Good Friday 2023: N.T. Wright Muses on the Cross as Recounted by St. Luke

Read St. Luke 23.26-46

One of the most moving moments at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 came when Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, gave a splendid and stirring lecture. Many of us, who had only heard him on the radio before, hadn’t realized that he can not only do a brilliant three-minute ‘thought for the day’ but also a magisterial and moving full-scale address—part lecture, part sermon, part testimony.

In the question time that followed, one question in particular made everyone pause and hush. ‘Tell us about Jesus.’ What would he, a leading Jew, say about the one we call ‘Messiah’?

Sir Jonathan went straight for this passage, and for verse 34, at the heart of Luke’s story of the crucifixion. ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.’ At that point, he said, Jesus was echoing what the high priest says on the Day of Atonement, interceding to God for muddled and sinful Israel. Jesus, said the Chief Rabbi, was never more thoroughly Jewish than at that moment, praying for those around, praying for forgiveness, pleading the ignorance of the people as the particular reason.

As we stand back from the story, we remind ourselves that this last phase of the whole gospel had begun with Jesus coming to Jerusalem and solemnly declaring God’s judgment on the Temple and its whole system. That had led to his trial before the high priest of the day, and then to Pilate and to condemnation. Jesus really does seem to have believed that it was part of his role to take into himself the task of Temple and Priest together. He would be the place where, and the means by which, God would meet with his people in grace and forgiveness.

But if Jesus on the cross is the true Priest, Luke insists that he is also the true king. This, he says, is what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes! ‘This is the king of the Jews’! Of course, it doesn’t look like that. It looks as though he’s a failed Messiah. The sneering challenge, ‘If you’re the king of the Jews’, goes back to the demonic challenge in the desert: ‘If you’re the son of God …’

And the point is that this moment, this bloody and dark moment, this miscarriage of justice, this terrible suffering, this offering by Jesus of his full self to the will of God—this is how God is dealing, in sovereign, rescuing love, with the weight of the world’s evil and pain, and with death itself. Jesus is the green tree, the wood that wasn’t ready for burning, dying in the place of the dry trees, the people all around who were eager to bring in the kingdom in their own way rather than God’s way.

So we draw all our prayers together in daring to echo that strange request made by one of the brigands alongside him: ‘Jesus—remember me when you finally become king.’ That’s often as much as we dare say.

But Jesus surprises us, as he surprised the brigand, by his response. He is becoming king, here and now. No more waiting.

Today.’ In the brigand’s case: paradise now, and resurrection still to come. In our case: forgiveness, healing and hope, here and now. And the call to serve, and to give ourselves, as he gave himself for us.

 Wright, T. (2009). Lent for Everyone: Luke Year C (pp. 108–110). London.

Almighty Father,
look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.