Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Saving Self? What's with that?

The gospel text for Christ the King Sunday, Luke 23:33-44, describes a scene in stark contrast to that which the Second Lesson announces.  There, in the Apostle's letter to the Colossians, Paul announces that in Christ "all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers - all things have been created through him and for him."  In Luke's account, Jesus is dying, being mocked, cursed and laughed at.  Only as Jesus promises Paradise to the repentant thief hanging near him, do we get a glimpse of the majesty Paul testifies to.

(The following questions are derived from a brief method for Law and Gospel preachers, which I detail in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only to suggest some possible avenues to understanding what's at stake for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this text, comes at us in two ways: as the words from Jesus' mouth, and as the words of the narrator to us readers.  Jesus' words are pure gospel:  "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing;  Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."  All who are addresssed by these words are given hope.  The words of the narrator, however, function quite differently.   They function as Law, telling us of our desperate need for Christ.  These words show humanity at its worst:  murderous, scoffers, mocking the Christ, deriding the Innocent One.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   There is no call to obedience in this text, i.e. there is no word which instructs us how to live in response to the Gospel.  One hidden call, perhaps, is to emulate the one who forgives his enemies.  This is certainly a call to obedience elsewhere in the scriptures.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are invited to be part of the scene around the Cross.  With whom do we identify?  Perhaps we are tempted only to identify with those who stand by watching, or with the repentant thief.  We need to also spend some time imagining ourselves as the soldiers who crucified Jesus and later cast lots to divide his clothing.  We need to consider how we might scoff at or mock this Crucified One who seems so helpless.  We all are among those who do not understand one who does not attempt to save himself.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?   Several couplets come immediately to mind as we read this story:  murderous and callous/forgiven; mocking/favored with paradise.

5.  Exegetical work:   It is striking that for all of the bystanders at the crucifixion, the one thing they expected out of Jesus was that he would save himself.  Three times this call was made: First, by the leaders who called out, "He saved others; let him save himself."  Second, by the soldiers who offered him sour wine saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"  Third, by the unrepentant thief who derided him:  "Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!"  All assumed that if one had power he would use it to first save himself.  They were wrong.

Another striking fact is that all the conditional phrases are conditions of fact, i.e. they imply that what's being said is true.  So when the leaders scoff about his messiahship, the phrase could be thought of as "Let him save himself since he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"  Also, when the soldiers mock him the phrase could similarly be translated as, "Since you are the King of Jews, save yourself!"  Of course, it is clear that even though this is a condition of fact, it comes out of the mouths of these characters in a mocking tone.  Nevertheless, Luke often uses the words of Jesus' enemies to speak truth, albeit without them meaning to.  So, out of the mouths of Jesus' enemies we have testimony to the fact that he is truly both Messiah and King.  All of this mockery brings to mind another Mocking One, the devil himself, who three times tempted Jesus to use his Messiahship to save himself.  (Luke 4) Twice in these three temptations the devil begins his taunt with the words "If you are the Son of God..."  This again is a condition of fact, testifying to the Sonship of the Christ.  How common a temptation it is to want to use power to save oneself.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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