In vulnerably lies our salvation

The Reign of Christ – 2016

Luke 23:33-43

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose contradictions keep us always guessing. Amen.

Periander had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the wheat, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Cypselus, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Cypselus, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner[1].

According to Wikipedia this tale, which dates from at least the 4th century BCE is the origin of what we know as the Tall Poppy Syndrome – the desire to cut down anyone whom we believe to have “risen above their station”. That same site quotes Peter Harcher from the Sydney Morning Herald who defines the Australian version of the syndrome in the following way, “(Australian) citizens know that some among them will have more power and money than others… But according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of levelling derision. It has a name—The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others. This is sometimes misunderstood…It isn’t success that offends Australians. It’s the affront committed by anyone who starts to put on superior airs[2].”

Sociologists like Max Weber believe that believe that in some groups, especially those that are disadvantaged socially or economically, there is only a “limited amount of prestige to go around”. As a result those who gain a degree of power or influence are resented for absorbing more than their fair share, which in turn restricts the ability of others to gain attention and authority[3]. In Australia, it seems that another person’s success offends our sense of egalitarianism. If someone is more successful than his or her peers, it is (in the minds of their peers) a sign that they think more highly of themselves than they should. They have broken the bonds of solidarity that provide strength and dignity to those on the lower rungs of the social scale and have set themselves apart to the chagrin of their peers.

Those left behind seek to humiliate if not destroy those who by good fortune or hard work have improved their place in the world. They try to bring that person down to their own level, to prove that they are just as human and flawed as the next person.

Should that person experience a reversal in fortune or a fall from grace, his or her peers will crow with delight, gather like vultures to pick over the bones, boast with delight that they knew that no good could come from someone overreaching themselves. They think to themselves how wise they were to have predicted the inevitable outcome of another’s ambition and pride. They express no sympathy for the plight of the fallen, just gleeful spite and self-congratulation.

If we understand this characteristic of human nature (the desire to cut others down to size), we will not surprised that this is how a majority of people react to Jesus’ arrest, condemnation and crucifixion. After all Jesus, in the minds of many, is just some peasant upstart from the far-flung region of Galilee who despite being a nobody has been causing mayhem in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Egged on by the leaders (whose apparent power derives from Rome), those present at the cross deride and mock Jesus, pointing out his powerlessness and the contrast between his present situations and that to which he might have aspired. What right does he have to set himself above others? What makes him different from the rest of the poor peasants who make up 99% of the population? Why should he receive the adulation and support of the crowds? What gives him the right to challenge the leaders and to critique Temple worship? Those who have no power – the soldiers, the crowd and even one of Jesus’ co-condemned – ridicule Jesus and demand that he demonstrate the power that he claimed to have. They want him to prove himself. If he is better than them, if he is able to perform miracles, if he is closer to God than they are then now is the time to prove it.

Three times the challenge rings out: “If he is the Christ let him save himself.” “If you are the King of the Jews save yourself.” “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Three times Jesus is challenged to “save”. Save! Save! Save! they cry in mockery, knowing that the cross holds Jesus tight.

What we can see and the crowds cannot, is that the cross is unable to hold Jesus. The leaders, the soldiers, the man condemned to death have completely misunderstood the way in which Jesus will save (will bring about salvation). He will not “save himself from the cross, but his submission to the cross will bring about the salvation of the whole world. What the leaders and the soldiers and the condemned man have failed to understand is that it is precisely Jesus’ willingness to be powerless and vulnerable, his readiness to submit himself completely to God and his total obedience to and reliance on God that will lead not only to his own “rescue” from death, but also to the salvation of the whole of humankind.

As is often the case in the gospels, it is the most unlikely figure who can see the truth. A condemned man, who within two days will have died the most horrific of deaths, recognises Jesus’ paradoxical kingship. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, knowing the authority that he does have, promises “today you will be with me in Paradise”.

Crucifixion does not look like salvation, death does not look like life, vulnerability does not look like control but Jesus’ knew and the thief discerned, that it is only when we give up our independence and sense of control, only when we place ourselves completely and utterly in God’s hands that we can and will be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The concept originates from accounts in HerodotusThe Histories (Book 5, 92f), Aristotle‘s Politics (1284a), and Livy‘s History of Rome, Book I. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[2] op cit

[3] op cit

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