Proper 29 • Luke 23:27–43 • November 20, 2016
By Mark A. Seifrid
The drama of the text unfolds in three acts. The first act is the way of the cross with Jesus’s word to the women who followed him on the way. The second act is the crucifixion at the place called “Skull.” The third act is the mocking of Jesus. Yet amidst the mocking, there is another voice, the voice of the one criminal who sees through the entire scene and perceives Jesus’s innocence.
The first act centers upon the mourning of the women who followed Jesus (23:27–31). Luke now speaks of a “multitude of the people” who follow Jesus to his crucifixion, suggesting a different and larger crowd from that which demanded his crucifixion (23:13). Women are present. They alone can mourn openly—weeping and wailing—without danger. They mourn the unjust death of a righteous man (23:37), one who went about doing good and healing (Acts 10:36–39), a prophet upon whom many had pinned their hopes for the redemption of Israel, as Cleopas and his sad companion later tell the risen Lord (24:19–21).
Jesus turns and responds to the women. Their mourning is misplaced. They need not mourn him, but should instead mourn themselves and their children. What is happening to Jesus is a mere anticipation of what is coming upon them “the daughters of Jerusalem.” Judgment is coming, one so severe that they will “begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’” Jesus alludes to the judgment that the prophet Hosea foretells (Hos 10:8). Now it is coming upon Jerusalem. It is hard to miss the allusion to the coming, catastrophic war with Rome (cf. Lk 13:1–5, 34–35; 21:20–24). This judgment will be even more brutal than what is coming upon Jesus (23:31). And Jesus in his words points to an even greater, final judgment that will follow: “they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’” It is no surprise that at the sounding of the seventh trumpet in the Apocalypse, the same allusion to Hosea 10:8 appears. In Jesus’s death the judgment of the world has begun.
The second act is full of action (23:32–34). Two other criminals—Jesus is now counted among the criminals—are led with him to be done away with. They came to the place called “Skull.” There “they” crucified Jesus; “they” cast lots, dividing his garments. Luke does not provide the subject of the pronoun: all involved, the chief priests, the former crowd, and the Romans are all guilty.
Finally comes the third act, the lengthiest. The crowd is now silent. The open mourning has now ceased. It is replaced by mocking. The mocking by the rulers, by the soldiers, and the mocking by one of the criminals. His mocking bears a note of bitterness: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:40). Then, beyond the misdirected mourning and the unbelieving mocking, come unexpected, surprising words of faith from the most unexpected person. The other criminal warns his fellow convict of the fear of God and of the justice of the judgment that the two of them are suffering. But weren’t there three criminals (23:32)? This other criminal sees through appearances to Jesus’s innocence. He trusts in the forgiveness that Jesus so often offered others. He trusts in Jesus’s promise of the coming kingdom of God. And—most wonderfully of all—he trusts that this kingdom belongs to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” (23:42).
Jesus’s response is equally wonderful: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise!” (23:43). Paradise—a fulfillment of the garden of Eden—already exists. True, it must yet come to this earth. Yet the crucified criminal will be there with Jesus that very day. Jesus’s promise shatters any and all schemes that count our growth as progress toward our bliss and salvation. It has been given to the criminal to perform the greatest deed of all. He believes that the crucified Jesus is Lord. In Jesus’s death the life of the kingdom has come in the only way that it can—through judgment.