There has been a good bit of buzz in the secular press, and even in the religious press, lately about a new book entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The thing about the book which has gotten the most attention, unfortunately, is that it is written by a young, extremely attractive Western Muslim named Reza Aslan. One typically uninformed Fox news interviewer wondered aloud why any Muslim would be interested in writing a book about Jesus!
She was apparently blissfully unaware that Muslims have an extremely reverent view of Jesus, and of his mother Mary, and that the Qu’ran has a good bit to say about them both. Actually, this particular Muslim, religious scholar Reza Aslan, once converted to Evangelical Christianity, but – finding that kind of fundamentalism extremely unsatisfying — returned to a moderate expression of Islam and he remains a practicing Muslim today.
His book, as the title might indicate, depicts a very human Jesus who was living in radical political times. Very few of his findings would be news to biblical scholars today or to most clergy who have received a good theological education in the last fifty years. I rather enjoyed the book, which is extremely well-written, even though (like most Christians) I would want to go farther in my claims about Jesus than this Muslim scholar is willing to go.
But I was struck by one very provocative statement Dr. Aslan makes in the early part of the book. He says: if all you knew about Jesus of Nazareth was one phrase from the historic catholic creeds, you would know all you need to know about him. That phrase? “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Aslan’s point is that the fact that Jesus was put to death by crucifixion at the order of the Roman governor of Judea absolutely cements the fact that he was seen as some kind of revolutionary and as a threat to the occupying power of Rome in first century Jerusalem.
Crucifixion was a favorite form of capital punishment used by the Romans. Jews were not permitted to execute people in that way. In fact, the Jewish exercise of capital punishment (which was usually stoning) was severely limited by the Romans at this time in history. They were a subject people and the Roman government was in charge of keeping the peace and punishing criminals, not the Jews.
You all know that crucifixion was a particularly brutal form of torture and death. It was reserved for political prisoners and part of the drill was to parade them through the streets, put markers above their heads on their crosses, and leave the bodies hanging there for days to send a stern warning to anyone else who might be tempted to challenge the authority of Rome or to preach a message of liberation to her subject people across the Empire.
There are all kinds of hints in today’s Gospel which indicate that Luke was fully aware of all this. First of all, they crucify Jesus between two “criminals,” but the word really means “bandits” and was reserved for Jewish revolutionaries who were not above using violence in their resistance to the Roman occupation of their land. Secondly, Jesus is accused of being some kind of “king” and the inscription on his cross makes that clear. Anyone claiming to be a “king” in the first century Roman Empire was challenging the “kingship” of Caesar and that was a sure invitation to an early demise!
The rebels dying alongside Jesus certainly think Jesus is a king: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:33 ff.) And they ask to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. They were not talking about heaven here, dear friends. They were talking about a Jewish kingdom free from their oppressive occupiers, the Romans. It is Jesus who reframes it when he says, “Today you will be with me…in Paradise!”
Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say – with Reza Aslan – that if we know that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate – we know all there is to know about him that we need to know. The author of Colossians today has a whole lot more to say about who Jesus is than that – “image of the invisible God…firstborn of all creation…the head of the body, the church…the firstborn from the dead” …and a lot more.
But, on Christ the King Sunday, on a Sunday when we are likely to sing hymns glorifying the kingly Christ and “crowning him with many crowns,” we need to remember what kind of King he was. He was a king who had no place to lay his head. He was a king who hung around with outcasts and sinners. He was a king who fed hungry people and wept over the fate of Jerusalem. He was a king who overthrew the tables of the money changers and, three days later, washed his friends’ feet. He was a king who refused to buckle under to the Roman government. And, therefore, he was a king who “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
Our Collect for Todays says it all: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule…”
Oh, Jesus was a king all right. But a king…like…no…other!