The Rev. Canon John L.C. Mitman
Good Friday, Year C
25 March, 2016
Grace Episcopal Church
Most of you are painfully aware that I am an inveterate grandfather. Patrick, Annie, Ivy and Quincy give both Ruth and me great joy as well as a measure of challenge. One of the interesting and inevitable consequences of having grandchildren is observing the differences in the manner in which Ruth and I were raised; the way we raised (or, more correctly, tried to raise) our children; and the way that our grandchildren are being raised. So often, it is when the childrens’ behavior is found to be unacceptable that the rubber really meets the road in the practice of parenting. Looking back to the old days when we were children, I remember language such as “Watch out or you will be sent to your room!” “You want a lickin’?” “Listen here, young man! And I’m not kidding!” At school, it was “How would you like to write on the black board, “I will be a good boy’ 200 times?” Or, “You want to stay after school for the next month?”
But standing in the corner or going to your room has morphed into “Time Out”. But in all cases, in all ages, and for all ages, the point of the exercise is correction and deterrence and the means to that end is punishment.
Each state in the union has a “Department of Corrections.” One would think that the word corrections might imply some hope of behavior modification. But we would be hard pressed to find many in this country who would argue that our system is any more than punishment with a vague hope that deterrence will follow. Indeed, politically the concept which is lived out is vengeance. That is, I will make you pay society back for the wrong you have done. To twist Jesus’ own words of mercy, “As you have done it unto one of the least of these your brethren, society will do unto you (and in spades).”
So, to the concepts of correction, deterrence and punishment, we add vengeance. The overwhelming evidence is that capital punishment fails as a deterrent, but in the eyes of so many politicians and voters, it is sweet, sweet vengeance. Though the Scripture declares that, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” vengeance is a responsibility which we human beings have wrested from the hand of God and appropriated unto ourselves. In the end, the fact is that the cry for vengeance is insatiable. Vengeance is never satisfied.
In the Roman Empire, the political system in which Jesus was born, lived, ministered, was condemned, died and defeated death, that system was significantly different. It was not punishment or even vengeance which ruled, but Deterrence. What mattered most was the Pax Romano, that is, The Peace of Rome. Clearly, it was a political system which was designed to make sure the aqueducts flowed with good water, that the borders were secure, the taxes got collected, that the social order was stable, one’s rank, wealth and power was maintained, that the chariots ran on time, that no one upset the apple cart.
The Romans never really considered the idea of “corrections” and had no time, no stomach particularly for vengeance. Vengeance was a luxury which had to come a poor second to deterrence. Though the Gospels make much of the petulance, indeed the vengeance of some of the Jewish authorities, make no mistake about it, it was the Romans who killed Jesus. They had the mandate, the power and the will to do the killing, not the Jews.
What you and I cannot possibly comprehend is the fact that, in the eyes of the Romans, much of the underclass was expendable. I am sure that the Romans had their Bean Counters who had a very clear understanding of the cost/benefit ratio of how many could die for the sake of the Pax Romano before it had an unacceptable or unsustainable impact on the economy, on society.
We know that literally thousands of people were crucified each year by the Romans. We have only to remember that in the year 67 AD, virtually the whole population of Jerusalem was killed, exiled, taken in slavery or just barely escaped with their lives. That was because it was in that year that the Pax Romano was threatened by an insurrection by the Jews against the Romans.
Deterrence writ large was always crucifixion. The odd and dreadful thing about crucifixion was that it was not so much an execution as a form of public, protracted, excruciating torture which coincidentally resulted in death. Crucifixions were always public, dreadfully public. In the contrast to the story of Jesus and Joseph of Aramathea’s tomb, the bodies of the crucified were left on the crosses until they decomposed. The idea was that the signs of crucifixion were always present for the populace to see.
Golgotha and all the golgothas of the Empire were strategically placed along the main roads entering the cities and towns so that each newcomer arriving got a clear message. Namely: “Be it unto you as unto these if you should behave in a manner which threatens the Peace of Rome in this place!” The newcomer and the residents who passed in and out read the signal: Know the rules. Obey them! That’s deterrence!
But God, you see, would not be deterred Jesus would not be deterred.
Throughout his Gospel, St John portrays Jesus as being absolutely clear about what he was present to be and do. As we see Jesus kneel and wash Peter’s feet and be absolutely clear that humble washing must take place in order for Jesus, Peter and the rest of the disciples to share in salvation, so also Jesus is clear and resolute unto the end that he will not de deterred from the cross. So many people in the ancient world could not tolerate a personality constantly in their midst whose sole purpose was to love and serve and suffer. Jesus’ servant nature turned out to be intolerable as the loving God infuriated the populace and the authorities.
The symbol and instrumentality of Roman deterrence, crucifixion, becomes the means by which God’s faithful servant, God’s Son, suffers all the way through death and into the life beyond. Jesus, the loving servant, would not be deterred and so was executed. Jesus, the loving servant, would not be deterred and so defeated death as he rose from death!
As we contemplate the failure of Rome’s efforts at deterrence, we are called to take the next steps and consider how we live our lives in such a way that we deter the Love of God; the way we stave it off, the ways in which we defend against the love of God, the ways in which we keep the love of God at bay.
What brings us here is that, however we play at this ancient game of fending off God’s love, we are forever being outflanked by that same Godly love writ so large upon the cross.
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