Reflections on the Seven Last Word of Jesus from the Good Friday Service at
St Martin’s @ St Chad’s, Sandringham. 14 April 2017, 9.30am
(Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version)
Reflections by Tony Surman and Jean Rheinfrank
- The First Word
When 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. -Luke 23: 33-4
The God who Jesus revealed to his compatriots is a profoundly merciful God; gracious and generous – a God concerned for the wellbeing of every creature, a God who causes rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous.
There is a place in this God’s heart for every being God has fashioned; like a dotting parent – or perhaps even more like a dotting Grandparent, the God who Jesus revealed to the world can see the promise and potential in even the most wayward of his children.
Jesus showed that it was in that graciousness, in that inherent willingness to forgive, that God’s perfection lay.
We see that perfection exemplified in Jesus as he prayed for his persecutors, for the ones who set him up, metaphorically, on false charges and to the ones who set him up, quite literally, on the wood of the cross. He prayed that God would forgive them, and his plea for clemency, on their behalf, was that they did not know what they were doing.
On the face of it the plea that Jesus made is absurdly generous; surely the members of the Temple Council, the Sanhedrin, knew what they doing when they conspired to do away with Jesus; and when Pilate condemned him and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross, surely they knew what their business was about?
Look more closely though and you see just how right Jesus was about their ignorance. Most members of the Sanhedrin had probably never heard Jesus teach first hand; or if they had, they would not have a grasp of his message in anything like its entirety. As politically savvy men what they did know was that Jesus posed a risk in a city packed to the gunnels with Jewish pilgrims awaiting the Passover. Word on the street was that he wanted to establish an alternative kingdom. The crowd might easily be swayed to insurrection. And they knew, as well, that Pilate, the man who kept the Roman Peace in Judea, would be pleased to use any pretext as an excuse to crack down on them and the faith they sought to protect.
Pilate too, had a limited understanding of what he was doing when he sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. He had, it seems, a sense, a gut feeling, that Jesus was not the villain that the Jewish authorities made him out to be, but he is very unlikely to have known anything about Jesus’ teachings. He acted out of expediency and probably, in all reality, cruel indifference – if a conquered people wished to sacrifice their best and brightest to placate their overlord, who was he to protest? And further down the chain of command, the soldiers who flogged and then crucified Jesus were probably completely oblivious to Jesus and his message.
What is truly remarkable is that Jesus not only recognises that their attack on him is driven by misunderstanding, but he takes the step of advocating on their behalf to his Father; a more natural response would be to complain about the injustice being meted out by the ill-informed, but Jesus, strangely, forgoes such a words.
This unexpected response is altogether disarming.
For a moment or two it must have arrested the soldiers tasked with hoisting Jesus onto the Cross. They may then have laughed off what Jesus said as pious non-sense, but as they watched the other events of his passion unfold, his prayer for them – his care for them – would have started to win them over to the side of Angels.
It is that grace of God which effects change in human hearts; grace operating in the face of the most hostile opposition; grace that is willing to endure hell’s fury to redeem even the most blemished life. That is how the Cross works; it points to the extraordinary grace of God.
We may know a few more facts about the way the world operates than our ancestors did, but just like the people who put Jesus to death, our knowledge of what is really going on in the world around us is strictly limited. We understand things from a particular point of view. We see what we want to see. We see what we are brought up to see. We avert our eyes from the truth when that truth interferes with our perceived best interests. We are nearer to Caiaphas and Pilate than we would ever like to admit to being. Thanks be to God, just as our Lord prayed for their forgiveness, so he prays for ours.
2. The Second Word
One 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.” -Luke 23: 39-43
Jesus, hanging from the cross is in true agony, and there is a further compounding problem, in that this innocent man is joined—one on the left, and one on the right, by two criminals. Jesus was being blasphemed by one of the guilty men, but the other attempted to quiet that accuser. Jesus offers salvation and promises they will all be in Paradise before the end of the day. Racked with horrible pain, unable to breathe properly, Jesus, in spite of his own discomfort, seeks out to help another, someone he does not even know. Could any of us—be so magnanimous? Could we be so unselfish? Could we care so much, hanging in such pain and suffering, and provide such words of assurance: “truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise?”
3. The Third Word
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. -John 19: 25b-27
In the pages of the New Testament that record his life before his crucifixion, Jesus appears, at times, rather thoughtless in his treatment of his mother. When he was around 12 years of age, for instance, he deliberately remained behind in Jerusalem without telling his Mother Mary, or Joseph – or anyone else it seems – that he intended missing the caravan of family and friends returning to Nazareth. This caused Mary and Joseph a great deal of emotional distress as they turned over the city for three days looking for their lost child. When they found him, the excuse he gave was that they should have known he would be in his Father’s house – that wasn’t really the most thoughtful explanation that a young person in his situation might have offered up. There was no expression of remorse for the distress he had caused them, which does strike me as rather odd, but then, he was a young person, and maybe the way he delivered the words was so guileless that his parents weren’t too wounded by what he said.
Many years later, at the start of his public ministry, it was Mary who prompted Jesus to perform his first miracle – turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Jesus’ initial response to his Mother’s prompting, however, doesn’t appear all that gracious. St John tells us that:
‘3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 [which does seem a bit blunt, doesn’t it]. [Then], his mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
And Jesus went and did what his Mother requested.
Later in his ministry, Jesus was even more dismissive of his Mother’s concerns. This time it was her concerns for his safety that he fobbed off. At the height of his public ministry, when he was gathering crowds around him wherever he went, Jesus was clearly in danger, speaking as he was about an alternative kingdom, a Kingdom of God, in a land that was under foreign occupation. To thwart that danger, Mary and Jesus’ siblings sent word to Jesus to tone things down. The people who came to him told Jesus
‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
This is technically true, but it is not diplomatic in the least. It is quite a blow for his Mother, brothers and sisters, who I am sure were motivated to approach him on this matter out of loving concern for him.
These blunt responses of Jesus to his Mother might make us suspect that Jesus’ didn’t have much natural affection for Mary. That possibility, however, is ruled out by the way Jesus responds to his Mother when he is at the extreme edge of life, on the Cross.
On the Cross it is clear that his love for his mother, who brought him into the world and nurtured and protected him, was, and had always been strong.
Here we behold our Lord, Mary’s Son, as always, thinking of the welfare of others, even in the midst of extreme violence and injustice against himself.
4. The Fourth Word
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” - Matthew 27: 45-46
Six hours...according to sources, including the Gospel of Mark...is the length of suffering Jesus withstood on the cross. And yet, during this time, Jesus was fully aware and quite prominent in helping those he saw around him from the cross. His pondering question to God, “why have you forsaken me,” is an echo from Psalm 22:1, and includes a specific prophecy of the soldiers gambling for the saviour’s seamless robe. Graham Stanton shows us—in fact he stresses—how men such as Pilate and Herod recognized Jesus as the innocent party in this surreal ritual.
Jesus’ “feeling” of Abandonment can be understood within the time frames of his excruciating 6-hours on the cross. His words, say authors of the Jerome Bible Commentary, fall short of despair, given he was praying to God during that particular point.
Great care, it can be noted, is taken by the various writers in showing Jesus as serenely confident, and one who dominates proceedings from his arrest to his triumphal final cry from the cross. So much care and detail has been carefully handled, in recording Jesus’ last moments on earth.
5. The Fifth Word
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. -John 19: 28-9
As Jesus hung from the cross, bleeding and sweating, his thirst became intense. Months earlier, in happier times, he had been thirsty too as he sat beside Jacob’s Well in the midday sun.
On the Cross it was plain to all that he was in need of water. When he stated that he was thirsty, Jesus could reasonably be understood to be pleading for water. As he sat beside Jacob’s Well, Jesus’ thirst may not have been as evident. In that instance he asked a Samaritan woman quite directly to give him a drink.
On both occasions he did not receive the simple thing he had requested; the Samaritan woman became caught up in deep conversation with him and ran off excitedly into town, leaving her water jar, presumably empty behind; and at the Cross, the soldiers delivered him wine – according to John (sour wine according to the other Gospel writers) which is hardly as quenching.
Yet although Jesus’ immediate human need is not met, he demonstrates – as he sits by the well, and hangs on the cross – that there is a well of life within him that springs up and is effective, despite the worst that the world can throw at him. He may not have got a drink from the excited Samaritan woman, but the word of life he spoke to her became a spring of water which went on to convert a village of people – people who would, in the normal run of things, have had nothing to do with a person like Jesus.
And despite being given wine instead of water on the cross, Jesus’ forgiveness of his tormentors, his loving-kindness towards family and friends and strangers around him, conquers hearts. Even as he dies, Jesus proves to be a well of living water to those around him - through the words he speaks, and the forbearance he demonstrates.
We have seen how his word was a river of life to one of the criminals crucified beside him. As we continue our reflection on Jesus’ final words we will see the transformative effect of them again, until, at the last, there will be barely a person present at the crucifixion who has not been reshaped (if only in embryonic form) by the living waters flowing up through Jesus.
We thirst a lot in our lives. Sometimes that thirsting is quite superficial – and easily remedied. At other times, though, our thirst is not so easily quenched. If our hunger is for a sense of meaning in our life; or for peace as we cope with the grief of loss, or for hope as we face uncertainty, then the water, the sustenance, we require can only come from a deeper well. Thanks be to God, that well is closer to us than we dare to think. That well is Jesus Christ, the word of God, the Son of God, and Son of Man who thirsted like we do, who knows us and our needs and crucially - literally by the cross – is able to meet our deepest needs because he has endured them at their most extreme.
6. The Sixth Word
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. - John 19: 30
We are told in the Study Bible that those who died by crucifixion normally raised their heads at the end, gasping for breath and then dropped them when they died. Jesus—in a sign of submission bowed his head to His Father’s will—showing he gave his life by his own volition and not because he was powerless. His work, given to him by His Father was now completed. Nothing to be added—nothing to be taken away. “It is finished,” he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.
7. The Seventh Word
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. -Luke 23:46
Jesus’ death on the Cross marked the end of an extraordinary ministry (where he had given of his Spirit completely to the mission of God; now that Spirit was going home). He had transformed the lives of hundreds, even thousands of people. During his lifetime he had included others in that ministry of healing, restoration and liberation, and today, the seed of the church that he established through his disciples has blossomed into a mighty tree – just as he promised it would.
As Christ’s disciples today we called to participate and continue that ministry.
We know that our success in that venture depends on our faithfulness to the way marked out for us by Jesus, but we might wonder how far we have to go in our imitation of Christ to be deemed successful; we might wonder whether we have to give ourselves up unto death to make the grade as a Christian. Is martyrdom a prerequisite for a life to be called ‘well-lived’?
I can’t imagine Jesus answering this question in the affirmative
Death on the cross was not something that Jesus pursued with any relish, and I am sure he would not want his followers to see the pursuit of pain, suffering and death as a noble end in itself. He did not have a death wish, and even a very casual glance at his ministry reveals a man who was, generally speaking, very happy to remain ‘below the radar’; he did not seek to make an exhibition of himself. He had a knack for being able to slip through crowds when they became nasty or wished to push him into an action he did not wish to pursue.
He could have gone on doing that, being evasive, until ripe old age. He didn’t do so because he needed to prove something – not to himself, but to the world. And what he needed to prove was that God could redeem anything, could remedy and restore the worst damage that evil could do.
We do not need to pursue martyrdom to make this point again. It has been made once and for all by Jesus. His is the final, definitive word on the matter.
And we can rest assured that if the worst should happen to us – God forbid – our lives are securely in the hands of the God who overcomes death, from whose love nothing in heaven or earth can separate us.
Hear us, O merciful Lord Jesus Christ, and remember now the hour at which you commended your blessed spirit into the hands of your heavenly Father, and so assist us by your most precious death that we, being dead to the world, may live for you alone, and at the hour of our departing from this mortal life, may be received into your heavenly kingdom; where you live and reign with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.