Faces Around the Cross: Good Guys
by:Worth Green, Th.M. D. Min.
We are talking about faces around the cross. We have looked at the clergy, and the soldiers, and those whom we called “the bad guys” meaning the criminals crucified with Jesus. Now let us look at those I have tentatively called “the good guys.”
The vast majority of the crowd who saw Jesus die may be classed as “good guys,” and there is every reason to believe that the crowd that witnessed the crucifixion was even larger than that which welcomed Jesus into the city of Jerusalem during his triumphal entry on a colt, the foal of an ass.
In describing that first Palm Sunday, Mark tells us that “many” spread their garments on the road, and that “still others” spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed after cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:8-10)
Jerusalem did not have CNN or Fox News, but news about Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth quickly spread through the streets of the city by word of mouth. As the days of that first Holy Week were torn from the calendar, interest in Jesus grew. Therefore we are not surprised when Luke tells us that after the crucifixion, “all the multitudes who had assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breast.” (Luke 23:48)
Now from time to time, people tell me how wonderful it might have been to live in the time of Jesus. They tell me that faith would have been easier to come by—and knowledge of Christ and his ways much more certain. I disagree. Often, we have the advantage. Let me illustrate.
St. John says that the Master’s final word was, “It is finished!” Those who stood around the cross and heard this word spoken in pain and agony, thought that Jesus was Jesus was speaking of his life and his aspirations. They regarded the cross as the bad end of a good man. Jesus had thrown himself upon the wheel of history, only to be crushed by it. When he said, “It is finished,” they were quite sure that Jesus was calling an end to his life, and to his hopes and dreams. Therefore they mourned. We who read the words, “It is finished!,” in the context of John’s Gospel, know that Jesus was speaking not just of his death, but of his life-long battle battle with sin, death and the Evil we call “the Devil.” The cross is not the bad end of a good man; but a road traveled once for all by our now Risen and Victorious Savior. Therefore we rejoice. The difference between then and now, us and them, is highlighted in one of my favorite hymns from the Holy Week Manual:
“It is finished!” Shall we Raise,
Songs of Sorrow, or of Praise?
Mourn to see the Savior die,
Or proclaim his Victory?
Lamb of God! Your Death has Given,
Pardon, Peace and Hope of Heaven.
“It is finished!” Let us Raise,
Songs of Thankfulness and Praise!
There are other good guys we could mention. Nicodemus who first came to Jesus by night is one. He is mentioned only in the 4th Gospel, yet his story is so interesting, he deserves a whole sermon to himself.
The next good guy that I would mention is Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph appears in all four gospels.
Both Mark (and Luke) note(s) that Joseph was a member of the council. The council or the Sanhedrin was made of 70 Elders who ruled the affairs of the Jewish nation. Perhaps you will recall that the Jews of that day made no distinction between religious law and civil law. Being a member of the Council was like being a member of our Senate. When Joseph or another member of the Council of Elders spoke, “the whole Jewish world listened.”
Mark says that Joseph was “respected” and we have little doubt of it! (Mark 15:43)
Matthew tells us that he was a rich man. (Matthew 27:57) This flowed from his position on the council. Joseph had all he needed. No doubt he owned his own home in a good Jerusalem neighborhood. He and his family wore nice clothes. Joseph never worried about job security, or where his next meal was coming from; and he never, ever had to suffer the ignominy of going to a friend or a relative to borrow money.
Luke says that Joseph was looking for the Kingdom of God. This implies that Joseph was a Pharisee. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees accepted the Prophets alongside the Law. Since this was the case, Joseph believed in the kingdom of God which was to come and the Messiah who was to bring it.
Matthew notes that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57). This does not mean that Joseph understood the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ, or that he could recite the Apostle’s Creed before it was written. It does mean that he regarded Jesus as a Prophet, at the least, and, perhaps, as the Messiah that would inaugurate the Kingdom God in his own lifetime.
Luke also calls Joseph a “good man.” In the context of Scripture, that is an interesting ascription.
On the one hand, the man we call the “rich, young ruler” approached Jesus as he journeyed toward Jerusalem and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus refused the compliment, saying, “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-27) In this case Jesus was speaking in absolutes. One cannot compare a man with the absolute which is God.
On the other hand, when the Greeks spoke of a “good man,” they spoke in relative terms. They meant that a man is “good” as opposed to the vast majority of men who a “bad.” A good man posses those virtues of justice, kindness and compassion that are desirable in any human being, but often lacking. This Greek idea of the “good man” shows up in our New Testament.
St. Paul was using the Greek idea of a good man in Romans 5:7 when he says that “one will hardly die for a righteous man, though perhaps for a good man one may dare even to die.” Of course, having spoken in relative terms, he quickly returns to absolutes saying, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
Likewise, St. Luke is speaking in relative terms when he tells us that Joseph of Arimathea in a “good man.” And, like Paul, Luke qualifies his use of the term. He adds that Joseph was also a “righteous man.” Now, as we have seen before, a righteous man is one who fulfills the demands of his many relationships, including his relationship with God, his spouse, his neighbor, and the stranger on the street. This was true of Joseph.
Joseph was right in his relations with God. He was a Jew. He listened for the Prophetic Word, and he did not turn his back on the Law. I will wager that he loved Psalm 1:
Psalms 1:1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
Joseph was also righteous in his relationships with his fellow human beings, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
He bestowed great charity upon Jesus when he took his body down from the cross, and laid it in a new tomb, in a nice cemetery. Matthew tells us that it was Joseph’s own tomb. (Matthew 27:60) I doubt that this was an isolated act of kindness. Joseph was no Dives—who enjoyed his wealth while ignoring the beggar, Lazarus, at his gates. (Luke 16:19-31) Joseph would have agreed with the word of the Apostle:
6:17 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, 19 thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed. 1Timothy 6:17 -19
Finally, we ought to not that Mark says that Joseph was a brave man. He says that following the death of Jesus, Joseph “took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:42-43)
This was the time that Joseph really got his manhood on. It was not always so. St. John tells us that “Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews.” (John 19:38) This had to change, for one cannot remain a disciple of Jesus in secrecy. Either the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy.
There can be little doubt that following the death of Jesus, the discipleship of Joseph destroyed his secrecy.
When I was a boy my father said I cuss—-on one occasion. He said, “If some one ask if you are a Christian, and the only way you can answer is with profanity, then say, ‘Damn right I am a Christian.’” He said never, never, deny Christ.
When my time really came it was not like that. I did not need to be profane, I had champagne. It was in San Diego. The previous night I had asked Christ to take charge of my life, and show me God’s will. The next day, my friend Sonny and I were eating lunch in the Officer’s Club, and we were eating Pattie Melts, and there was free champagne. Holding my glass I looked over at Sonny I had become a Christian, he may have spilled his champagne, but I drank mine. I still consider the occasion most propitious.
And how did it happen for Joseph happen? It may be that Joseph was a witness to the resurrection. There is absolutely no evidence of this—save the fact that St. Paul tells us that Jesus once appeared to 500 brethren, but it would be a delicious irony to think that the man who put the body of Jesus into his own tomb would be paid in full, with interest, by the return of the tomb, with the promise of eternal life. In case you can’t wait until next week, you should know that the tomb in which Joseph laid the body of Jesus was not his final resting place, it was just a room for a transient. Eventually, however it came, this word came to Joseph, a respected member of the council, a good and righteous man, and there can be little doubt that he sought out the 1st Church of Jerusalem. No doubt his testimony would have been at least a little like the testimony of Paul in Philippians 3. Joseph was not a persecutor of the church, but he did have great credentials within Judaism. He was a great scholar. He was a good and righteous man. He was a respected member of the council. He had a lot to loose by becoming a Christian, yet his prominence in the gospels suggests that he did. And having found Jesus, he would have appreciated the testimony of another Pharisee, a respected teacher of Judaism named Saul, and then Paul:
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I, too, may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Joseph was a good man, and his was one of the faces of the good men around the cross; of course, Jesus made him a better man, as he will always make us better men and women. We are sinners, and we should not be satisfied with relative goodness, for God wishes our goodness to be absolute, like his own. As St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians 1:29-31:
No human being (can) boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; 31 therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”
He is our goodness.