Crucifixion, of course, was the greatest source of shame. One could not experience a more emphatic shaming than the cross. Rome used it to assert its superiority, deploying the full arsenal of the power of the cross within the honor and shame culture, while the Jews believed that one that was hung on a tree was flatly accursed. We know that the transformation of the cross from the place of shame to the pinnacle of honor was not immediate. Within a couple of decades of Jesus’ death, the Apostle Paul writes “we preach about a crucified Christ,” which was a severe oxymoron, as one could not be Christ (Messiah, King) if one was crucified. It made no sense. Indeed, he states that such is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). So yes, the reversal of the overt message that was communicated by the cross of Jesus took some time, especially as we consider that crucifixion continued to be routinely employed well beyond the time of Jesus.
With all of these things said, and with the shame of the cross now firmly entrenched alongside our consideration of the matter, we now return to the crucifixion scene as presented by the synoptic Gospels, that we may look at a particular part of the story, analyzing how it sits in relation to what was understood about crucifixion. For our purposes, we’ll utilize Mark’s Gospel, from which we once again hear “Those who passed by defamed Him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who can destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself and come down from the cross!’” (15:29-30) As if it was not enough that Jesus was hanging there naked (shame), having been scourged and mocked by the Roman soldiers (shame), which was standard practice when dealing with the royal pretenders that were shortly to be subject to the terrible cross (shame) as they felt the heavy, crushing boot of Rome’s domination, but He was now subject to the scorn of those witnessing the event (shame).
Continuing again with Mark: “In the same way even the chief priests---together with the experts in the law---were mocking Him among themselves: ‘He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!’” (15:31-32a) Here, those who had been subject to shaming at Jesus’ hand, as subjects of His parables and in the verbal honor challenges that arose during the course of His public ministry, along with being the implied subjects of His withering discourse concerning the corrupted and soon to fall Temple, were now exacting their revenge, as they now seized the opportunity to add to His shame, at the same time taking the opportunity to recapture the honor that they had routinely lost to Him.
We can imagine how the story is heard as it is told. These honor and shame components would not have to be drawn out at all. They were a regular and well-understood feature of life in the ancient Near East of Jesus’ day. Though those hearing the story, for the most part, know how it is going to end, these painful details would be felt, as the scorn, contempt, and shame that fell upon the one they looked to as Lord, in some sense, now fell upon them. With that in mind, let us consider those that are being crucified with Jesus. Their experiences are going to be roughly similar. There’s no reason to believe that they were not subject to the same type of scourging and mocking as was Jesus. They too were nailed to the cross. They too hung there naked, exposed to the world. They too were suffering the ultimate shame that could be heaped upon a person in that time. Their families and associates would also be fearful of reprisal and subject to shame, as were the family and associates of Jesus.
What happens? “Those who were crucified with Him also spoke abusively to Him” (15:32b). In the midst of their experience of the greatest possible shame, and in the midst of Jesus’ own suffering of the greatest shame, those that are being shamed right along with Jesus take it upon themselves to speak abusively to Him---extracting what little honor Jesus has left, and attempting to accrue it to themselves to somehow lessen their own shame and increase that of Jesus. What’s more, the Gospels report it. Though Luke offers a different telling that we have no reason to doubt, as we said earlier, the fact remains that the synoptic Gospels, in their recounting of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, report that in the midst of His suffering and shame, He is reviled by those undergoing the exact same fate. Let it be said, that when Jesus went to the cross, He willingly allowed Himself to be subject to not only the greatest shame, but shame upon shame upon shame. As we hear the story, and just when we think that the shame could not be intensified, we are shown that it certainly can.
Luke’s story, of one of the crucified men rebuking the other and then being honored by Jesus, not only shows Jesus’ response to this final round of shaming, but it is also one final instance of Jesus making the last first, insisting that this fellow recipient of the greatest shame would shortly be joining Him in paradise. There was no lower place in the world than the cross, and there was no more shameful person than one that was experiencing the cross. Yet Jesus somehow manages to make it an even lower place---the lowest of all lows---than we may have ever even imagined, by accepting the shaming of those being crucified with Him. For those with ears attuned to the constructs of honor and shame, this would had to have been yet another stunning development.
Yes, the cross has been transformed, and the transformation is revolutionary---a veritable resurrection of that which is associated only with death. However, the example provided by the one that calls His disciples to take up their crosses, a shocking request indeed that involves disavowing of any pretensions towards the honor on offer in the world that so often stands against the kingdom of God and an embracing of shame and what is shameful in a challenge to the system of the world that attempts to carry on as if its Creator has no claim on it, has not been transformed. It remains the same. The call to follow Him to the place of suffering and shame, and shame upon shame if need be, still stands. If we are true to Him, and if we call Him Lord, we follow.