February 1, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:33-44.
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull), they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink. After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left. Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, [and] come down from the cross!” Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way.
“He trusted in God.” The chief priests and elders could hardly have known the depth of the truth they were speaking. Jesus trusted in God in a way that was beyond their comprehension.
Neither Matthew nor Mark from whom Matthew largely draws his account witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. Presumably, those who were witnesses told the story, which in turn was repeated to others over the years. It’s impossible to know if the statements reported here are accurate. Their words and behavior toward Jesus reflect a passage from the Book of Wisdom. The Book of Wisdom was written by an unknown author about 100 years before Jesus was born. The author’s purpose was to uplift his fellow Jews who were suffering at the hands of Jews who had deserted their faith and principles. Here are verses 12-20 of chapter two.
“Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is hardship for us, because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He call blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.”
Surely the chief priests, scribes and elders were familiar with the Book of Wisdom. They were entrusted to preserve and teach the faith. They practiced its rituals and enforced the legalisms, but they didn’t trust God. They didn’t trust God as Abraham, the father of their faith, had when he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. So, here we have a kind of bookend to Abraham who was obedient to God even to the point of sacrificing his only son. Jesus is obedient to God, his Father, even to the point of sacrificing his own life. Unequivocal trust.
Their trust in God wasn’t genuine; it was cynical and contemptuous. The chief priests and elders wanted a sign or so they said. We will believe if… Their belief was conditional. It was shallow, without roots. In their shameful condemnation of Jesus and their refusal to trust God, they unwittingly brought an end to the old covenant. The Jews were no longer the only chosen people of God. They had chosen otherwise and now God would regard all those who embraced His son as His chosen people.
Trust cannot be conditional; it is absolute. If I am to be God’s chosen, I must trust Him absolutely. That’s what Jesus showed in his life and in his death. What does it mean to trust? I think it means that I have to be thoroughly vulnerable, which means that I have to know unquestioningly that I am loved no matter what and no matter what happens to me. Trust and love are very much the same. Both require courage and the willingness to take risk “even to accept pain and disappointment” as Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving. And both are an act of faith, which brings me back to Jesus, the perfect human. His faith was unbreakable; his goal was unity with his Father. In that consummation he trusted. If only the chief priests and elders had understood what they said in mockery, “He trusted in God.” Our story might have been quite different. But then, our story is always different when we trust God. It changes everything.