, 37, 39). “Save yourself”—this was essentially the same thing the devil tried to tempt Jesus with. Avoid the humiliation, pain and suffering of the cross. After all, you are the king, aren’t you?
Luke’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion underscores his real identity and the true meaning of his death. Jesus is the Messiah of God (vv. 35, 39). Jesus is the Chosen One (v.35). Jesus is the King of the Jews.
How did the king on the cross respond to this antagonistic barrage? “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34).
How are we supposed to respond to the forgiveness of the king? We’re shown this in the response of the second criminal. The second criminal expressed faith to see and believe that Jesus is the one who will have the final word, who will rule as king. He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). In scripture remembering carries with it the idea of responding in an appropriate manner. It’s more than just having something pop into our heads that we’ve forgotten. The criminal is asking Jesus to respond with action as he thinks about this repentant man. We too should be asking Jesus to respond with action as he thinks about us.
Jesus’ response is to affirm the criminal’s confidence that he would be with him in paradise. What exactly is meant by the word, “paradise?” Is it heaven? Is it a tropical island in the sunny Pacific? Is it a place where we can eat all the food we want and never gain weight? Is it simply just a state of mind?
Let’s think about paradise as something other than a place. Paradise can be thought of as a restored relationship with God.
Jesus’ interaction with this criminal illustrates the truth of salvation. Salvation does not mean avoiding the cross. Neither Jesus nor the criminal were saved from suffering and death. Salvation means having faith, even when dying on the cross. “It means having faith to proclaim that Jesus is the powerful king, precisely when he’s on the cross” (Brian Stoffregen). The end result of the cross is that Jesus was restored with his relationship with the Father. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins are forgiven and we too are restored in our relationship with the Father.
Are we willing to believe in and worship Christ the King who stays on the cross until death? Can we be confident that Jesus will remember US and do what is good for us?
Christ the King, who was killed by the Roman Empire for treason and insurrection, did not merely challenge the orders of the world, but overturned them altogether. Jesus established a new reign governed by love, mercy and grace. Our king reigns from his unlikely throne, granting multiple opportunities for forgiveness to us all. On this feast of Christ the King, let our rallying cry be that of the second criminal. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”