PALM SUNDAY — 28 March 2010
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa —10:00
Luke 19:28-40 | Ps 118:1-2,19-29
Isa 50:4-9a | Ps 31:9-16 | Phil 2:5-11 | Luke 23:1-49
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Human beings around the world and through the ages have generally been in agreement on some assumptions about human life, and the values of our lives. One of these assumptions is: “You get what you pay for.” Or at least that’s what’s fair; and conversely, you shouldn’t get what you don’t deserve. (You shouldn’t get what you don’t deserve!) Another assumption is that it’s only fair, and a matter of justice, that we should give as good as we get. If you do to me, then I have a right to do to you in return. A further correlated assumption is that we should stand up for ourselves and not let other people get the better of us. This is, as we say, only fair.
These assumptions have a couple of things in common. One is that they are all very much based upon common sense. Another thing that they have in common is that they have the nature of sin.
We have great admiration for the generosity of Jesus, who, while enduring the body-wracking agony of having iron spikes driven through his wrists and ankles, nevertheless has such greatness of heart that he can forgive his own executioners as they pound home the nails. Indeed, we become very sentimental about it. Our admiration and sentimentality can be a cover-up for the fact that we don’t really take Jesus seriously in this. We recognize that if we were in that kind of situation, the spirit of forgiveness would be the furthest thing from our minds. We admire the forgivingness of Jesus, but the one who really makes us stand up and cheer is the condemned prisoner who disdains the blindfold and cigarette and spits in his executioner’s eye. Yes, we admire Jesus, but our hearts are really with the feistier heroes.
All of which is very much why Jesus died, and why he died the way he did. Because our values, our assumptions, the things most likely to thrill our hearts, are all wrong. Sin does not have to do just with a laundry-list of misdeeds: it has to do with our whole outlook on life. Retaliation under the guise of justice is not an authentic value. Jesus was perfectly serious when he counseled us to turn the other cheek. We are not here to get all the gusto we can out of life, or even “our fair share,” or indeed to get anything at all out of life. And “deserving” has absolutely nothing whatever to do with anything.
We don’t know very much about the soldiers who actually did the dirty work of crucifying Jesus. It would be misleading to say that they were much like any soldiers anywhere anytime; because at least in our society, our armed forces are made up largely of citizen-soldiers with strong ties to their families and homes. On the other hand, in the first century of our era the legions of the Roman Empire were largely made up of men who literally had nothing better to do. Their enlistments were for the full term of their vigorous years, twenty years or more. They were often provincials, or even barbarians from outside the Empire, rather than Romans from central Italy, and they usually had no family ties, no real homes to return to. They were good fighters, well-disciplined, but hard and tough and not a little mean. No, they didn’t know what they were doing specifically — they didn’t know that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory. But they knew they were crucifying a man, and they didn’t much care; they had crucified men before and they would do it again. This one was apparently some kind of religious fanatic, which was mildly amusing. He was a Jew, and a Roman imperial soldier stationed in Judaea would certainly not consider the death of another Jew as any great loss to the world. We can get very romantic about these poor benighted troops staunchly doing their very unpleasant duty, fortunately unaware of the horror taking place at their hands, and have a certain sympathy for them. But that doesn’t ring true. Crucifixion details weren’t much fun, except to the sadistic, but the soldiers were hardened to them, they had ceased to care, they had developed a repertory of coarse gallows humor to keep what they were doing from affecting them too deeply. They didn’t deserve to be forgiven, on the basis of ignorance or anything else.
But Jesus prays for their forgiveness anyway — indeed, forgiveness hardly means much if the one forgiven deserves to be forgiven. Because forgiveness is the only way we can really deal with that kind of situation. Forget about all the bravado and the heroics and the blustering about “justice” — only one thing can really defeat evil, and that is love. Have done, Jesus says, have done with all this nonsense about self-preservation, and retributive justice so-called, and charity beginning at home, and looking out for Number One first, and “I don’t get mad, I get even,” and never letting anyone else get the better of you, and keeping up with the Joneses, and what will people think, and sticking up for yourself like a man. Forget it! It’s all going right down the tubes with your old bones anyway! That’s the junk that will really kill you.
Take all that injustice, that pain, that blasphemy, upon yourself and return only good for evil, blessings for curses? To be reviled, and not to revile in return, to suffer and not threaten?? To forgive those who do us evil, whether they deserve it or not?
In this scene on Golgotha, Skull Hill, who are the ones whose very names we have forgotten? and who is the One who is the very hinge of history? Who are the ones who in themselves are almost completely unmemorable and long dead? and who is the One who is the First and the Last, the Living One, who was dead and see, he is alive for ever and ever, and has the keys to Death and Hell? Who is the One?