Hosanna! But Who Will Save Jesus?
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him.
But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"
There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.
When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, "Certainly this man was innocent."
And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
A lot has happened between the words that started our worship service and the ones we just read.
In our call to worship, we were reminded of Christ’s triumphant entry, shouts of praise and exultation for Hosanna - a term of respect for the one who saves.
The scene is rowdy and unstoppable, full of hope and energy and excitement. The crowd feels invincible— Jesus is coming to save, just you wait and see.
But then things turn, they change course swiftly and dramatically and the assurance that Jesus is coming to save an oppressed people gives way to doubt. Disciples once enamored by Christ’s vision of a new kingdom are tempted by things like money and power and security, The scribes, Jesus’ contemporaries, are a little mystified by Jesus’ interpretation of scripture, and the the governing powers that be are more than a little wary of this Jewish man people say is a king, this person who never outright challenges Roman authority, but everywhere he goes murmurings of a different way of life follow.
As things become more and more dramatic, more and more dire, the triumphant shouts of hosanna have faded away, but underneath the new angrier shouts, you can hear a whisper a more literal translation of this word “Hosanna” and that is: save us, now.
Throughout the passion narrative, the questions of who will save, and who will be saved, and what will they be saved from weave together as Christ interacts with first Pilate, then the soldiers at the cross, and finally with the criminals he dies with.
Hosanna, the text shouts at first. But who will save Christ? the people ask. But who will save us? They wonder.
Pilate is the first to ask these questions about saving, though not in so many words. But the Roman governor of Judea is in a hard spot— does he sentence this man to die as the crowd would like, which could make him a popular leader in a time of political turmoil? Or does he spare him and risk unrest in his jurisdiction?
So Pilate asks the question— who will save Jesus from death? And what he’s really asking, is who will save me from making this difficult decision? Who will save me from the responsibility of governing while still allowing me to keep the privilege of it?
Pilate asks Jesus, but Jesus won’t give Pilate a definitive answer. Then, he hears that Jesus is a Galilean, so thinks he’s found a workaround. Herod, the ruler of Galilee can decide what to do!
But no luck, as Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate with no decision made. Pilate might have an ally in Herod, but he’s not Pilate’s savior.
Pilate grows more and more desperate. He goes to the chief priests and asks them what do, he tries to compromise with the crowd. He looks at everyone but himself to decide what to do.
But crucifixion is a political punishment handed out by government officials, not the crowd, not the religious leaders, which means it’s up to Pilate to either spare Jesus and risk unrest or to send Jesus to his death and save his power.
In choosing to save his own power, Pilate can’t save Christ.
Who will save Jesus?
The soldiers ask this question too, though they don’t have the power to make anything happen like Pilate did. They follow orders. They nail people to crosses when they are told to. And then they sit at the foot of the crosses and wait for the criminals above them to die.
After a while the horror of it all loses its power, they get bored by the torture. They have seen one too many men hung up there, one too many deaths. The cruelty has become mundane.
So they liven up the waiting. They cast bets and claim the dead men’s possessions before they’ve stopped breathing.
They taunt and mock the living dead saying— you say you are powerful so why don’t you do something. Save yourself! Jump down off that cross and teach us a lesson!
In light of the cruelty and violence they inflict everyday, they believe only more violence could save someone from this fate.
So they yell at him, save yourself.
But Christ won’t save himself with a show of force the soldiers want from him. He can’t save them from the cruelty of this crucifixion.
Who will save Jesus?
One of the criminals on the cross asks this question too, though his derision has an edge of desperation to it.
Save yourself, he cries out, and save us. We are all in the same situation, our bodies are wounded, our breathing is difficult, our lives are ending, and you could save us! You could swoop in, remove these nails from our hands and give us another chance at life. Save yourself, he says. Save me, he cries out!
The criminal is right: Christ’s body bleeds like theirs do, his breathing is haggard, his life is ending, but he won’t save the criminals from the suffering and physical death they endure.
He doesn’t save himself from it either.
Who will save Jesus from this torture and death? If Jesus is Hosanna, the one who saves, why isn’t he doing any rescuing?
Christ doesn’t save the soldiers from their callousness and cruelty. He doesn’t save them from the mundane horrors that they are ordered to inflict on others.
And Christ can’t save Pilate from his own need for power and authority; he doesn’t save Pilate from this situation of his own making.
The hosannas have long since faded away because as Christ is dying on the cross, he doesn’t save himself or anyone else.
But that is not to say that Jesus is helpless or passive in the face of the crucifixion.
Because what Jesus does, instead of swooping in to save the day like some sort of superhero, is something much more complicated, but so much more profound.
In the moments when everyone expects Jesus to call upon the power of God and to save himself (and therefore everyone else), Jesus instead offers solidarity and compassion to those who suffer.
In each step to the cross, in each interaction with people crying out for rescue from their predicaments, Christ embodies the self-sacrificing, self-emptying love of God that has guided his whole life, and now, his death.
When Pilate looks for a solution that will save his own power, Jesus refuses to play his game. He refuses to save Pilate who is complicit in both Jesus’ death and the oppression of the very crowd who calls for it. Jesus refuses to let powerful people off the hook.
When the soldiers want a showy spectacle of power to match their own cruelty, when they forgot to see the humanity of the suffering, Christ calls out for forgiveness. Jesus remains open hearted even to those who mock him.
And when Jesus is hanging between two unnamed dying criminals, he promises to remember them.
Christ’s hands are pierced like theirs. Today, there is no difference between a supposed king, the son of God, and an unnamed criminal. They are the same, and Jesus assures them that they will receive the same fate— painful death, but also a place in God’s kingdom. Jesus does not save himself and abandon them, distance himself from them, say I am innocent while they are guilty.
He is with them, just as he is with us, until the end.
Sometimes rescue, sometimes a savior, doesn’t come with shouts of exultation, songs of hosanna, and magical fixes to earthly problems. Sometimes what saves us is the presence of a God who refuses to let us suffer alone.
Afterward, things grow quiet. There are no more questions, no more mocking shouts, no more joyful cries of Hosanna. Pilate, in his house, feels bad, but he’s glad this circus is over. Everything can go back to normal. The soldiers head back into town and mutter to one another… I guess he couldn’t save himself after all…
But Jesus’ friends and followers keep their vigil even as the others leave the spectacle behind. They wait on the hill, tears flowing freely, and they wonder a new question: What comes next?
But that’s a question for another day.
Thanks be to God. Amen.