32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
They led Jesus, and the other two who were to be crucified with him, to the place called “The Skull”, and they crucified them there.
There are two places in Jerusalem said to be “The Place of the Skull”. At the end of the Via Dolorosa stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a place revered as holy since the times of Rome. It is another of those sites shared by different denominations – the Greek Orthodox high altar, with its elaborate decorations, is built over the place where you can reach down and touch a square place cut into the stone – is it where the cross was set? And below, in a large area, with light streaming down from an overhead skylighted dome, is an altar before which people line up all day, to enter a place said to be the tomb, but in which nothing of the tomb remains. Below, in a bare place with a few chairs and a simple altar, Armenian Christians have worshipped, beside an actual tomb – from what century? Alternatively, there is a site, used mainly by Protestants, called the Garden Tomb, where a nearby hillside actually looks like a skull, and there is a tomb in the garden. It makes a good place to have a meaningful service with a little group. But, regardless of the exact location, it was on the outskirts of Jerusalem, just outside the gates of the city, that they crucified Jesus.
Crucifixion is a slow and painful death. Rome crucified many people; it was a horror show meant to warn those watching of the dangers of defying Roman power, or of acts which violated the “Pax Romana” (Peace of Rome), maintained by terror. The victim is so positioned that he must lift his entire body to breathe – each breath is a struggle against the pain in his feet. For Jesus to speak at all on the cross requires the use of that precious breath, that failing energy. But all the gospels tell us that Jesus did speak from the cross; each of them gives a little different sayings from the cross, but all agree that he used his precious last breaths to speak.
Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” To whom does Jesus address his forgiveness? To the criminals crucified with him, just mentioned? To the Roman soldiers who nail him to the cross? To the religious leaders who stand by mocking, who brought him there? Jesus forgives them all. None “deserves” forgiveness – Jesus forgives anyway. That is what grace is all about. That is what he is doing on the cross. Through his work on the cross, his grace, we are all forgiven.
Luke connects the events of the crucifixion to the Old Testament Scriptures – they cast lots for his clothing, as in Psalm 22; and they mock, saying, “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the Chosen One”, a quote from Psalm 22. Luke points out those places where the crucifixion fulfills the scriptures. The soldiers also mock him – offering sour wine (a cheap drink used by the soldiers) – but this also fulfills scripture (Psalm 69:21). And Pilate has them put a sign over him – “This is the King of the Jews”. Pilate is mocking the Jews whom he attempted to placate by putting Jesus to death, getting in the last word. But the irony is evident to Luke’s readers – what Pilate intended as mockery, is truth – Jesus is King, not just of the Jews, but of us all!