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The Seven Last Words from the Cross
By FLEMING RUTLEDGE
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter One FIRST MEDITATION
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." LUKE 23:32-34
For Christians, Good Friday is the crucial day, not only of the year but of world history. The source of the word crucial is significant. It comes from the Latin crux, meaning "cross." Here is Webster's definition of crucial: "Having the nature of a final choice or supreme trial; supremely critical; decisive." That conveys something of the unique character of this day. The early Christian apostles proclaimed the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the decisive turning point for all the ages of the created universe (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-4). On this day we set aside our other concerns to meditate upon what this astonishing claim might mean.
The four New Testament Gospels record seven "words," or sayings, from the crucified Jesus of Nazareth. It has long been customary on GoodFriday to preach seven meditations on the Seven Words. In the traditional order, the first saying is from the Gospel of Luke: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In order to enter into this saying, we need to reflect on what is being forgiven.
Good Friday is an unrelenting day. It is unrelenting like the regimes of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and many, many others who throughout human history have mercilessly put people to death by torture. We in twenty-first-century America are shocked and horrified to hear of the terrible things that were done to people in the dungeons of men like Saddam. We can scarcely imagine these things, living as we do in a country where inhuman behavior is against the law.
In Jesus' time, crucifixion was not against the law. It was carried out by the law. It was an exceptionally gruesome method of torturing a person to death, carried out by the government not in secret dungeons but in public. Not even the celebrated film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, can convey the full ghastliness of crucifixion to a modern audience. We don't understand it because we have never seen anything like it in the flesh. The situation was very different in New Testament times. Everybody had seen crucified men along the roadsides of the Roman Empire. Everyone knew what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like - the horrific sight of completely naked men in agony, the smell and sight of their bodily functions taking place in full view of all, the sounds of their groans and labored breathing going on for hours and, in some cases, for days. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that no one cared. All of this took place in public, and no one cared. That is why, from the early Christian era, a verse from the book of Lamentations was attached to the Good Friday scene: "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?" (1:12).
For Jews and Gentiles alike in those days, a crucified person was as low and despised as it was possible to be. Crucifixion sent an unmistakable signal: this person that you see before you is not fit to live, not even human (as the Romans put it, such a person was damnatio ad bestias, meaning "condemned to the death of a beast" - although in our society it would be considered unacceptable to kill even an animal in such a way). There was nothing religious, nothing uplifting or inspiring about a crucifixion. On the contrary, it was deliberately intended to be obscene, in the original sense of that word; the Oxford English Dictionary suggests "disgusting, repulsive, filthy, foul, abominable, loathsome." It is therefore of the utmost importance to note that in an era when crucifixion was still going on and was widely practiced throughout the Roman Empire, Christians were proclaiming a degraded, condemned, crucified person as the Son of God and Savior of the world. By any ordinary standard, and especially by religious standards, this was simply unthinkable. Here is one of the most powerful arguments for the truth of the Christian faith: the human religious imagination could not have arrived at a notion so utterly foreign to generally accepted spiritual ideas as that of a crucified Messiah.
We are so accustomed to seeing crosses, wearing them on chains, carrying them in processions, and so forth, that it is almost impossible to grasp their original horror. We are accustomed to thinking of the Cross merely as a "religious symbol," like the Star of David or the yin-yang. Yet at the most fundamental level - this can't be emphasized strongly enough - the Cross is in no way "religious." This is very hard for us to understand today. Overtime, we have developed ways of romanticizing violent death so as to make it seem spiritual and inspiring. Cruel methods of execution such as burning at the stake have been sanctified over the generations so that they appear "religious"; Joan of Arc, for example, is depicted in the flames with her eyes uplifted in holy awe. The typical "religious" Easter card shows the Cross in a soft, flattering light, surrounded by lilies; you would never know that it was originally an instrument of extreme brutality. We need to make a conscious effort to understand that the Cross in reality is, by a very long way, the most irreligious, unspiritual object ever to find its way into the heart of faith. This fact is a powerful testimony to the unique significance of the death of Christ.
Now that we have The Passion of the Christ, for better and worse, it is not as necessary as it once was to spell out the peculiar horror of crucifixion for modern audiences. Not even this film can depict its full ghastliness, however, because we are always aware that it is not "real." In any case, Mr. Gibson pays more exquisite attention to the scourging than to the crucifixion itself.
What we need to reflect upon today is the striking fact that the Four Evangelists tell us nothing at all about Christ's physical suffering. Why is that? It must be because they want to emphasize something else. It is our role, this Good Friday, to try to understand what that is. Perhaps we can do so by reflecting upon recent conflicts. We have been reminded more than once lately that it is against the Geneva Conventions to display or humiliate a POW. Crucifixion, however, was purposefully designed to do just that - to display and to humiliate. The crosses were placed by the roadside as a form of public announcement: these miserable beings that you see before you are not of the same species as the rest of us. The purpose of pinning the victims up like insects was to invite the gratuitous abuse of the passersby. Those crowds understood that their role was to increase, by jeering and mocking, the degradation of those who had been thus designated unfit to live. The theological meaning of this is that crucifixion is an enactment of the worst that we are, an embodiment of the most sadistic and inhuman impulses that lie within us. The Son of God absorbed all that, drew it into himself. All the cruelty of the human race came to focus in him.
The historian Peter Brown has noted that the New Testament shows us life lived between two worlds, the Roman and the Near Eastern cultures. Crucifixion was noxious enough in Roman eyes; Palestinian attitudes would have found it perhaps even more so. Near Eastern cultures had, and still have, "an acute sense of personal honor lodged in the body." An amputation administered as punishment, for instance, would be seen as much more than just physical cruelty or permanent handicap; it would mean that the amputee would carry the visible marks of dishonor and shame for the rest of his or her life. Anything done to the body would have been understood as exceptionally cruel, not just because it inflicted pain but even more because it caused dishonor. And so the Passion accounts reflect, in part, "a very ancient ritual of humiliation." The mocking of Jesus, the spitting and scorn, the "inversion of his kingship," the "studious dethronement" with the crown of thorns and purple robe -all were part of a deliberate procedure of shaming that unfolded in several stages, of which the crucifixion itself was only the culmination.
Some of the most arresting paintings of the mockery of Jesus are unsparing in their depiction of the sheer viciousness and inhumanity of the men torturing him. We see in their faces the twisted expressions of those who have lynched black people. We see the sadistic glee of those who have abused prisoners of war. We see the uncanny smiles reported to have been on the faces of the terrorist pilots who struck the World Trade Center. And if we are truly honest with ourselves this Good Friday, we see also within our own hearts the capacity, under certain circumstances, to engage in terrible acts, or to assign others to do terrible acts in our name while we wash our hands of them. During the Iraq war in 2002, a military chaplain preached a homily to a little congregation of U.S. troops in the southern Iraqi desert, and this is what he said: "We still have some enemies to deal with. Enemies. Truth be told, a lot of our enemies are not up north. A lot of our enemies are here, in the heart."
You have heard the saying "He is his own worst enemy." But that is a patronizing thing that people say loftily about others, not realizing that we are all our own worst enemy. This meditation will be followed by a hymn, "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." (Part of the importance of these meditations is the use of the hymns as personal devotions, paying special attention to the words.) The last verse of this hymn says that we "let [our] pride go by." This means that we will let go of pretense, acknowledging that an enemy lodges not only in the hearts of those whom we like to call the "bad guys," but also in our own hearts.
In this same hymn, there is a line reading, "My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross." The word shame is central to the meaning here. Crucifixion was shameful. The Epistle to the Hebrews puts special emphasis on this, saying that our Lord "endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2). Yet Jesus of all people did not deserve to be shamed. Whose shame is it, then? "My sinful self my only shame." It is our shame that we see Jesus taking upon himself. In the mocking of Jesus, in his death by torture, we see all of the absolute worst that people can do. And here is what we need to remember. In this first word from the Cross, Jesus does not pray for the good and the innocent. He prays for people doing terrible things. He prays for men who are committing sadistic acts, offering them to his Father's mercy. It is for his enemies that he prays, saying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
There is a suggestion here that human beings are in the grip of something they do not fully comprehend. The evil that lodges in the human heart is greater than we know. This means at least two things. It means that there is nothing that you or I could ever do, or say, or be, that would put us beyond the reach of Jesus' prayers. Nothing at all. And it also means that no one else, no one at all, is beyond that reach. His prayer for the worst of the worst comes from a place beyond human understanding. From that sphere of divine power we hear these words today as though they were spoken for the first time, as though they were being spoken at this very moment by the living Spirit, spoken of each one of us: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
* * *
Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand, The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land, A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, From the burning of the noontide heat and the burden of the day.
Upon the cross of Jesus mine eyes at times can see The very dying form of one who suffered there for me; And from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess: The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place; I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face; Content to let my pride go by, to know no gain nor loss, My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.
Chapter Two SECOND MEDITATION
"Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise"
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.... One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other ... said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." LUKE 23:32-33, 39-43
Crucifixion was for the scum of the earth. It was for what we call "common criminals." Uncommon criminals, white-collar criminals from privileged backgrounds with influential connections, would never have been crucified. This is very important for us to reflect upon. Jesus did exactly the opposite of what you and I would do. We want to get away from the dregs of human society. Jesus voluntarily became a part of the dregs himself.
I remember talking to a man from Eastern Europe who was painting our house in our suburban town. He was upset about what was happening to his neighborhood. He said that there was a "bad element" moving in. The phrase stayed with me. What he meant was that the new neighbors were a different color and spoke a different language. How quickly we all assign our fellow human beings to the category of "bad element." I am not immune to this. The trains I ride to New York City are no longer filled with the African-Americans that I have known all my life; now the passengers are Spanish-speaking laborers. To offset my feelings of estrangement, I try to imagine their stories - how they have suffered hardships to come to America, how they work long, hard hours and live in squalid conditions so they can send small sums back home to their wives and children. If one of them gets into trouble, he can't call his friend the lawyer, he can't drop the name of his neighbor the judge, he doesn't know anyone with enough money to post bail for him.
Excerpted from The Seven Last Words from the Cross by FLEMING RUTLEDGE Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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