After the release of the controversial movie The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson, the popular adult cartoon Family Guy did a brief skit based on the movie. In the skit Family Guy protagonist, Peter Griffin, imagines himself as Jesus being flogged by the Roman soldiers. “If it was me, I would have done something,” Peter says as he imagines himself standing up from the whipping block and telling the Soldiers to stop it and settle down.
In every story there is a protagonist, and in most stories, the protagonist is an “everyman,” a character that most people can relate to. People read stories to live the adventures and experiences of the protagonist. They imagine themselves as Huckleberry Fin or as Frodo Baggins as they read about their adventures. So, of course, readers of the Gospels will frequently put themselves on the cross with Jesus, sympathizing with a man whom the world rejected.
In the final hours before his death, Jesus was turned over to his enemies by one of his inner circle and he was abandoned by all of his followers. He was given three separate unjust and politically motivated trials.
Peter, arguably his closest friend, denied ever knowing him even as he was being falsely accused. He was brutally beaten, cruelly berated and mocked, blindfolded and pummeled by the fists of his tormentors, his beard was ripped out at the roots, his clothes were stolen from him, and finally he was given the most torturous form of capital punishment ever devised; all while his executioners were admitting his innocence and washing their hands.
Examining this story, various writers have extolled the humility and virtue of a crucified Christ, holding him up as the example of the Existential Man who suffers what indignities may be thrust upon him stoically and without complaint.
However, any honest reader will quickly realize when examining Christ’s sufferings that they are not the man hanging on the cross, but rather they are the bloodthirsty crowd below, shouting “Crucify him!” and gambling over his clothes.
The story of the crucifixion is not the story of the virtuous man contrasted with the immoral man, it is the story of God contrasted with human beings. In Christ is seen all the nobility, purity, and surprising humility of God incarnate. The rest of the characters display all the ugliness of man. Even the best, most moral men in the story were his disciples, fleeing in cowardice and denying any knowledge of him mere hours after swearing they would follow him to the death.
The Christian faith says that when Christ died on the cross, he paid the penalty for all men’s sins; which sins are flaunted even as he dies. As the very act is occurring, the utter need for the act is brought to light.
Like Mel Gibson’s movie, any discussion of the crucifixion tends to be tainted by accusations of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the claim has been made by various groups, both historically and contemporarily that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death.
Leaving alone, for the moment, that it was actually the Romans that both sentenced and executed Jesus, the fact of the matter is that, had Jesus come to ANY culture preaching as he did, they would have treated him in the same manner. The problem was not with the Jews. The problem is with people.
As Christ hung on the cross, he looked down. What he saw were the Roman soldiers, callously gambling over his coat. He saw his Jewish accusers shouting, “He saved others, himself he cannot save!” and “If you are the Christ, come down from the cross, and then we will believe!” He saw one of his disciples cowering and trying not to be seen.
This is What he saw. What he said was “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The very forgiveness for which he prayed, he paid.