32 Two other men, both criminals, were led out to be executed with him. 33 When they came to the place called The Skull, they nailed him to a stake; and they nailed the criminals to stakes, one on the right and one on the left. 34 Yeshua said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t understand what they are doing.”
They divided up his clothes by throwing dice. 35 The people stood watching, and the rulers sneered at him. “He saved others,” they said, “so if he really is the Messiah, the one chosen by God, let him save himself!” 36 The soldiers too ridiculed him; they came up, offered him vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 And there was a notice over him which read,
THE KING OF THE JEWS
39 One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other one spoke up and rebuked the first, saying, “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same punishment as he is. 41 Ours is only fair; we’re getting what we deserve for what we did. But this man did nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Yeshua, remember me when you come as King.” 43 Yeshua said to him, “Yes! Today you will be with me in Paradise Garden.”
I would encourage the reader to compare Luke’s account of the killing of Jesus with Mark chapter 15, which is his main source. Luke follows the basic story but his characterisation of Jesus is wholly different. Mark’s Jesus does howling his agonised question to God; Luke’s Jesus remains in charge, even of this attempt to degrade him.
All the gospels give details which chime with the Psalms, especially Psalm 22. Luke’s detail of the soldiers dicing for Jesus clothing, and the sneering rulers, are found in Psalm 22, while the offer of vinegar appears in Psalm 69. It has been said that there is hardly a detail in the narratives of Jesus’ execution which is not found in the Old Testament.
We should remember that none of Jesus’ male disciples were present at his execution according to the first three gospels, and that a Roman crucifixion was not the kind of stage for dramatic speech which Luke depicts. There would be cursing soldiers doing their duty, keeping gawping onlookers at a distance. Very early in the transmission of the story of Jesus’ death, details that chimed with the Scriptures would have been highlighted, and others lost. Luke uses these scriptural details, which identify Jesus with King David the supposed author of the Psalms, while adding others of his own which demonstrate Jesus’ calm authority:
1. Jesus’ prayer for God to forgive his killers. Wherever Luke obtained this prayer, it expresses for him the truth that Jesus’ death completes the story of his life and ministry as the true child of God who communicates God’s love even for sinners and outcasts.
2. The incident of the “good” thief, which is also unique to Luke. This is the only account that humanises the other victims of execution by giving them words. Mark and Matthew simply report that they also mocked Jesus. Luke has shown Jesus’ ministry as taking the side of the rejected; here he shares the degrading death of the criminals, and in his silent suffering still offers a choice. One of the men chooses to abuse him, the other recognises his innocence and asks for his favour in the age to come, when he will be King. Jesus rewards him with the astonishing assurance that there is no gap between sharing his suffering and sharing his victory: Today you will be with me! For Jewish people paradise was a garden such as Eden in the book of Genesis, a place of refreshment, life and fruitfulness.
The notice or “titulum” was intended to identify the criminal and his crime, as a warning to others. Luke and all the other gospel writers record that Jesus was executed as a messianic rebel against Rome. All of them depict him as messiah and true king of Israel, but deny the implication that he incited holy war against Rome. It is rather Jesus’ kingliness in suffering that Luke succeeds in showing the reader. Rejected by his people and mistaken for a jihadi by the imperial power, his bearing and his words express his royalty. Luke’s art offers the believer the encouragement to trust King Jesus and express his or her own royalty even in the face of persecution.