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“The Characters of Lent: Roman Centurion”
Luke 23:44-47


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service V—March 25, 2009

For the Roman Centurion, Good Friday started as nothing special, just another day in the life of Roman soldier.  Normally, a centurion was in command of 100 soldiers, hence the title centurion.  But, today he would be in charge of only five men—four other soldiers, and the victim they were crucifying.  For, there were crucifixions scheduled today, and it was his turn as a centurion to oversee one of the crucifixion details of the three condemned men.

It all starts out very routine. The centurion selects four of his soldiers for the crucifixion detail that he is commanding.  Since they will be out all day at the crucifixion sight, the soldiers get field rations for the day from the quartermaster.  This includes a flask of “posca,” the wine-vinegar that was the Roman soldier’s normal beverage ration.  A small sponge was in the top of the flask as a cork.

The centurion himself checks out from the quartermaster some very valuable army property that must be returned or his pay will be docked: large iron spikes, to drive into the victims’ hands and feet.

The docket for this Friday is a little unusual.  Two of the men are common criminals, so many of whom are executed every year during the festival.  But, the third condemned man is rather famous, someone the centurion has heard much about, a very well-known individual named Barabbas.

That’s when unexpected things start to happen.  Barabbas is a notorious prisoner, a terrorist who committed murder in a revolt against Rome.  But, to everyone’s surprise, the governor sets him free, and in his place the centurion will be crucifying another famous person he has also heard much about, a Hebrew rabbi named Jesus.

Usually it is the centurion who prepares the wooden plaques listing the crimes, to be carried in front of the victims as they bear their own crosses to the execution sight and then posted above them on their crosses.  But, for Jesus, the governor himself has a very unusual notice prepared.  It reads in Hebrew, Latin and Greek: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

As is customary, the soldiers severely flog all three prisoners before leading them out to be crucified.  Since crucifixion is such a slow, painful way to die, it is considered humane to weaken them first so that they will die more quickly.

Since most of the common soldiers under the centurion are actually local recruits from nearby Syria, bitter enemies of the Jews, in addition to flogging the Hebrew rabbi Jesus, they also brutally mock and make fun of him as the King of the Jews, dressing him up like a king in a purple robe, a crown of thorns and a wooden staff like a scepter.  Then mockingly paying him homage, spitting on him and savagely beating with the staff.

Out at the execution place, the place the Hebrews call Golgatha, the soldiers nail the three victims to their crosses.  So many times the centurion has heard crucifixion victims either proclaiming their innocence or cursing their torturers.  But, he never imagined he would hear a man cry out as he was being nailed to a cross, “Father, forgiven them for they know not what they do.”

All three victims are offered wine mixed with gall or myrrh, a mild narcotic to help deaden the pain.  But Jesus refuses to take it.

The four soldiers who crucify Jesus divide up his clothing, the customary bonus for soldiers assigned to the dreaded crucifixion detail.  But, the undergarment is seamless, woven in one piece.  Such large pieces of cloth were rare and valuable.  Roman soldiers often gambled and played of chance, perhaps they even brought some dice or other along with them that day to pass the time.  And so they fulfill the prophecy in the Psalms, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”

It is the third hour, 9:00am, when they crucify Jesus.  Darkness comes over the whole land from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, noon to 3:00pm.  The classical Greek author Plegon wrote a book about unexplained natural phenomena titled, “Questions of Nature.”  He reports that in the Spring of the 202nd Olympiad it became so dark at midday that you could see the stars, and there was at the same time a great earthquake.  The 202nd Olympiad is equal to the year 33 A.D.

At the ninth hour, 3:00pm, Jesus cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  The Roman soldiers don’t realize Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22.  They think he is calling out for Elijah.  Because the most gruesome part of crucifixion detail is taking the victims down from the cross after the crucifixion and extracting the nails, the soldiers say sarcastically, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” 

When Jesus says “I thirst,” one of the soldiers takes the sponge out of the mouth of their beverage flask, soaks it in the wine-vinegar, and lifts it to Jesus’ lips.  Then Jesus cries out, “It if finished.  Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

What effect do all these events have on the Roman centurion?  The Gospels report, “He PRAISED God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.  Surely this man was the Son of God!’”

Isaiah says, “We observed him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  As you ponder the events of Good Friday, like the Roman centurion praise God that his righteous Son died for your salvation. 

That is the lesson of the Lenten story of the Roman Centurion.  Amen.

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