Matthew 27:37-40 “Above his head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God!’”
Pilate’s mocking sign was aimed as much at the chief priests and Jewish elders as it was at Jesus. In some ways it was a snub of the entire Jewish nation. “The best you people have to offer, the highest and the mightiest, is nothing more than this pitiful man slowly suffocating to death. If this is your King, the rest of you should know that you fall somewhere below him.” In Pilate’s eyes, Jesus’ sacrifice found no respect.
Pilate’s sarcasm reflects the value system that so infects our world. We should not believe we are immune, no matter how much we think we champion “Christian values.” Worldly values don’t revolve so much around sex or violence, but success and victory. Valuable people, the ones worth knowing, befriending, or following, are only those distinguished by a certain standard of wealth or power. Truly worthwhile careers are only those that promise a high standard of living, or require a high level of education. Those who faithfully serve in obscurity all their lives, or who can’t pull themselves above the poverty line, deserve no dignity. God have mercy on us if we adopt such worldliness as our own, or worse yet, try to sanctify it by making it sound as though it were somehow Christian!
The great irony in Pilate’s sign is that the bare words are correct. This was in fact the King of the Jews. Even more, he is King of the universe. The highest and greatest King of all so loved the people he ruled that he gave up his life in their place in the most horrible death we can imagine. The most valuable man who ever walked this earth did not prove his value by how high he climbed, or how much he had, but by how much he gave, and how much he suffered, because of how much he loved.
Jesus’ companions in death were also chosen to deny him any respect. “Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.” More than robbers, these men were enemies of the Roman state. Jesus’ accusers made the case before Pilate that Jesus belonged to the same class. They were Zealots, Jewish freedom fighters. The Romans disparaged them as mere robbers, mere bandits.
Jesus’ execution alongside such criminals was another insult to his dignity. Later we read that even these men heaped insults on him. Perhaps they considered Jesus a sorry excuse for a Jewish patriot, and they resented being associated with him.
For his part, Jesus was not ashamed to be associated with even the lowest people of society There is not a single human being–rich or poor, respected or rejected–that he is unwilling to seek with his love. No one is too low for him to claim as his own by faith. These bandits held no respect for Jesus or his sacrifice. Yet this day did not end before Christ converted one of them to faith and promised him a place in his kingdom.
Other Jewish countrymen joined in the attack on Jesus’ respect. “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God!” “Save yourself” was more than a taunt hurled at Jesus. It was the creed of those who hated him most. The Pharisees and the priests lived their entire lives by this principle. They imagined their hard work and discipline would eventually save themselves.
Of course, this is a delusion. The idea is preposterous. A person who needs to be rescued is not in a position to perform the rescue. By definition, rescues come from others.
Except for Jesus. If he wanted, he could rescue himself from the cross. He was the only person able save himself. But then he would not have saved the rest of us from the delusion of self-deliverance. His enemies neither respected nor believed the sacrifice he was making for them. But Jesus’ love, not their nails, kept him fastened to the cross.