Jesus chooses to save others before he saves himself. Christ calls us to seek to live in the same way, actively working for the salvation of others even if it costs us greatly.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that Jesus forgives everyone, even those who seek to actively work against his work in the world.
Understand that Jesus chooses to be a self-sacrificial Messiah instead of a self-serving Messiah.
Understand that we are called to seek the salvation of others just like Jesus did.
Catching up on the Story
Luke's narrative is now drawing to a close. Luke's original readers have heard the story of Jesus from his birth to the beginning of his public ministry. They have watched as he has called disciples, eaten with sinners, healed the sick, cast out demons, and proclaimed the coming of God's Kingdom. Along with Luke's original readers, we are more than confident that this Jesus is the Son of God, the anointed Messiah, the savior of the world.
The antagonists in Luke's story are not at all so sure. The religious types, the Pharisees and Scribes, have different expectations about what this Messiah should be doing. Salvation for these religious types looks more like a political revolution than the selfless love, healing, justice, and hospitality that Jesus brings. The story has come to a boiling point, and the Pharisees and Scribes cannot stand to have Jesus around any longer. They are well pleased when Judas comes to them, willing to give Jesus into their hands.
Finally, Jesus is arrested. One question dominates the arrest and trial narrative. Asked in different ways, the question is the same, but the answer it seeks has to do with the same thing, is Jesus who he says he is? Is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of the Jews? Jesus never gives the religious leaders, Pilate or Herod, a definitive answer. From the very beginning, Luke's Gospel has affirmed that Jesus is those things, and fitting with themes of blindness that run through the Gospel, those who should have been able to see Jesus as the Messiah do not.
The inability to see Jesus for who he is leads to Jesus' crucifixion. By this time, the crowds have been stirred up against Jesus. Jesus is finally hung on a cross between two common criminals.
This week's passage opens in the middle of Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion. Immediately, we find out that Jesus is not alone at his crucifixion but that two common criminals accompany him. The trio of condemned are led to a hill outside the city known to Luke as "The Skull." It was common practice to crucify criminals in places that were visible to the maximum number of people possible. The public nature of the execution was to ensure that the criminal's death would serve as a warning to others not to engage in similar behavior. The inscription that hung over Jesus' head mockingly declaring him as the King of the Jews was to let everyone know what his crime was. Signs like this were not uncommon in Roman executions.
On a hill outside Jerusalem, between two criminals, Jesus utters what is perhaps one of Jesus' most profound statements, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Though we have heard this statement countless times, let it sink deep inside your bones. In the very act of death, Jesus offers forgiveness and salvation to his executioners.
Remember, we have said that Luke wrote his Gospel from an apocalyptic standpoint, a standpoint that seeks to reveal the true nature of the Kingdom of God over and against the way things are. The Kingdom of God is undoubtedly not about revenge. God's Kingdom has always been about forgiveness for those who actively work against the will and way of God. It has always been about love and grace.
Then soldiers huddled around this place of execution, rolling dice to decide who gets to take home Jesus' meager personal belongings. Meanwhile, the religious leaders scoffed at him, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"
The mocking does not stop there, as the soldiers join in by offering the cheapest of drinks, sour wine, to this so-called king. Again, the call is for this king to save himself. Jesus remains silent in the face of such mockery.
Finally, one of the criminals hanging beside Jesus rounds out the shaming, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
Jesus is pushed to prove his status as the Messiah and Son of God by saving himself. As we read the story up to this point, it is clear that if Jesus is the Messiah, he should be able to pull off some trick that will bring him salvation. Jesus refuses to do so.
Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, but he has and will be so in ways opposite to the way the religious leaders and even the Gentile political leaders anticipate. The Jewish and Gentile political leaders' understanding of Messiahship and Salvation are wrapped up in an eye for an eye and might makes right mentalities. Jesus' portrayal of Messiahship and Salvation is much more concerned with forgiveness and letting go.
By refusing to use his powers as God, Jesus completes his rejection of the devil's final temptation (4:9-13). At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he is tempted to be the kind of Messiah that the Jewish religious leaders were expecting. But Jesus rejected the temptation to use his power to benefit himself. He refused the temptation to use his power to gain earthly glory, honor, and power. Jesus refused to use his power to protect himself from physical harm. And now, as he hangs dying on the cross, Jesus again refuses to use his power as God to defend himself.
Surrounded by the mocking jeers of religious leaders, Roman soldiers, and a fellow criminal, the second criminal is the only one who sees things as they are. Perhaps his imminent and inevitable death has given him some needed perspective. The second man chides the mocking criminal, rebuking his lack of understanding.
The man points out that their death sentence is well deserved. They have broken the law and are only getting what is coming to them. Jesus, though, has done nothing wrong. He is innocent, yet he dies just the same.
After rebuking the other criminal, the man turns to Jesus hoping to receive some salvation, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Whether or not the man knew what Jesus' Kingdom honestly looked like is inconsequential. He has perceived something significant in this Jesus, something kind, loving, and forgiving, and he wants to be a part of it.
Jesus' final words of this segment bestow on the man what he seeks, participation in God's Kingdom.
What's so profound about this story is that rather than saving himself, Jesus forgives and offers salvation to friends and foes alike. Jesus finally and fully lets go of all that is his Instead, Jesus surrenders himself out of love and faithfulness to the ones he has created. He refuses to save himself so that others might find salvation.
The consistent cry of Jesus' accusers is that he save himself. It takes no courage and no moral integrity to save oneself. Plenty of people have done that. That's the way the world works. We are taught from an early age to look out for ourselves. It is part of our broken condition, yes, but our society and culture encourage it. It is not just our culture, though. If Luke's testimony is trustworthy, this was the case in Jesus' culture, too.
But Jesus is revealing a new way, the Kingdom of God. Saving yourself is not part of the script. To prove that Jesus is who he says he is, he does not save himself but offers salvation to everyone. It takes real courage to save others, especially enemies. Saving others seals the identity of Jesus as God's Messiah, the true King of God's Kingdom.
What seals our identity as followers of Jesus? Is it that we have saved ourselves through our faith and adherence to God’s way? Or, is our identity defined and sealed by our participation in Jesus' work to save others, even our enemies?
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Who are the main characters in the story? What are they doing?
What doesn’t make sense to you in this story?
Look at all of the questions put to Jesus by others in Luke 22:63-23:43. What do these questions have in common?
Why do you think these questioners call for Jesus to save himself?
Read Luke 4:1-12, paying close attention to verses 9-12. Are there any similarities between Jesus’ encounter with the tempter and our passage today?
The criminal at the end of the passage is an important character. What makes him important? Looking back at some of the passages we’ve discussed in Luke’s gospel, who else might this criminal be similar to?