He Can’t Save Himself

Luke 23:35-39 “The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ There was a written notice above him which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”

Do you notice the common theme running through the words of anyone who had a comment about Jesus’ crucifixion on this day? “Let him save himself.” “Save yourself.” “Save yourself and us!” The irony seemed clear to them. This Jesus styled himself as the one who was going to save Israel. Some people had already been referring to him as the Savior. Some Savior he turned out to be. If he couldn’t even keep himself from being killed like a common criminal, why should anyone else trust him to save them?

It’s a logical conclusion, isn’t it? If Jesus can’t keep himself alive in this life, why should we trust him for the life to come? It makes more sense to get back to the business of real religion, the business that occupies most of our spiritual energy. It makes more sense to do what everyone was taunting Jesus to do: Save yourself.

For isn’t that how we think? Isn’t that what we work at almost all of the time? We are good at saving ourselves, or so we imagine. From the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are all about looking out for number one. How can I work the system today? How can I turn the whole world to serving me? I can save myself a load of time if I can get someone else to take this project. I can save myself from the hassle and irritation of dealing with that manager I don’t like, or that customer I don’t like, or that coworker I don’t like, if I can just find an excuse to miss the meeting or call in sick today.

A few years ago I was struck by the words of a political commentator scratching his head over a block of voters he believed were voting against their own interests. I don’t mean to suggest it’s a virtue to vote against your own interests, but the way he talked about it made it sound so self-evident that everyone should be in it for themselves. It was almost as if you had to be crazy to choose something, or someone, for principled reasons that didn’t somehow work to one’s own advantage. In a thousand little ways every day we go about the work of “saving ourselves.”

And then we apply it to our religion. Practically every religion, every faith practiced by man, consists of a system of behavior designed to save yourself. And because doing the kinds of things God really wants is often hard and unpleasant, these systems usually consist of made up little sacrifices God never asked for: don’t eat this, don’t drink this, don’t wear this, don’t enjoy this. You know that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had mastered this approach to faith. The monasteries of medieval Christianity were full of it. Much of what passes for conservative Christianity in our own country suffers from the same disease.       

“But Pastor, we are grace alone, faith alone Lutherans. Surely we have avoided that kind of legalism.” Let’s not fool ourselves. About a hundred years ago one of the fathers of our own church wrote a very uncomfortable essay titled, “Legalism Among Us.” We may be too well educated in the Bible to come right out and say, “I think my good works will save me.” But even Lutheran Christians like us start to get the idea that what makes us different, what makes us better, has to do with how we keep our own traditions, or how we stand against the old traditions. Issues of taste, whether for the old or for the new, become a badge of pride.

My friends, let’s be honest. We stink at loving God and loving our neighbor, much less navigating any of the externals of faith-life in way that could possibly be pleasing to him. The irony isn’t the idea of Jesus’ saving himself as he slowly gives up his life on the cross. The irony is a world of mankind, including ourselves, who think that they are any better at it.

The irony is that, by refusing to save himself, Jesus has managed to save us all.

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