Present-day Christianity makes much of the cross.
We read about it, preach it, sing about it, worship around it, claim it’s saving power, remember it as we take the bread and wine, use its sign as a prayer ritual, wear it as jewellery, stick it on our car bumpers, display it in our churches and schools . . . It is, after all the great turning point of history when incarnate God so fully identified with his creatures to the point of experiencing their death.
Today we view the cross as such a shocking, horrific death, recalling the humiliation, pain, torture, and isolation Jesus must have felt nailed to that pole of execution.
But it wasn’t seen (by the spectator, I mean) that way in that era of history. Crucifixion in the Roman colonies was a daily occurrence. Bloodthirsty citizens looked on it much as we would look on the boxing ring of the wrestling arena. To Jews of the day—unless you personally knew the person being executed (or were indeed that person)—it was just another public statement by the occupying forces on a day when human life was seen as having little if any value.
It is possible that Jesus on the cross would have meant little to anyone living in Jerusalem in 30 CE.
But his life? That’s another story! Following this itinerant rabbi were scandalous stories of religious defilement, indignity, and disregard of societal values.
Think about it. The tabloids of the day (assuming there would be a comparative gossip network in first-century Judaea) would have the story of the gentile woman who touched Jesus’ robe blazoned across the front pages: “Foreign Woman Defiles Popular Rabbi.” The fact that Jesus stopped and carried on a conversation with this woman would have caused a scandal. As would his compassionate act of casting out the seven demons from Mary Magdalene, his conversation with the woman from Samaria and his acceptance of another who anointed his feet with a very costly perfume.
Then what about the indignity of the proper Jewish patriarch who not only endures the scandal of having his son take his share of the estate and leave the family, who then runs with abandonment towards his returning destitute son, embracing him, welcoming him home, and restoring him to his former position of honour? How would that parable been taken by the masses who heard it in the towns and villages of Galilee?
Oh, and did I mention touching lepers and harvesting grain on the holy day? What a blatant disregard for the revered tradition of Moses! How about partying with tax collectors? What about calling the respected leaders of the day “Whitewashed Tombs”?
For many (perhaps most) of those present in Jerusalem on the day, the end of Jesus on a cross would have been viewed as another revolutionary getting his just desserts, another rabble-rouser being silenced. After all, his life and teachings shook Jewish (and Roman) decency to the core.
The cross has become central to our theology and impacts and permeates our life as nothing else. But just as sensational, revolutionary, and scandalous was the life of Jesus the Christ. His radical compassion turned insensitive religion on its head. The portrait he painted of God his father showed a God of great love who was present and active in his creation.
So while we recognise the awesome symbol of the cross as central to our faith, for our life let us embrace the scandal of the life of Jesus and seek to follow in his steps.