Thursday, 6 November 2014

Not Now, Jesus: A Reflection on Matthew 27:41-43

Matthew 27:41-43 reads:

The chief priests, too, and the scribes and the elders, mocked him [Jesus].

‘He rescued others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t rescue himself! All right, so he’s the King of Israel! – well, let him come down from the cross right now, and then we’ll really believe that he is! He trusted in God; let God deliver him now, if he’s that keen on him – after all, he did say he was God’s Son!’

It’s easy to miss small words in this passage due to the gravity of the situation and the compelling nature of the drama. But the twice-repeated word ‘now’ (nun) stands out. The dying Jesus must convince the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (not to mention the random passers-by of verse 40) that he really is God’s Son by coming down from the cross – now! Right now! And God, too, is put to a kind of test: if Jesus really is God’s Son, then let God rescue him – now! There is a desire for instantaneity here, a demand for evidence to be given in the form of a controlled divine performance. But God, it seems, has stage fright. Matthew recounts:

About the middle of the afternoon Jesus shouted out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani!’ – which means, ‘My God, my God, why did you abandon me?’

Jesus’s messianic affectations are just as moribund as he is. And God is not doing anything to vindicate this pretender to the heavenly throne. That is, not until after the man from Nazareth has died, when the apocalyptic portents of verses 51–54 finally indicate that Jesus could well have been right all along. ‘“He really was God’s son!” they [the centurion and the others with him] said’ (27:54b). God is going to deliver Jesus, not from dying, not from death, but from being dead. And this is going to happen in God’s own time. This is a lesson that everyone at the cross needs to learn: God will not be cajoled or forced into acting now. Nor will God be submissive to humanly conceived ritualistic techniques enacted to manipulate God into action.

And perhaps this is a lesson that Jesus himself needed to learn, too. Jesus anticipated his execution and foresaw his resurrection (if being raised (egeirō)‘on the third day’ (16:21; 17:23; 20:19) equates to resurrection (anastasis)), but perhaps he hadn’t truly wrestled with what all this would mean for him – at least until Gethsemane, anyway, when his survival instinct conflicted with his desire to please his Father. Perhaps the dying Jesus was still expecting God to intervene now! and passionately tear him down from the cross now! – before he passed away. But God cannot be persuaded to fulfil even the Son of God’s expectations if these are little more than a cry for relief.

So what should we make of this? Now, right now, may seem a good time for God to act, to step in, to demonstrate once and for all that God is sovereign over this world. But God is patient to the point of lackadaisicalness; now for God is different from our now. And the Christian life is the struggle to align the now of our present evil age with the inbreaking now of God’s age to come – an age made known now in and through the risen Jesus.

(In case anyone is wondering, the biblical quotations are taken from Tom Wright’s The New Testament for Everyone.)

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