Commentary on Luke 23:33-43
“Christ the King” Sunday concludes the year of Luke with a final luminous testimony to how Jesus is God’s way of ruling in this world and in the world to come.
The Biblical titles of Jesus Son of God, Messiah, and King have been so thoroughly absorbed as words for church and worship that their simple, earthly force is largely lost. Jesus’ crucifixion, however, did not occur on an altar between two candles, but outside the city between two convicts on a dismal executioner’s hill, called “The Skull.” The Gospel is the story of how Jesus the Messiah of God brought God’s reign of justice and mercy to earth, and Luke’s account presents the crucified Messiah enacting God’s reign, surrounded by mocking, brutal violence.
The power of this brief “snippet” or pericope (Luke 23:33-43) will be best grasped as the conclusion of Jesus’ determined journey to Jerusalem and in the context of Luke’s magisterial passion narrative. Luke has tracked the three “passion predictions” in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8:31-33 and Luke 9:22; Mark 9:30-32 and Luke 9:43-45; and Mark 10:32-34 and Luke 18:31-34), and Luke has amplified the story with Jesus’ purposeful, extended journey. Jesus is on a prophetic mission, bringing God’s reign to Jerusalem (see 9:51-56), and he will not be deterred by Pilate, Herod, or the Judean authorities (see Luke 13:1; 31-35). His presence in Jerusalem, however, also discloses the tragic rejection of his mission. As Simeon prophesied, Jesus proves to be “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).
How fierce is the rejection? How complicit are God’s people in this evil? What will God do next?
These questions are more than literary and historical. The dirty secret of our condition is out. Our hope, however, lies not in the denial of our reality, but in trusting the mercy of the Messiah of God.
The opposition to Jesus has been building in the narrative. Irritated by how the people love him, Jesus’ enemies display their resistance to God’s reign by their adamant ferocity. After “the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people” (Luke 20:19). As Passover approached, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people” (Luke 22:2).
As Jesus now hangs dying, the mockery of “the leaders” and the Roman executioners hurls sand in the face of “the people” who “stood by watching (Luke 23:35). We join the people who ironically hear the truth spoken in ignorant, sarcastic jabs. “He saved others, let him save himself!” That, of course, is exactly the point of how Jesus is enacting God’s reign of mercy, by not saving himself. But they are blind. Then they cite the heart of the Biblical story as accusations against Jesus: “If he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” Whom do the scriptures convict in their testimony to the Chosen One, Jesus or them?
The Romans were responsible for the inscription over Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.” And their soldiers mocked Jesus and all of Israel with this title. It was the title with which Pilate scorned Jesus and the title which Herod Antipas desperately wanted for his own (see Luke 23:1-12).The point of crucifixions was to humiliate “enemies of the Roman Order” in public displays of Roman clout, as if to say: “Look here, Judeans, this is the fate of all with pretensions to royal titles only Rome can award!” Ironically, the faithful know Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, but not because Rome said so. No, it is the title, “The Messiah of God” that carries the promise, because it is God who has chosen Jesus by anointing (Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek mean “the anointed one”) him with the Holy Spirit and with power (see Luke 3:21-22; Acts 2:36; 10:37-38!) And God’s “Messiah” or “King” exercises God’s righteous reign of justice and mercy. So “the Messiah of God” is truly “the righteous one!”
Push a few verses beyond this “snippet” and notice in Luke’s account how when a Roman Centurion “saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!'” (Luke 23:47, NRV, compare Mark 15:39: “Truly this man was God’s Son”). The Greek word that is translated “innocent” is dikaios, which also means “righteous.” Through the centuries, Christian faithful have understood that the Centurion was not merely announcing they had executed an innocent person, but his word noted the ultimate defiance of God’s reign, killing the righteous one, the Messiah of God.
In Luke’s account, Jesus is enacting an earlier script. In Wisdom 2, the torture and murder of “the righteous one” is described as the blind arrogance of those who oppose God, mocking “the righteous one” who “professes to have knowledge of God and calls himself a child of the Lord.” “Let us see if his words are true,” they sneer, “and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous one is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. …Let us test him with insult and torture. …Let us condemn him to a shameful death” (Wisdom 2:13-20).
We stand with the people and the disciples, frightened at the power of evil, wondering why we could not or simply did not prevent the atrocity. “The people stood by watching … all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home beating their breasts … but all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:35, 48-49). As in so many cases of 20/20 hindsight, we look deep into the darkness of brutality and arrogance, and we are afraid. “Oh my God, what have I done?”
Then we see Jesus exercising his dominion in the midst of mockery, coercion, and arrogance. His two “words” from the cross in Luke’s account enact his authority. The first (Luke 23:34) has problems of textual history, but it fits powerfully in the narrative: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing!” The second (Luke 23:43) anticipates Jesus’ authority as the Son of Man, conferring mercy on sinners in God’s ultimate judgment: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
What God will do next is, of course, the heart of the Gospel. In raising Jesus from the dead, God will vindicate him as Messiah and Lord, not to condemn, but to reign in mercy. This is the gift of a new opportunity to return to God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, renewing the promise “for you and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:37-39).
The season ahead in Advent is a time of renewed hope.