Saturday, 13 November 2010

True majesty and the temptation of power

Christ the King ... Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Luke 23: 33-43


33 καὶ ὅτε ἦλθον ἐπὶ τὸν τόπον τὸν καλούμενον Κρανίον, ἐκεῖ ἐσταύρωσαν αὐτὸν καὶτοὺς κακούργους, ὃν μὲν ἐκ δεξιῶν ὃν δὲ ἐξ ἀριστερῶν. 34 [[ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔλεγεν, Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς, οὐ γὰροἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν.]] διαμεριζόμενοι δὲ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἔβαλον κλήρους. 35 καὶ εἱστήκει ὁ λαὸς θεωρῶν.ἐξεμυκτήριζον δὲ καὶ οἱ ἄρχοντες λέγοντες, Ἄλλους ἔσωσεν, σωσάτω ἑαυτόν, εἰ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστὸς τοῦθεοῦ ὁ ἐκλεκτός. 36 ἐνέπαιξαν δὲ αὐτῷ καὶ οἱ στρατιῶται προσερχόμενοι, ὄξος προσφέροντες αὐτῷ 37 καὶλέγοντες, Εἰ σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, σῶσον σεαυτόν. 38 ἦν δὲ καὶ ἐπιγραφὴ ἐπ' αὐτῷ, Ὁ βασιλεὺςτῶν Ἰουδαίων οὗτος.

39 Εἷς δὲ τῶν κρεμασθέντων κακούργων ἐβλασφήμει αὐτὸν λέγων, Οὐχὶ σὺ εἶ ὁΧριστός; σῶσον σεαυτὸν καὶ ἡμᾶς. 40 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἕτερος ἐπιτιμῶν αὐτῷ ἔφη, Οὐδὲ φοβῇ σὺ τὸν θεόν,ὅτι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ κρίματι εἶ; 41 καὶ ἡμεῖς μὲν δικαίως, ἄξια γὰρ ὧν ἐπράξαμεν ἀπολαμβάνομεν: οὗτος δὲοὐδὲν ἄτοπον ἔπραξεν. 42 καὶ ἔλεγεν, Ἰησοῦ, μνήσθητί μου ὅταν ἔλθῃς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν σου. 43 καὶ εἶπεναὐτῷ, Ἀμήν σοι λέγω, σήμερον μετ' ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ.

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.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Introduction

Our Bible study this morning looks at the Gospel reading for Sunday week, Sunday 21 November, the Sunday before Advent (The Kingship of Christ): Luke 23: 33-46.

Marking the Kingship of Christ on the Sunday before Advent, the Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation. At the end of 1925, Pope Pius XI published a papal encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing cache in the Western society, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and there was a wave of fascism sweeping across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today evokes images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.

The setting

This Sunday is also the last Sunday in Pentecost, the last Sunday at the end of our journey in the lectionary with Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. We will begin it all again the following Sunday, but this Sunday gives us time to pause and reflect on the fact that we have followed Jesus for seven months or so through Saint Luke’s Gospel. We have seen Saint Luke’s distinctive emphases on the poor and their inclusion in the Kingdom, their inclusion among those not normally invited as guests to the great feasts.

In this Gospel reading, we are at the moment when Christ is crucified. The crucifixion is truly emphasised on Good Friday, but this morning the emphasis is on the request to him by one of the criminals to “remember me” in the kingdom.

Three temptations, three emphases

Three points emerge from this passage.

First, we note the passage in general functions as a “last temptation of Christ” (verses 33-39).

Second, we see the recognition by the evildoer of Christ’s kingdom (verse 42).

Thirdly, we are challenged to accept that today, this day, σήμερον (símeron), this very day, is the time to respond to the claims the kingdom makes on us (verse 43).

Usually when we think of the Christ’s last temptation, we think of either the book by Nikos Kazantzakis or the film, or we think of the story at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, when he was tempted by Satan into taking a series of short-cuts to glory (see Luke 4: 1-13).

Just as there were three temptations in the wilderness, so there are three of them in this passage. In Luke 4, there was only one speaker – the devil. But in this passage we are introduced to three separate groups or individuals who verbally abuse or challenge Christ: the leaders, the soldiers and the criminals or thieves. Each of them challenges Christ on the same point that the devil made in chapter 4: “if indeed you are so great (or are the Messiah or the King of the Jews), you will save yourself out of this predicament.”

Perhaps the temptation here for Christ to act in some way to “save himself” might even be more compelling than it was in Luke 4. First, Luke skilfully uses language that puts Christ’s trials here in the Biblical context of unjust suffering. In verse 35 the high priests are said to “mock” him (ἐξεμυκτήριζον, exemuktérizon), they hold up their noses in derision. This extremely rare verb is used in one other place in this Gospel: Luke 16: 14, where “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him” (ἤκουον δὲ ταῦτα πάντα οἱ Φαρισαῖοι φιλάργυροι ὑπάρχοντες καὶ ἐξεμυκτήριζον αὐτόν).

The same word is used in Psalm 22, where those who stand around the oppressed person “mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (Psalm 22: 7).

In that Psalm, the people say:

“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver –
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” (verse 8).

Christ’s suffering and derision here is now placed in the context of another significant Biblical sufferer. Will God now rescue him or will he use his powers to get himself out of this predicament?

Of course, the temptation is even greater because Christ is at the end of his ministry. By having three successive groups of people – the leaders, the soldiers and the criminal – not recognise who he is, the temptation might have been to think his life’s work has been useless. Many people die in near-despair because they feel that all their efforts to effect change are in vain. Christ has spent his entire public ministry doing good, teaching and healing, calling people back to God. If he knew that he did not get through even to the disciples (see Luke 18: 34), how much less might he get through to anyone else.

True majesty

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

But the genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice here is not to gratify their requests.

Instead, he displays supreme majesty, for he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him …” (Philippians 2: 6-9).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a bible study in tutorial group with students on the MTh and NSM courses on 13 November 2010.