Nailing a Title on the Cross
A sermon for Good Friday 2014 given by Roberta Berke, 18th April 2014
“Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews….It was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek ”
When you drive towards central London, you’ll see signs warning that you’re about to enter the Congestion Charge Zone. These signs warn that soon you will have to pay. Years ago, if you were a traveller approaching London, you’d be confronted by the rotting heads of traitors stuck up on London Bridge. This was a gruesome warning: “don’t rebel against government, or your head will be up here.”
Now let’s imagine we’re back in the year 33AD. Let’s imagine three different people who are approaching the city walls of Jerusalem. First, suppose you’re a Jewish pilgrim coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. You’ve travelled south, all the way from your home in Galilee and now you’re relieved to see the huge Damascus gate leading into the city. But before you can enter the holy city, there’s an unholy sight off on your right hand side. Three men are writhing on crosses. They lift themselves up, gasp for breath, then they collapse back onto the spikes that impale them on the rough wood. Slowly, they are bleeding to death. Over the cross in the centre is a sign, “Yeshua ha Netzeret Melek ha Yehudim”, “Jesus of Nazareth: The King of the Jews”. This title is written in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. You turn away from this stomach churning spectacle and hurry to get to your inn before the Sabbath begins. But the words, “The King of the Jews” stick in your mind. What can they mean? That Yeshua was a local boy from Nazareth. Once you heard him speak there, in the synagogue. He nearly started a riot. He had no official rabbinical authority whatsoever for some of the shocking things he said. With his rag-tag followers, he wandered around the countryside, preaching and stirring up trouble. What an embarrassment to his family! Now he’s ended up like a common criminal, crucified with a sign calling him, “The King of the Jews”. That sign should read, “He said he was King of the Jews.” That’s yet another Roman insult, mocking our hope for the promised Messiah, who will come and throw out our heathen oppressors. Granted, this Yeshua did heal some sick people, but he couldn’t cause any spectacular miracles to prove he really was the Messiah sent from God. Now he definitely can’t be the Messiah, because the Torah says, “Cursed be he who is hanged on a tree.” On the other hand, didn’t the prophet Isaiah predict that the Messiah would be a servant of God, who has to suffer for our sins? Isaiah wrote, “See my servant shall prosper; he shall be exaulted and lifted up, and shall be very high…because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” This is difficult to understand: best to discuss this problem with the rabbinic scholars in the Temple courtyard.
Now, let’s suppose you’re a second traveller. Imagine you’re a Roman approaching Jerusalem on that spring afternoon in 33AD. You’re a Roman official bringing documents with Emperor Tiberius’ latest decrees to Pontius Pilate, the Governor. Your ship from Rome landed on the coast so you’re approaching Jerusalem along the road from the west, heading for the Joppa gate. On a small hill on your left hand side, a squad of legionnaires is guarding three crosses. The sentence posted above two of these men condemns them: malificus, a criminal, a villain. These men were probably insurgents, rebels against Roman rule. This province of Judea has always been festering with trouble, especially when these Jews hold one of their peculiar holy days. The sentence nailed up above on the man on the cross in the middle is puzzling at first: “Rex Judaeorium”, “The King of the Jews”. He certainly doesn’t look like a king. Someone has stuck a crude circle of thorns on his bleeding head. Then you get the joke. “Rex Judaeorium”: it’s one of Pilate’s ironic insults. This naked, helpless criminal is the only king these weirdy beardy Jews will ever get. This crucifixion will show these natives not to rebel against Rome. Pilate deliberately had that sign written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so no one can say they don’t get the message: if you stir up rebellion against Rome: you’ll be nailed up on a cross. That’s the only language some people understand.
Now imagine you’re a third traveller. Suppose you’re a Greek merchant, who’s sailed in from the Island of Zante with bales of raisins to sell. As you come near to the Joppa gate, on your left side you see three crosses, Roman soldiers, and some women sobbing. A crowd mills around, shouting insults at the man on the cross in the middle. Above his cross is written “Basileous ton loudaion”, “the King of the Jews.” Anxious to avoid trouble, you hurry into the city to meet Demetrius, the dealer who might buy your goods. Demetrius is a fellow Greek, and he loves to speculate about life, the universe and everything. When you ask him what “the King of the Jews” could possibly mean, Demetrius mentions Theseus, a hero king who was supposed to be half-god, half man. Nonsense, you reply. That miserable man on that cross was no hero. He didn’t conquer many lands like Alexander the Great. He didn’t die honourably in battle. There’s no logic to his shameful death. There’s nothing gained by his self-sacrifice. You both agree that this so-called “king” is just another example of Jewish insanity.
The three travellers I’ve just described are imaginary. Their journeys would have taken place in the past, centuries ago. Right now, in the present, all of us are travellers, coming along different roads, all of us trying to reach the Holy City. Today Christ confronts us from his Cross. When we kneel before the crucifix, his figure is close enough to touch. Over his head are the initials, I.N.R.I., short for “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. What do these words mean to us? Once again Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” If we had to put a sign on Jesus’ cross, what would we write? “He was my friend when I needed him, but when he needed me I ran away?” Or perhaps we might write, “I boasted that he was my master, but then I denied I ever knew him.” Or would we admit, “I betrayed him with a kiss.” What sign would we put up on the cross? Perhaps, “Here is a God who conquered death to bring us eternal life.” What sign would we put up on the cross? AMEN.
Copyright © by Roberta Berke 2014. All rights reserved.