6:00 – The Torture and Humiliation of the King (Sunday April 7, 2019)
Matthew 27: 27-37
6:00 – The Torture and Humiliation of the King
We’re continuing our series on the last 24 hours of Jesus’s life, and today we’re entering into the final moments. We’re going to focus on about one hour; an hour between the moment when Pilate says “you can crucify them” to the moment where he is actually raised up on the cross. This is the period of time where he is tortured and mocked by the Roman soldiers. That’s what we are looking at today.
Now after the conviction, and remember this is a conviction that Pilate wasn’t really convinced of but is more forced to go along with; after this conviction Pilate sends Jesus off with the Roman soldiers. And the Roman soldiers begin to mock Jesus. We’re told that they take him to the courtyard and that the “entire cohort,” roughly 300-600 soldiers, probably every Roman soldier in the city, comes to mock the King of the Jews. And even though Pilate was not convinced of Jesus’s guilt, he gets the same treatment as anyone who was really convicted of this could reasonably expect. The treatment includes being tortured before being put to death on the cross.
Everything that they are doing in this torture, most of what they’re doing this torture at least, has to do with this claim that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews; and namely that Jesus claimed to be a king that wasn’t appointed by Cesar. One of things they do is they stripped him naked, which is to shame him and expose him as the fraud he is in a very literal term. And then they put a robe over his back, probably not covering him the whole way but just like putting a cape over his back. We’re told that the robe was either red or, more likely, purple. I think it more likely because purple was a royal color. Until very recently in human history purple was incredibly difficult to obtain, so to have a purple piece of clothing showed that you had a lot of power and a lot of money. And so purple is the color of kings, and the color of royalty. This is why purple is the color for the season of Lent and Advent: we are anticipating welcoming a king in Advent and we are anticipating the coronation of Jesus upon the cross in Lent. And so the color is the color of royalty: purple. Here though, they put a purple robe on a naked man and say, “oh, it’s the king playing make-believe.” And they begin to really lean into this this idea of make-believe, pretending to dress him up as a king.
One of them decides he needs a crown if he was going to be a king, and so they go to the local thorn bush and they take a bit of the thorn bush, and they wrap it up in into a circle, and they shove that down on his head. Next he needed a rod or scepter. All kings have a rod and a scepter, right? And so they get a reed, and they put it in his hand like a scepter. And of course it is limp in his hands.
All of this was meant to say, “oh you’re pretending to be a king? Let’s see you be a king.” And then they bow down and they give him mock worship, saying, “hail King of the Jews;” as if to say, “hey, look at your King everybody! Look at how pathetic he is compared to the might of the Roman soldiers standing next to him in and all the glory of their armor.” When the soldiers are done, they take all that off of him, put his clothes back on him, and they begin to travel.
There’s another part of what they do to him, and we really have to look at this; and that was a flogging. All the various Gospels have all of this happening in a different order and in different places, but they all of them somewhere involve flogging.
Flogging is brutal. It takes different forms, all the way from the low level which is just dad’s belt or the teachers paddle, all the way up to the most vile where you have whips; and then the really evil where you have a whip with things in the end such as rocks and bits of glass: things intended to not only cut the flesh with the whip, but then tear it. This was intended to cause pain, and it’s likely that what the Romans are hitting a prisoner who’s been condemned to death with is not something on the lesser end of that spectrum.
We believe that Jesus would have been hit with this whip 39 times. The reason we believe he would’ve been hit 39 times is that 40 was considered to be a lethal dose. And what was really evil about flogging was that in most cases it was very, very painful, but not deadly. They would weaken and torture the prisoner just enough to where all he had left was barely enough strength to still be able to carry his own cross to his own execution. That was the idea. And it really was to show anyone in the crowd who was thinking about maybe doing what this guy had done that they did not want to do that. In that it was, I guess moderately successful; although they still had to do it throughout their whole history, so it didn’t stop everyone.
And I don’t want to get into all the gory details any further than I have, but I do think it’s important to take a moment to stop and look at this. Because we’re going to have communion later today; and I know this is a great table conversation, and that’s part of why I put it here at the beginning of the sermon instead of at the end of the sermon; but we’re gonna have communion today. And during the blessing of the food I am going to say, “we remember that Jesus took bread, and he broke it and said ‘this is my body, which is broken for you.’ And we remember that he took a cup, and said ‘this is my blood, which has been shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And then when you walk up here to take the bread and dip it in the cup, it will be given to you and the person will say, “this is Jesus’ body, which is broken for you. This is his blood, which was shed for you.”
And the thing is; this was the moment his body was broken by that whip. This was the moment his blood was shed by the thorns. This is the moment. And we need to take a moment to appreciate what really happened with those words. When you hear them today, when you hear them the next time you get communion, and the next time, and the next time, and the next time; I hope these aren’t just words, but they actually mean something to you. This was the moment Jesus died that you might live, that you might be able to understand what it means to follow God, that you might be forgiven, that you might have a chance of life, that you might be saved. Wherever it is that that you come down on what is the reason Jesus died, and we’ll get into a little bit more of those various things people said next week; whatever it is, this is the moment that it happened. This is the moment Jesus was broken for you. This was the moment his blood was shed for you. And we can’t just skip over it. I think we really have to be here for at least a little bit, no matter how uncomfortable.
After the soldiers are done, they to begin the travel. Calvary, the mountain they were going to, is roughly 1/3 of a mile from Pilate’s fortress, but in Jesus’s weakened state that probably would’ve taken them about a half hour. The soldiers have gone to slightly too far in their torture, and he was unable to make the journey with the cross weighing him down; he was unable to carry his own cross. Presumably it would then be the soldier’s responsibility to carry the cross of the person who can’t; it does have to get to the to the end anyway.
But of course the Roman soldiers are not going to do that, so they enact one of their laws. By law, the Romans could take anyone who is not a Roman citizen and force them to carry the burden of the soldier for 1 mile. This is why Jesus said to go to 2nd mile, or the extra mile; because the 1st mile was involuntary, but you could maybe volunteer to go 2nd mile, and maybe that would stand out to the soldier and maybe that will open up a conversation that could maybe open up a conversion. But here, we will have a third of a mile to go. So the soldiers pull someone out of a crowd, a man named Simon, and thrust the cross up on him, telling him to carry it to the end.
Simon was from Cyrene. Cyrene is a small town on the northern coast of what is now Liberia, just east of where Benghazi is for those of you who are looking for it, but so that’s the general area that that he is from. Case in point, he’s not from Jerusalem. So he’s probably there to celebrate the Passover and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time; or maybe in the right place at the right time I guess, depending on how you look at things that dramatically change your life in a moment.
He is forced to carry Jesus’s cross. Now my guess is that Simon was not talking very much with Jesus along the way. Certainly no words were recorded. The cross would have still been heavy. And Jesus was in a very weakened state. But the day he was brought in to carry someone’s cross would probably have had a very significant impact on him. And indeed we have every reason to believe that this did have a very significant impact on Simon. The reason for that is that in all the Gospels that he’s mentioned, most of them he’s mentioned just as “Simon of Cyrene.” But in the Gospel of Mark, he’s mentioned as “Simon of Cyrene; the father of Alexander and Rufus.”
This would indicate that the place where the Gospel of Mark was being written and sent to knew who Alexander and Rufus were. And we believe that Mark was sent to the church at Rome, which would not of been that far from Cyrene; it’s just directly north across the Mediterranean. Simon may not of been a follower of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem that particular Friday. Indeed there’s no reason to suspect that he would’ve been. Jesus never traveled to Africa, and Simon would’ve had to of been in Galilee for some reason to even know who Jesus was. But there’s a lot to make us believe that he was a follower of Jesus after that Friday, and that he left a legacy of his children and even his wife to become important leaders in the church as well. Because if you look at the book of Romans, at the end of the book of Romans, where Paul is giving his greetings, he says to “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.” Simon’s children become leaders of the church. Simon is so impacted by this moment, impacted by having to carry the cross of someone else, that it changes his life and his trajectory in the life of his family forever. When we carry the burdens of others, does it impact us the same way? When we carry the cross and suffer for the name of Jesus, are we changed by it? We should be.
When they finally arrive at the site, they crucify him. We’re gonna talk a little bit more about that next week, but one of the things that happens is they put a sign above his head that says, “the King of the Jews.” That was standard practice when they crucified someone. They would crucify people on the road right outside the open gate, and they would usually tack the crime for which they have been crucified up on top of their head so that people entering the city would know, “don’t do that, or you could wind up being next.” It was not uncommon to tack the crime up above the head of the of the convicted on a cross, but they didn’t put up “insurrection.” They didn’t put up there “treason.” They put up there “the King of the Jews.” This was one final way of of humiliation, one final way of saying “this man was the best these people could come up with and look at what we did to him. Do not question Rome.”
And then finally the soldiers cast lots over his clothing. Now most of the stuff they they would split up between themselves evenly, and if it was a piece of cloth they would cut it into pieces so that each would get a little bit of cloth. But Jesus’s Robe was seamless; it was a high, high value robe, and they did not want to actually cut it. So they cast lots for who would get it; essentially pulling a name out of a hat, or drawing straws, or something along those lines. Of course, the Gospel writers include this because it fulfilled scripture, but it also is one more bit of humiliation: as the man is dying, they’re sitting at his feet deciding what to do with his stuff. And furthermore you’re sitting here saying, “oh look at this beautiful garment, we don’t want to break it,” minutes after having broken the man on the cross. They’re showing a level of respect to clothing that they could not muster for Jesus. And of course, they really don’t know Jesus from Adam. They’re not even really taking Pilate’s word for it, since Pilate didn’t think he was actually guilty. Yet they do it anyway. And it led to that level of disrespect, to where they can do all this torture, and all this level of disrespect without a second thought.
And of course, again I ask how does that happen? That happened because they did not view him as human. He wasn’t Roman, and therefore he was lesser. And of course we understand that’s happened multiple times throughout history. They weren’t Aryan, so therefore they’re lesser. They weren’t white, so therefore they’re lesser. They aren’t part of my tribe, so therefore they’re lesser. And when we see that kind of thought process begin, we can do some crazy things as humans. We can kill 6 million Jews. We can commit genocide in Rwanda, and Darfur, and Kosoo; and we can kill God. We must not allow anyone to be dehumanized to us. We must treat every single person, no matter what, as a human who deserves to be treated the way we would want to be treated in everything. We must think not “what should happen to that thing?” but “if that person were me, if I had done what that person did, if I was in that person shoes, what would I want done to me?” And then try and do that. That’s how you avoid being the soldier in the story.
And I think that as Simon carried Jesus’s cross, as he saw this all played out and he saw what Jesus was doing in just being subservient to it, and he saw what the soldiers were doing as they got worse, and worse, and worse in their treatment; I think that he understood that he needed to be like Jesus and not like the soldiers. And so we need to be.
As you come to the story once again, as you hear the story yet another year, as you come to the story the next time you take communion, who are you in the story in that moment? Are you the soldiers, many of whom probably don’t think of this day again and are not changed in visiting the story? Or are you Simon, and your life is forever altered and you leave seeking to be like the man you claim to be God? Let us leave here striving to be more like Simon, and therefore more like Jesus. Amen.