Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And 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!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Suddenly at the end of the church year, we are led to the end of Jesus’ life and to the Cross - To Good Friday. The end of the church year should mark the event, that is yet to come in the world history, when Christ will be the ruler of the universe, as we confess in the creed. The text of today is however pointing to the kingdom and its king in a peculiar way. The thief on the other side of Jesus could recognize in Jesus an innocent victim and a king. This was his spontaneous response, his own revelation. He didn’t learn it from anyone else on the scene, who would have believed in Jesus’ innocence, not to mention his kingship. Surrounding him was only a crowd of Jewish elders, soldiers and the mob; all of them hurling insults to Jesus. Even the fact that, they shared the same painful fate can’t explain it. We see it clearly in the other criminal, who identified himself more with the mocking crowd, than the fellow-crucified beside him.
Before the conversation between the thief and Jesus, Jesus said his well-known petition to God: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” By “them” Jesus was referring to his executers, the elders, the soldiers and the mob around the cross as well as crowds at the Pilate’s courtyard crying “crucify, crucify”. According to Jesus, the crowds, the elders, the executioners didn’t know what they were doing. It sounds almost like a defense lawyer’s appeal to the court, where defendant has gone trough a psychiatric evaluation and is claimed not to be criminally responsible of his or her actions.
French-American thinker René Girard is known from so called scapegoat theory, that stems from the sacrifice practises of the early humanity. According to Girard all the myths in the world are actually accounts of communities rising against a single victim, whom they blame for everything that is wrong in the community. When anxiety levels in a community rise for a reason or another, to save themselves from a war of everyone against everyone else, the community projects it’s wrath towards a single victim or a group of victims, usually on the fringes of the community. Just like the head priest Caiphas said in the Gospel of John 11: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” John suggests that Caiphas was saying this as a prophesy, but it is also a very sharp notion of how scapegoating works in a community.
Scapegoating is a coping strategy of our ancestors, but attempts of scapegoating appear also today, where ever human beings form communities. Whether it’s a workplace, school, a city or a nation, when its members become anxious enough, they non-consciously start looking for a victim, who is the culprit and reason for all the turmoil in the community. Scapegoating is an automatic crowd-mechanism and that mechanism was steering the actions and reactions of the mob in the passion story. This mob mentality is highly contagious and we all know true stories starting from passion of Christ, to the medieval witch-hunts in Europe, Nazi reign of the 1930’s and 40’s Germany, as well as lynchings of the African Americans’ in the U.S. and Rwanda’s genocide, just to mention some of the most known ones.
While persecuting and killing their victim or victims, the crowd always believes, that they are doing the right and moral thing. They believe sincerely that they are cleansing the community from individuals, that have caused its mishaps. As Jesus said, they really don’t know what they are doing.
I think hearing this from Jesus, it triggered the criminal to understand, that Jesus was innocent and that he himself was not. But he understood even more than that. He could see in Jesus a king, whose kingdom was soon to come. Because of his discovery, we could call this Sunday as the “miracle of faith” -Sunday. On this Sunday we would commemorate the man, who was the first person ever to believe that the Kingdom of God manifests itself in the cross of Christ. In our case, faith may not be such a miracle, because we have plenty of models, beginning from St. Paul up to our Sunday School teachers, that have told us about the secrets of the kingdom. But a miracle it is nevertheless. Also, today we have the temptation to isolate everything Godly and divine to glorious and beautiful things in life. I guess, that’s why so many claim, that they are closest to God on a nature path, where God’s glory is very obvious.
The gospel assures us today, that the kingdom is present also, when life has become ugly. And the king can be seen also amid dreadful events of life. The miracle of faith can happen any day, and every day, when you see Christ the king in the midst of lives turmoil.