Christ the King: Luke 23:33-43
This is Part Three of a three-part series of reflections on the lectionary gospel readings leading up to Advent. See the introduction to the series here.
We left off last week with the stunningly beautiful prediction of the Coming of the Son of Man in Luke 21:25-28.
It's glorious, formidable, and redemptive. Today our text is the thief on the cross. In between then and now a lot of ugly and inglorious things have happened. They include a plot to kill Jesus (22:1-6), an embarrassing argument among his disciples over who is the greatest (22:24-27), Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial (22:31-34), Jesus weeping while his friends were sleeping in Gethsemane (22:39-46), his betrayal and arrest (22:47-53), Peter's denial (22:54-62), the mocking and beating of Jesus (22:63-65), his sentencing and, now, his crucifixion (23:1-44) between two criminals.
A friend of mine said to me recently, "Have you ever noticed that the further you go into Pentecost, the darker it gets?" Today our path has led us to a sad, dark place. Why would they choose this scene of brutal defeat for Christ the King Sunday?
Some notes on the passage:
Brendan Bryce, in his book The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke's Gospel, points out that Luke summarizes the grisly process of crucifixion in four words: "They crucified him there" (23:33). (Bryce, 181) In Luke 22:37, Jesus says, "For I tell you this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless.'"(See Is. 53:12.) In 23:33, as he is crucified between two criminals, this scripture finds its fulfillment. Bryce believes that the additional detail that he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (v. 34a) fits Luke's tendency to depict Jesus at prayer. It is a fitting climax to his ministry of forgiveness. (Bryce, 181) He has offered it to so many seekers during his life, and now, on the brink of his death, he keeps the offer open.
Verse 34a: Luke intended Jesus' words to be echoed in those of Stephen as he forgives his executioners in Acts 7:60. Such forgiveness is an example to true disciples who seek to imitate their Lord.
Verse 34b: This is practically a quotation from Psalm 22:18: "They divide my clothes among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots." According to New Testament scholar E.J. Tinsley, it was the custom to crucify naked. (The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Gospel According to Luke, 201) John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament on this passage, writes:
While they are actually nailing him to the cross, he seems to feel the injury they did to their own souls, more than the wounds they gave him; and, as it were, to forget his own anguish out of a concern for their own salvation. (Notes, 23:34)
Verses 37-38: The inscription over the cross mocks Jesus. Luke has depicted the real kingship of Jesus in his gospel so compellingly that he can be confident that readers will grasp the irony of this inscription. Tinsley, commenting on this passage, writes: "Jesus was never more king and savior than on the cross!"(The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Gospel According to Luke, 201)
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.