It is a well-worn tale. Jesus, being crucified between two criminals, is challenged by just about everyone to prove himself as King. In particular, we seem to tend to focus on the criminal who derides Jesus by asking, “Aren’t you the Messiah?” He begs him, “Save yourself… and us!” I guess we focus on this criminal because he is the foil for the other, the one who will be with Jesus “in Paradise, today.” I suppose we expect the soldiers to mock Jesus, after all, it is their job to make this traitor to Rome seem as unspectacular as possible. As if his hanging on a cross isn’t enough, they want to make sure everyone who looks on knows that Rome is in control and Jesus, or any other revolutionary for that matter, are foolish morons. I also think that we probably assume that the crowd would be anti-Jesus, after all, they were the one’s that got whipped into a frenzy by the Chief Priests and cried out “crucify him!” Maybe the criminal at Jesus’ side is the most surprising naysayer, and therefore gets our attention.
What got my attention this morning was the demand the criminal makes, “Save yourself… and us!” It is a great ironic twist in the midst of an already dramatic story told by Luke. The birth of Jesus is foretold by the angel Gabriel, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most Highs, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk 1.31-33) His birth is announced by a choir of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Lk 2.14) He is baptized in the River Jordan and “filled with the Holy Spirit… was led… in the wilderness, where for forty days he wast tempted by the devil.” (Lk. 4.1-2) He was rejected in his hometown (4.14-30) and began a ministry of healing, preaching, teaching, and forgiving that ultimately brought him to Jerusalem on what would come to be called Palm Sunday (19.28-40) where he wept (19.41-44), ran out the money-changers (19.45-48), and found himself arrested (22.47f), found guilty (23.13f), and taken to the place called “The Skull” (23.33).
“Save yourself… and us!” Ironic because a) Jesus has been saving us since before his birth and b) the cross is the place where that saving work is made permanent. His death, as we say, destroyed death. His death is his most obvious salvific act of love. Way back at the Temptation, the devil hoped that Jesus would save himself so that he could no longer save us, but he refused. It is in his self-sacrifice, the very fact that he didn’t save himself, that we are saved.
Funny, that’s not what the criminal, nor I, for that matter, really expect salvation to look like.