Last week we watched as Jesus, struggling to carry his crossbeam through the crowded city streets of Jerusalem at Passover, was aided by Simon of Cyrene, stranger forced by Roman soldiers to help him. Now we find Jesus nailed to his cross on the hill at Golgotha, which means “the skull”.
Jesus is not alone on that hill. There are plenty of people around. Of course, the religious leaders who orchestrated this execution are standing nearby scoffing at this pathetic man. “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the Chosen one” they make sure to say aloud to anyone who will listen.
Roman soldiers who were unlucky enough to draw crucifixion duty are under the cross casting lots to divide up Jesus’ clothing. When they are done with that game their boredom drives them to mess with Jesus. They offer him cheap wine and mock him. “This bloody, beaten, naked man is the King of the Jews? Hey, King of the Jews,” they taunt, “why don’t you save yourself.”
There is a large crowd. They are witnesses to this brutal act of humiliation. Some are present out of curiosity. Some are the friends and followers of Jesus. They are dismayed by what is happening to Jesus. They really believed that there was going to be a different ending to this Jesus movement. They would really like to help Jesus, but what could they possibly do?
There are two other condemned men being crucified that day, one on either side of Jesus….one on his left and one on his right. We call them the two thieves but we don’t know for what crimes they are accused. It is very doubtful their crimes were theft. Crucifixion was not the punishment used for small crimes like that. Crucifixion was reserved for those who were considered enemies of the state. It was the penalty for revolutionaries….rabble-rousers….insurrectionists — people who threatened the status quo of the empire. Crucifixion carried a strong, visual message. The message was: “Mess with us and we will kill you. We will strip you naked, nail you to a cross and let you die a most excruciating death while your friends and neighbors watch in horror and the rest of us mock you.” Rome wanted everyone to know that that the empire would crush anyone who rebelled.
The political agitator on the cross to Jesus’ left began to ridicule Jesus. “I thought you were the Messiah. Save yourself and while you are at it, save us too!” With his last breath he decides to pile on to another victim of the empire. Amazing!
There is also a man on Jesus’ right. He tries to defend Jesus but eventually he saves his breath and turns his attention to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” So many people around Jesus are taunting him by calling him the King of the Jews. But this man….this man on Jesus’ right…..he sees a king and envisions a kingdom.
Imagining myself on the hill that day, watching this execution made me flashback to earlier events. Remember when James and John, the Zebedee brothers, sidled up to Jesus and said, “Will you promise us whatever we ask?” “That depends,” says Jesus, “What do you want?” “When you come into your kingdom we want to be the ones on your right and left.” Jesus shakes your head, “You have no idea what you are asking. I didn’t come to be served but to serve. I am going to give my life away for the good of all. I don’t think you will be the ones on my left and right when that happens.”
Think back to the last week of Jesus’ life when he is sitting on the Mount of Olives with his disciples and they ask him, “What will be the sign of your coming?” Jesus waxes on about persecutions and fig trees and bridesmaids and then he tells them a story about when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory and all the nations are brought before him. Some of the nations he refers to as goats. He puts the goats on his left. The sheep will go on his right. He will say to the sheep on his right hand, “Good job! You recognized me when I was hungry, thirsty, hurting, lonely, naked, a stranger, in prison. You saw me in the powerless. Because you recognized me among the most in need you are blessed. You will inherit the kingdom of God. But you goats on my left, you did not recognize me in the least of these…..the marginalized. You will not enter the Kingdom of God.”
The left and the right are significant to Jesus. This scenario plays out over and over in his life….even up until this moment at the very end of his physical life. There is a goat…I mean, a condemned man on his left who fails to see the Christ in this taunted, bloody man and a sheep on his right who not only sees him but names him and asks to go with him to the Kingdom of God.
And so Jesus says to the sheep on his right hand, “Today…Today you will be with me in paradise.” Flashback to Jesus’ very first sermon in which he stands to read the scroll in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When Jesus finished reading from the scroll he sat down, which was the posture for teaching, and he said, “Today….Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was also announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into the present moment….”Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”….right now when the starkness of life feels completely at odds with God’s divine community…in this moment…today…on earth as it is in heaven. Over and over and over again, Jesus announced the immediacy of God’s good news to the very people who tried to throw him off a cliff…the very people who betrayed, denied him and crucified him. On the cross in which every breath was an excruciating act of will, he turned and promised the man on his right that today he would be in paradise.
Paradise…what does Jesus mean by that? Let’s go back to the very beginning…to the second chapter of Genesis…to the tale of a lush garden where the first humans lived. That is the paradise Jesus is talking about. He is promising this man he will live in God’s home. Jesus says to the man on his right, “Because you recognized me in the body of this beaten, dying, mocked man…because you saw me…even here…today you will be with me in paradise…in the garden…at home with God. Your relationship with God will be restored and you will live with God….today…in this very moment that you hang on this cross. For today you will join me in the place where love is so powerful that forgiveness is granted to the undeserving. Today we are witnesses to how ineffective the power of the powerful really is in God’s great kingdom. Today. Right now.
All those people witnessing Jesus’ execution and only one of them seems to truly see him….the sheep on his right. Everyone else misses what is truly happening here. How many times did the crowds around Jesus completely miss his invitation into the kingdom of God right now? His whole ministry. Remember when he went to the home of Lazarus after Lazarus had died. Everyone failed to hear Jesus but the dead man on the other side of the tomb. The systems all around us are so persuasive we often fail to truly see and truly hear. So caught are we in the empire’s snare that we let the state dictate the parameters by which we see the world…by which we hear God’s voice. We think we are weak cogs in a system beyond our control.
Hannah Arendt, widely considered one of the most influential political theorists of the 20th century, wrote about how ordinary citizens become actors in the empire. Arendt had fled Germany in 1933 after being detained by the Gestapo. She escaped to France. But when Germany invaded France in 1940 the French detained her because she was deemed an alien. Again she narrowly escaped and this time made her way to the United States.
When Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi figure and overseer of the death camps was arrested and taken to Israel for trial in the early 1950s, Arendt covered his trial as a reporter for the New Yorker. At the trial, Eichmann did not deny the Holocaust or the role he played in organizing it. He simply claimed that he was following the orders of a totalitarian system. He was just a cog in something beyond his control. While the world saw Eichmann as a monster, Arendt, who sat through his trial, said he was just an ordinary man who was incapable of thinking about the morality of his actions. Arendt argued that evil is ordinary and it pervades our unthinking decisions. She wrote: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Did the crowd of witnesses on the hillside that day; did they taunt Jesus like the Roman soldiers? No. Were they participants? Yes. Did they pound in the nails into Jesus’ hands? No. Were they part of the evil? Yes. Did the bandits on his left and right convict Jesus? No. Were they culpable? Yes. Those of us standing here watching from a safe distance of several millennia, did we mock him, whip him, stab him in the side? No. Do we carry some of the blame? Yes.
We witness systemic evil around us…every day. Environmental degradation, mass incarceration, racism, consumerism, and poverty…the list goes on. We see what happens to whistle blowers and rabble-rousers and so we do nothing. We continue our consumerist ways. We get in our cars and drive without thought. We refuse to see that which does not impact our lives. Our evil is ordinary. We are the unthinking crowd that did nothing.
But on that hillside there were two people who refused to live within the parameters set by the empire. One was a bloody, dying man who continued to love and forgive…who even with his dying breaths invited others to join him in God’s garden again. And there was a sheep that heard the shepherd calling and said, “I hear you. I see you. I want to live in the Kingdom of God…..today.” Amen.