The scene in today's lesson from Jeremiah is gloomy. The "shepherds" whom the Lord intends to punish in the prophecy are the civil and spiritual leaders of Judah. The king was a weakling of a ruler whose faith was at best a minor factor in his thinking. He and the princes, priests and elders, far from looking after justice and true judgment and the worship of God on behalf of the people, exploited, oppressed and scattered them. This corruption had produced a weak and vulnerable kingdom.
Disaster was imminent, audit soon came, at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Jeremiah, contrary to the other leaders and prophets in Jerusalem, counseled surrender to this mighty conqueror as the judgment of God; in this submission, Jeremiah said, there would be safety, a remnant of Israel preserved, and a brighter day later on. In response, the "shepherds" accused Jeremiah of treason and imprisoned him. They rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, thereby provoking him to flatten and burn Jerusalem, including Solomon's great Temple, to execute many of them, and to carry much of Judah into exile in Babylon, the Babylonian Captivity which lasted seventy years.
But before all this took place, Jeremiah had prophesied, as we heard, the coming of a "righteous Branch of David," a king who would "execute justice and judgment in the earth" and who would in his own days "save Judah" and cause "Israel to dwell in safety." His name would be, "THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS."
We could say that subsequent history in Israel fulfilled this prophecy to a certain degree. The Exiles did return. Faithful rulers (such as Ezra and Nehemiah, and later on, Judas Maccabeus) were faithful shepherds. But their work was only partial; it did not fulfill the messianic proportions spoken of by Jeremiah. So we must ask, was the prophet exaggerating, or was he speaking of someone and something else?
The Christian answer to this question comes in time most unlikely scene, described by Saint Luke as Jesus is dying on his cross between two "malefactors," derided by time rulers of Jerusalem, who scoff, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God."
Jesus had certainly worked messianic signs. He gave sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, made the lame to walk, drove out unclean spirits, bestowed life and health wherever he went. His teaching attracted and inspired great crowds. Those especially who were aware of their need of God became his disciples.
What got Jesus into trouble with time rulers and scribes and Pharisees was the way he spoke and acted as if he were, indeed, co-equal with God, forgiving sins, interpreting the Torah with authority, and calling God his own Father. They secured his condemnation as a blasphemer and lawbreaker of Judaism, and ultimately a disturber of the peace and a threat to the State. So there he was on the cross, dying as a criminal between two criminals. Where were his messianic signs now? How in the world could such an end come to a candidate for fulfillment of time prophecies (such as Jeremiah's)?
I believe that Saint Luke is suggesting to his readers that they look at Jesus through the eyes of the penitent malefactor. Before you let this offend you, you should know that Luke sees this man, whom later Christian tradition actually names, "Saint Dismas," as someone who, in his last hour of life, has given us an example of how to be a true follower of Christ.
The Good Thief heard his fellow criminal railing at Jesus, saying "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." He rebuked him. "Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." And then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom."
It is not merely compliance with the Law that makes a Christian. The heart of the Christian life means taking refuge in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Penitent Thief is side by side with the Apostle Paul! For it was Paul who, describing Jesus' crucifixion, wrote this: "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (II Cor 5:2 1)
That was just what time Good Thief saw in Jesus, dying on the cross beside him. The thief knew he was receiving the due punishment for what he had done, but not Jesus, for "this man hath done nothing amiss." Then he was moved to say, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom," to which he received the answer, "Verily I say unto thee, Today, shalt thou be with me in Paradise."
Jesus' kinship begins at precisely the point where those who derided him supposed it was finally discredited, upon his crucifix. His messianic work, his signs and wonders and teaching, were truly extraordinary. But it is above all his sacrifice and death that defines his realm as a king. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist.
The old prophets such as Jeremiah were not exaggerating. Their descriptions match the reality of Christ's kingship. Here we are, two and half thousand years after Jeremiah, confessing Jesus as the King of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is not merely a Prophet, he is "The Lord our righteousness." Kings gather titles as they make conquests. Here are those of Christ the King: He is the sinless Lamb of God who takes away our sins. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah who by his death destroyed death and crushed the serpent's head, amid who by his rising to life again has won for us everlasting life. He is the Holy One of Israel and the God of the Gentiles through whom we have confidence of access to the Father, because he is the Son who has sent us the Holy Spirit.
There remains one last point. Let each of us make as good an end as the Good Thief. He had the courage to let go of his pride and anger, to admit his need of God, to confess Christ, and to ask for his mercy. We may not be convicted criminals, but we haven't been so very good either, not good enough to stand before God on our own. The truth is we need the mercy of Christ the King just as badly as the malefactor did. So, my clearly beloved fellow sinners, loved and redeemed by Christ, why not ask the Lord to remember us here and now, and every day left to us, right up to the hour of our death? Christ's kingship, above all, is within us. Eternal life is both now and forever.
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