This was first published at Credenda.org in March 2010.
God is not mocked, Paul tells us. Matthew’s Passion narrative (Matthew 27:27-44), however, suggests otherwise. Matthew gives very little information about the physical sufferings of Jesus. We can imagine those sufferings from the details he records, but he directs our attention elsewhere. For Matthew, the cross is mainly about man’s mockery of God.
Pilate knows Jesus is innocent and wants to dispose of Jesus as quickly as he can. He turns Him over for scourging and crucifixion, and turns a blind eye to what happens within his own Praetorium. “Have nothing to do with that just man,” his wife had warned him. Pilate follows her advice. He gives Jesus up to the lions and dogs and wolves, to the strong bulls of Bashan that attack from every side, and washes his hands of the matter.
Inside the Praetorium, a “whole cohort” of Roman soldiers – one-tenth of a legion, some six hundred men – relieves its boredom and discharges its spite by spending an afternoon in cruel fun. They dress Jesus in a scarlet robe, crown Him with thorns, place a reedy scepter in His hand, and kneel acclaiming Him king of the Jews. The robe is the scarlet chlamys of a Roman soldier, so the soldiers make Jesus one of their own, chief of the Roman cohort. The solders are also mocking their Jewish subjects: This strange, silent, passive man is just the kind of king Romans would expect from Jews.
Then they reverse the whole coronation with an anti-coronation. They spit in contempt instead of kneeling in reverence, pull the scepter from Jesus’ hand and beat His crowned head with it, strip off the scarlet robe and replace it with Jesus’ own robe. They remove the veil of irony and reveal what they really think about this King of the Jews, what they think about these arrogant Jews who persist against all reason in believing themselves the chosen of the earth. The Roman soldiers reveal what they really think about the odd, pathetic God who would choose the Jews.
Once the soldiers are done with Jesus, they lead Him to Golgotha, the place of the skull, and fix Him to the cross, where Jewish crowds and leaders join in the mockery begun in the Praetorium. As people pass, they “blaspheme” Jesus, shaking their heads and throwing Jesus’ words back at Him: “You who destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.” Prove yourself the Son of God by coming down from the cross. The chief priests and elders and scribes echo the crowds: Come on down from the cross and we will believe in You. Save yourself, and we’ll believe that you can save us.
Most Scriptural references to “wagging” or “shaking” the head have to do with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem lies in ruins, Jeremiah says, “all who pass along the way [will] clap their hands in derision at you; they [will] hiss and shake their heads at the daughter Jerusalem: ‘Is this the city of which they said, The perfection of beauty, a joy of all the earth’”? (Lamentations 2:15). Earlier Jeremiah had warned that resistance to Nebuchadnezzar would be disastrous, since Yahweh was determined to make Jerusalem, its splendid temple, and the whole land “a desolation, an object of perpetual hissing. Everyone who passes by it will be astonished and shake his head” (Jeremiah 18:16).
Even the robbers join in. Jesus is numbered with transgressors, flanked on the cross by two “royal attendants,” brigands like Barabbas. The cross triptych forms a macabre parody of the ark of the covenant; Jesus is enthroned as King at the center with two rough beasts filling the positions of the cherubim at Yahweh’s right and left. The first time Jesus mentioned brigands, He was in the temple, condemning the Jewish leaders for allowing the house of prayer for all nations to be transformed into a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:31). Now two robbers from the den are at His side, as Jesus, the living temple, is torn down on the cross. The Jews are all robbers, Jesus charged, and now the robbers join with the Jews, blaspheming Jesus in the same way as the Jews.
Roman soldiers mock Jesus inside their military headquarters, random passers-by mock Jesus as He hangs between heaven and earth, Jewish leaders mock Jesus, even brigands, true criminals, the scum of the earth, mock Jesus. Jews and Gentiles, governors and criminals, scribes and commoners, all humanity joins in a single chorus of blasphemy.
Atheists blaspheme, and giggle like schoolboys. They think themselves daring, subversive, so deliciously cunning. But they are utterly conventional, knowing only how to mimic blasphemies learned from the gospels. Mocking God is not an invention of atheists. It’s what Jews do when God comes close, a burning too hot to endure. It what the religious Romans do in the presence of God.
More Pelagian than Pelagius, the modern world joins with the new atheists in assuring us that we aren’t so bad, and that where we quite understandably fail, we have the resources within ourselves to put things right. Whether it is war, or poverty, or racial hatred, or disease and disfigurement, we can fix it with a few quick twists of the dial. Scripture has no patience with such mild optimism. The cross of Jesus is the crux of human history, the deep revelation of the human condition. At this crossroads, the Bible uncovers the bloody corpse of a righteous man, and twisted and crucified corpse of the eternal Son of the living God.
Mocking God, killing righteous men – that is the human project. When a teacher comes with the demand that we do justice and love our neighbors, we betray Him, mock Him, beat Him on the head and crown Him with thorns, before we pack Him off to death on a cross. Naked and bleeding on the cross, Jesus suffers the fate of Jerusalem, and of Troy and Babylon and Carthage and Dresden and of every city that has ever been razed to smoking rubble. The cross exposes us as specialists in destruction. History is a waste of ruins, toppled temples, smoldering cities, corpses heaped for burning. This is what we do. That is the human project.
Worse, when God the Creator, source of all good and all life, to whom we owe eternal gratitude for our very being, appears in human flesh, we beat Him back with clubs and crosses, until the body of God is a mangled mess. Putting Jesus to death is the human project. That is what we do. We are far, far worse than we let ourselves imagine.
Left to ourselves, mockery would have the last word. God has a different project, and He won’t let us get away with ours. Matthew’s ironic passion narrative reveals that as well, as all the mockery is turned back on the mockers. Roman soldiers mock Jesus as “King of the Jews,” but as He dies, they confess, without irony, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). Soldiers offer Jesus gall and gamble for His clothing at the foot of the cross, but in so doing they are fulfilling prophecies about David’s Son, who is indeed “king of the Jews” (Psalm 22:18; 69:21). Scribes of the law throw words from Psalm 69 at Jesus (Matthew 27:43), entirely unaware that their words position with David’s enemies. At every point, the mockery is turned inside out to become truth.
But God doesn’t simply bypass the human project of mockery and destruction. The gospel does not announce a new divine fiat, “Let there be peace. Let there be justice.” Rather, God enters our story of rage and ruin, offers His cheek to us, and then humbly turns the other cheek, all to invert our project and transfigure it into His. God is not mocked precisely because God has been mocked. Left to ourselves, our contemptuous No to Jesus would be our last word. But for God, Jesus’ cross is the revelation that He is God for us. In, with, and under our No, the Father of Jesus transforms our rejection into His resounding, triumphant Yes.