St John 19: 17 – 24 So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfil what the scripture says,
‘They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.’
And that is what the soldiers did.
Reflection I am struck by the perspective by which the Evangelist of this Gospel re-tells the crucifixion. This is at least 60 years after the moment.
It’s like me (born in 1978) reflecting on the Holocaust or the era of lynching of African Americans. More than likely, the writer wasn’t there but is viscerally connected to it. This brutal story has been told many times to them. They know the effects of imperial brutality.
But the graphic narration makes you think they were truly there. The global necessity of the writing on the Cross says that Pilate wanted everybody to know. The soldiers gambling for Jesus’ clothes was a common imperial custom of not just eliminating the accused but ensuring they die dishonourably.
This is one of those passages where the presence of “the Jews” has been tragically misinterpreted. John never speaks of a whole group’s responsibility. What John does describe are all the major and minor players involved—the cogs in the wheel of brutality, and their pastimes. The lottery for Jesus’ clothes makes one imagine a crude sacrament in the religion of Caesar being performed.
Perhaps the Christians of this Evangelist’s time had their share of people who told them to “just get over it”. It was so long ago, move on!
Two years ago, as people of colour and our allies protested globally against white supremacy, brutality and innocent deaths, that is sadly what I heard from my white Christian friends, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet, I see much transformation today because we didn’t get over it. Historic policies and appointments, churches taking anti-racism conversations seriously. Theologians— like my friend Anthony G. Reddie—are no longer on the sidelines of Church academics but recognized resources on the frontlines of the church.
I’m proud that we didn’t “just get over it”. And I’m glad that the community of this Evangelist never got over it but kept telling the story.
And they passed it on to us.
Prayer “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis’ final written statement before his death on July 17, 2020.
The Rev’d William Young, pastor Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ, Washington DC