Commentary on Luke 23:33-43
“Save yourself!” These were the words of Roman soldiers who were mocking Jesus. They must have been perplexed to witness someone known by others as King of the Jews hanging on a cross and being crucified. First of all, Roman crucifixion was only perpetrated on people of the lower classes and who were not Roman citizens. People of the higher classes were not treated as severely and certainly not reprimanded or punished publicly.1 If Jesus was true royalty, he would not have been crucified on a cross. Secondly, even if Jesus somehow ended up on a cross, as a person with authority in those days, He would have had the power and influence to secure his own deliverance. So, they likely mocked Jesus because it was obvious to them that Jesus could not have been the person some claimed him to be.
While we can certainly critique the Roman justice system for its class bias, we should not stop there. We should employ that same critique on our own justice system. People with power in our nation are not prosecuted as severely as those who are poor. People who are white, middle class or wealthy are not convicted as often and sentenced as severely as are Black and brown people and those who happen to be poor. If we believe that God is the creator and sustainer of all and is a God of justice, we should allow this text to remind us of the many disparities within our own justice system. May it serve as motivation for all of us to change it.
Jesus asked God to forgive without naming for whom he was praying. It is easy to see that he was likely praying for forgiveness of the Roman soldiers who were carrying out his persecution. He knew they were only cogs in a larger system and power structure that was ultimately responsible for his death. But Jesus the Son of God was also born and raised as a Jew in the Greco-Roman culture. He knew how the Roman legal system worked. He knew that in order for him to be crucified, there had to be cooperation with others who were willing to carry out his prosecution.2 Ultimately, Jesus was executed by the Roman government. However, select Jewish leaders cooperated by bringing charges against him. Since Jesus knew well and understood the systems and structures at play, his prayer for forgiveness was for everyone who in any way participated in his crucifixion. He asked God to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing. They did not know that he was the Son of God. They did not know that his death would fulfill a greater purpose.
Preachers can remind their congregations that just as God forgave those who crucified Jesus, God will forgive us. God knows we are all products of interrelated webs of power and influence. God knows that we are each socialized into structures and social mores that form our beliefs about race, whiteness/white supremacy, class, gender and gender identity, ethnicity, class, nationality, and religious beliefs. God knows that our actions are influenced by our beliefs and our beliefs are often flawed. However, being products of our environments does not exonerate us of responsibility for our actions and from experiencing the consequences thereof. Being forgiven does mean that God forgives us and will give us the strength and determination to repent and live up to our obligations to live life anew.
In the same way that Jesus was mocked by the Roman soldiers, he was also mocked by one of the criminals. It was ironic that a criminal mocked an innocent man for being under a sentence of condemnation. While one criminal mocked Jesus, the other criminal confessed his sins and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom.
We know that Jesus promised to give the second criminal, the one who confessed his sins instead of mocking Jesus, a place in paradise. What we do not know is what the second criminal believed Jesus’ kingdom of God actually was. What did it look like? What did it feel like? Was it earthly or heavenly? Would Jesus have to die to attain it or did the second criminal expect Jesus to defy death even as he suffered on a cross? We cannot know what the second criminal had in mind when he mentioned the kingdom. We do have some idea of Jesus’ conception of the kingdom.
In Luke 4:43, Jesus told the crowds who were following him that he was sent to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. Earlier in the fourth chapter, Jesus stood in the synagogue and read from the scroll of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor3
The kingdom of God for Jesus was a world where those on the bottom of society in His day would find liberation from the systems and structures that bind them. Those who were captive, like the two criminals with whom he was crucified, would be released. Preachers can remind their congregations that as followers of Christ, we should seek to embody the kingdom that Christ proclaimed. This includes forgiving and advocating for those who are caught up in the web of an unjust justice system.
- C.S. Wansink, “Roman Law and Legal System” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans, Stanley E. Porter (InterVarsity Press, 2000), 984-987.
- C. G. Kruse, “Persecution” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans, Stanley E. Porter (InterVarsity Press, 2000), 775-778.
- The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Lk 4:18–19.