And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:35-43 – NRSV)
Luke has abridged and reordered the Marcan material (see Mark 15:29-32), making no use of the Aramaic name Golgotha, the wine mixed with myrrh offered to Jesus, his refusal to drink of it, the third hour of the day, the wagging of the heads of passersby, the taunt referring to the destruction of the Temple, or the title “King of Israel.” Matthew 27:39-43 offers a similar account.
There is an obvious allusion to Psalm 22:7-9: “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
Luke refers to the two criminals at the outset of his description of the crucifixion. Mark (Mk. 15:27), Matthew (27:38) and John (19:18), mention them only after the crucifixion. This seems to be of a piece with Luke’s constant emphasis on Jesus’ association with the sinners and tax collectors and outcasts. Even in death he is united with them. This is perhaps further emphasized as Luke uses the verb ekmyktērizein – which he has already used in 16:14 – rather than Mark’s empaizein (15:31), which he himself had used in 22:63 and 23:11 and will use again in v. 36 for the soldiers.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, SJ, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1504.) Luke’s verb – here translated as “scoffed” – is translated by some scholars as they “kept sneering”. Mark’s word is often translated as “mocked”. There is a hard edge to Luke’s expression.
The hard edge is sharpened by the sneering religious authorities themselves when they cry out with dreadful, taunting sarcasm: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
Interestingly enough, the soldiers offer Jesus a wine that is “It was called oxos” (from oxys, “sharp”) (Fitzmyer, 1505)
Finally, the sarcasm reaches its peak in the inscription on the Cross: “King of the Jews”. The sarcasm throughout hides a profound irony: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), he is the King!
On 11 December 1925, Pope Pius XI published his encyclical, Quas Primus. In the opening paragraph of that encyclical, the Holy Fathers states: “We must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ”. And so the Feast of Christ the King was introduced into our liturgical year.
To celebrate this Feast well, it is necessary to have an acute sense of irony. Jesus spent his whole ministry, in both word and action, telling everyone who cared to listen and hear, that he was not establishing an earthly kingdom. Imagine the health care system, the social fabric, the political structures – and heaven knows what other institutions – Jesus could have established. He did not do that. Why not? Because he did not think them important? Clearly he loved people and sought their welfare wherever he went; he cared most especially about the poor and the suffering, the lost and the socially-abandoned. His contribution is to make that and so much more possible. We pray daily: “Thy kingdom come!” Not my king or your kingdom or our kingdom but thy Kingdom.
In Grahame Greene’s novel, Monsignor Quixote, the Monsignor is a thoughtful, compassionate priest. His friend, Sancho, is the mayor and an atheist. Their deep mutual affection becomes evident – and infectious – as they travel through Spain together. One night Monsignor Quixote has a dream. It disturbs him deeply:
“He had dreamt that Christ had been saved from the Cross by the legion of angels to which on an earlier occasion the Devil had told Him that He could appeal. So there was no final agony, no heavy stone which had to be rolled away, no discovery of an empty tomb. Father Quixote stood there watching on Golgotha as Christ stepped down from the Cross triumphant and acclaimed. The Roman soldiers, even the Centurion, knelt in His honour, and the people of Jerusalem poured up the hill to worship Him. The disciples clustered happily around. His mother smiled through her tears of joy. There was no ambiguity, no room for doubt and no room for faith at all. The whole world knew with certainty that Christ was the Son of God.
“It was only a dream, of course it was only a dream, but none the less Father Quixote had felt on waking the chill of despair felt by a man who realizes suddenly that he has taken up a profession which is of use to no one, who must continue to live in a kind of Saharan desert without doubt or faith, where everyone is certain that the same belief is true. He had found himself whispering, ‘God save me from such a belief.’ Then he heard the Mayor turn restlessly on the bed beside him, and he added without thought, ‘Save him too from belief,’ and only then he fell asleep again.” (Vintage Classics, Kindle Locations 1158-1167. Random House. Kindle Edition.) Can you share the Monsignor’s whispered prayer?