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What did Jesus say as he was dying? What do Jesus’ words from the cross tell us about him?
In many churches Good Friday is marked by a service of the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the cross… we have done that here. Those seven “words,” which are really sayings, are cobbled together from the four gospels. The gospel according to Luke contains three of the traditional seven sayings. And if we, together, look closely at those three sayings, we realize that Luke is telling us something incredibly important:
Jesus died as he lived.
For the past three months we’ve been reading the story of Jesus as found in the gospel of Luke. One professor describes the story this way:
Jesus announced the reign of God. His works of compassion restored people to wholeness. Dining with [religious elites] Pharisees and sinners alike, Jesus demonstrated the all-inclusive nature of God’s reign. His parables invited people to imagine a world in which [the stereotypical bad guys] Samaritans demonstrate righteousness, scoundrels model wisdom, and widows win justice. [i]
On Good Friday we mark the day on which the reign of God as announced by Jesus has resulted in his being tried for blasphemy and sedition by both civil and religious courts. The guilty verdict has been pronounced, and our passage describes the carrying out of the punishment.
The first words we hear from Jesus are a paraphrase of a verse of Psalm 31: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Speaking as someone who holds a grudge against those who pass me on the right, I want to take note of what an astonishing thing it is, to be confronted by this vision of one who, at the height of pain and torture, utters words of forgiveness, one who prays pardon for his torturers—because, that is what crucifixion is, it’s torture, whether we’ve managed, by our gold and silver and bejeweled crosses to obscure that fact or not. Crucifixion is a very effective means of torture and execution. Its success lies in the fact that, in most cases, the bodies of the crucified were left on the crosses until nature had stripped them to the bone. Crucifixion was a kind of vivid and gruesome billboard for the Roman Empire that said, “Don’t mess with Rome (us).”
Jesus died as he lived. He died breathing forgiveness for those who didn’t even ask for it.
In death, Jesus has two companions, “criminals,” Luke calls them, though, in another gospel, they are called “rebels.” One of the criminals sees in Jesus a potential golden ticket out of this bind… the soldiers probably gave him the idea, joking amongst themselves that this so-called Messiah wasn’t really living up to his job title. “Come on, King of the Jews,” they yelled, even as they were pushing a sponge of sour wine in his face. “Save yourself!”
And so one criminal pipes up, pushing Jesus, trying to provoke him. Clearly someone who has been used to playing the bully in life, and who still, apparently, is under the impression that this might be an effective strategy as he faces the likelihood of his own death.
The other criminal has no such illusions, and he has no strategy of any kind. After all the brutal words and images, his sorrowful, truthful statement is like cold water on a hot day.
Don’t you fear God? Can’t you tell the difference between what we’ve done and what he has done, this Jesus? Don’t you get it? We are guilty. He is not. The first criminal’s bluster comes to an abrupt halt, and Jesus speaks to the second, the sorrowful truth-teller.
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus died as he lived. He died breathing welcome to an outcast criminal.
When we come to the last hours of Jesus’ life, Luke paints a scene of the natural world joining in response to the deep injustice of Jesus’ death, this innocent and Beloved child of God tortured and soon to be killed. The sky turns dark. The curtain in the holiest inner sanctum of the temple is torn in two… there is no longer a division between where we can expect to find God and where we human beings can sojourn. The death of Jesus has broken down that barrier.
And now, Jesus is praying: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Jesus prays a lot in the gospel of Luke. In fact, he prays more in Luke than in any of the other gospels. He prays at his baptism, the beginning of his ministry, and he prays when he is welcoming followers to his little band. He prays when word begins to spread about the nature of his identity, when that word, “Messiah,” “Anointed One of God,” starts to get out and about. He is praying on the mountain when suddenly his appearance is transfigured, and his clothing glows a startling white, and his disciples drop their jaws because Moses and Elijah have shown up. He tells his followers to pray for strength, and for help when they are trying to share God’s healing power.[ii] Jesus prays throughout his life. Jesus prays as he faces death.
Jesus died as he lived. He died breathing a prayer to God, surrendering himself into the care of the source and ground of his very being.
Jesus died as he lived, and for us, that is important information, because it invites us to walk that very same path, to see all our living and our dying as one, as a whole.
We too can live as people steeped in forgiveness, giving it as well as receiving it.
We too can live as people committed to welcoming the outcast, offering them bread and comfort, trying to make every shared cup of tea a little paradise.
We too can live as people bathed in prayer, in constant communing and communicating with God, the source and ground of Jesus’ being and ours.
And if we live steeped in forgiveness, extending welcome, bathed in prayer, there is a very good chance that we too will be able to die just as we live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Greg Carey, “Comment on the Narrative Lectionary 077 for Good Friday, March 29, 2013,” Working Preacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_lectionary.aspx?lect_date=3/29/2013.