Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2022

Luke 23:33-43 Commentary

If you are new to the lectionary cycle, you may have found this week’s gospel passage quite jarring: the crucifixion in November? What is going on? It is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Sunday that comes at the end of the church year, our quasi-New Year’s Eve, and on it our focus is placed upon the “Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King.”

Here on the cross, Jesus Christ shows what kind of King he is, and reveals what we already know from the gospels: his reign faces opposition and mockery, but is rooted in loving mercy and prayer. Jesus meets the continuous mockery with mercy, taunts with forgiveness, ignorance and insolence with fortitude, and humility with welcome.

As the textual point below discusses, the death of Jesus comes at ambiguous hands: everyone is implicated. Jesus shows his kingdom to be about forgiveness for blatant and widespread wrong doing: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” “Know” is in the perfect tense there… the lack of knowing has significant consequences, making God’s forgiveness all the more important. God’s forgiveness is the “great un-doer” in our lives, the beginning of our transformation. Here on the cross, we see that clearly: Jesus’s very act of being there undoes our failure to be with God, it is the work of forgiveness. The events are not erased by forgiveness, they become part of a new story, though, one of being redeemed by its Creator.

Whereas the crucifixion act is done by the vague “they,” the mocking and taunts, the lack of defense and solidarity, are all given to specific subjects. The people (likely to be understood as fellow Jews and those who have followed Jesus to Jerusalem), the people stand by watching. They are witnesses but are caught in some sort of emotion or anxiety that is keeping them from being able to respond. Jesus’s forgiveness is for them as well, even though he is alone on the cross, he has compassion on those who are frozen by fear, worry, or shock.

It’s likely that the leaders who scoff at Jesus are religious or Jewish leaders, since the Roman soldiers are the ones who join them in mocking Jesus while he dies. Both groups play on the idea that Jesus is the supposed king, a Messiah powerful enough to save people. (Are they thinking about the stories they’ve heard about Lazarus, about the people healed from demons and sickness unto death?) The emphasis in this set of taunts is on Jesus’ kingship: we are reminded that the title even hangs above his head. Jesus meets their mockery with silence; he does not even respond to them. His prayer for forgiveness, borne out of his loving mercy, is it for them as well?

Then there are the two criminals, hanging with him on their own crosses. One of them bitterly joins the mocks and taunts of the leaders and soldiers. In fact, with each subsequent group, the intensity of the mockery has increased. The people watched in silence, the leaders sneered, the soldiers mock/deride him, and the criminal blasphemes (that’s literally the Greek verb used) Jesus. Though he speaks words of truth, he does it with insult, hatred, and with the purpose of causing great harm.

Even still, Jesus silently endures, allowing each of these parties to follow what they have set their hearts upon. Jesus’ reign will not be known for its coercion to obedience; instead it will be known by petitionary prayer and a readiness to forgive.

Jesus does not defend himself, but—when you think about it—in a surprising turn of events, the other criminal comes to “stand” with the Christ. The humble criminal says, “What’s wrong with you?!?” He, it seems, has realized that Jesus of Nazareth is different—just as the sign hanging above Jesus’ head declares.

Jesus hangs between these two men, so as the humble criminal goes from shouting across Jesus to rebuke his fellow guilty criminal, I imagine his tone shifting as he makes a request (in the form of a command) to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The criminal is depicted as using the subjunctive case for “come” with a temporal particle: he does not know when Jesus will arrive at his kingdom, but his doubt is about when, not whether. When Jesus enters his kingdom, the criminal hopes that Jesus will remember him. It’s a rather small request: to be in the mind of Christ upon his enthronement. It marks the criminal’s humility.

Jesus will go well beyond this humble request. Not only will he remember this criminal who turned to him in humbleness and contrite heart, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus makes the vague hope a concrete reality: at their death, they will both be ushered into the new kingdom—a kingdom better understood as paradise. Whereas the earthly kingdom put them to death, Jesus’s kingdom is all blessedness.

Like so many other Scripture passages that do not make sense in our chronological sense of time, Psalms that remind us that our days are like seconds to God, promises that no one knows the hour and we ought to therefore always be prepared for Jesus’s imminent return, they simply do not compute. And here, we have Jesus promising that this very day he will be in Paradise even though we know that three days from this moment he will be resurrected. The way time works for God is different than the way it seems for us.

Jesus’ reign has already begun, even though we are still waiting. Jesus’ reign has already begun even though the mockery and taunts and blaspheming continue.  Jesus’ reign has already begun even though his promises do not seem to be fulfilled. As subjects of his kingdom, we are in the already and not yet. Will we join the humble criminal in trusting and believing in the goodness of God?

Textual Point

More than one scholar I read this week highlighted the vague subjects Luke refers to as those who crucified Jesus. In the Greek, no subjects are given for the verbs “crucified” and “cast lots.” (Greek verbal forms indicate person and number- both of these verbs are third person plural.) Justo González explains how this allows us to join the story: there is enough guilt to go around, and “the lack of an explicit subject in these actions is also an indication that the enmity that was unleashed against Jesus was not mere human animosity.”

Visit our special Advent Resource page for additional preaching ideas for the upcoming Season of Advent and Christmas.

Illustration Idea

I’ve lived on the West Coast of Canada for over a decade now, and I’ve watched a lot of crows try annoy and pester bald eagles. Usually in groups of two or three, the crows dive bomb and squawk and keep flying after the eagle. Their intent is to get the eagle to leave the area or to steal the eagle’s food. The eagle is quite powerful and capable of bringing an end to the pestering crows, and yet, I have never once seen an eagle flip the script. (I know that this does happen, as seen on nature shows… but it’s worth remembering that we get the highlight reels on thousands of hours of footage.) This is likely because fighting in mid-air is tricky for such a large bird, but as I thought about Jesus on the cross here, and the way that one of the criminals mocked him for being capable of salvation but not saving himself, I thought of the eagle enduring the crows.


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