He transforms our shoulds
by Patrick Lafferty
Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
Editor’s note: This week we are publishing the meditation that will be offered in Good Friday’s noontime service.
Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
By now you may have heard of Mohammed Bouazizi: an unmarried twenty-six-year-old man from Tunisia who cared for his mother and eight siblings left behind by their now deceased father.
He sold vegetables as a street vendor, pushing a dilapidated cart up and down the streets of Sidi Bouzid, and making about $7 a day.
On December 17th a policewoman harassed Mohammed, claiming his cart was unlicensed. When he tried to pay the fine on the spot, she accosted him, spit on him, overturned his cart and cursed his dead father.
Dejected at the mistreatment, Bouazizi walked to the equivalent of city hall and demanded an audience with the provincial governor to protest the injustice done to him by public officials. The governor refused to see him. Having no one else to appeal to and no advocate, Bouazizi left demoralized.
One hour later he returned to city hall with two cans of gasoline. He doused his body with the fuel and set himself aflame.
For 18 days he languished in hospital, even garnering a visit from the President of Tunisia.
On January 4th of this year Mohammed died.
As you may also know, his death literally incited a wave of protest in the country under dictatorial rule, leading to the Tunisian President’s eventual resignation—which then sparked protests in more than a few other Middle-Eastern countries. Those protests—many of them violent—continue at this very hour.
Mohammed Bouazizi died a heinous death by his own choice. His death has touched off incalculable tumult. Yes, his single act of sacrificial defiance has provoked both outcry and action about revolution and reform. But his act, I think, catalyzed something even more basic—something having to do with the should questions of life.
Bear with me, but dictators in that region are all asking: “What should we have done, either to prevent the outcry or quell it before it erupted?” “What reforms should we have implemented, or what measures should we have taken to diffuse the tension?” The word “should” is much in their minds, and not just theirs.
People in those nations in revolt are also asking: “Now that the autocrats are listening, now that the people are awakened, what should we do next? What reforms should be enacted? What should our nation look like going forward?”
Should is a word as much on their minds as those they seek to overthrow.
One man’s act of horrific self-sacrifice confronts everyone’s thinking about what should’ve been in the past and what should be in the present and future.
I submit to you that the Lord Jesus, whose horrific death is detailed in this text does precisely the same thing, but on a grander and deeper scale. Everything about this passage shows the righteous living and dying of Jesus provoking something unexpected—something different from what should’ve otherwise occurred.
That even applies to the weather that day.
It was the height of the day—the sixth hour, 12 noon—in the fullness of spring. The sun should’ve been shining brightly. And yet, Luke tells us, a darkness was over the land. The sun’s light was failing.
Luke’s not being purely meteorological and journalistic in mentioning that. He doesn’t mean for us to think it’s a sheer coincidence that they crucified Jesus on a forebodingly dark day. On what might’ve been just another dusty day in Judea, Jesus’ crucifixion provokes an ominous response from the creation itself.
Consider also the curtain of the temple—it should have been hanging securely in the temple courts. We’re not precisely sure if Luke meant the curtain that separated the temple from the outer court, or the one that led into the Holy of Holies. But whichever it might’ve been, it was no slipshod, threadbare hanging. It would’ve been woven in thick layers of blue, scarlet, and purple cloth, hung on hooks of pure gold.
That it would tear at all was one thing—Matthew and Mark say it was torn from top to bottom. That it would’ve been torn at the time when Jesus hung upon the cross is quite another.
Jesus provokes something unexpected from what should’ve happened, not only in the setting, but in those who watched him die.
The centurion shouldn’t have given Jesus a second thought. This was just one more crucified criminal. The centurion should have just carried out his orders, maintained civility among the rabble, and looked upon Jesus with an admixture of derision and indifference.
And yet, this officer in the Roman army saw something different—something that struck him. He was moved enough to not only render but actually express an evaluation of these proceedings—an assessment contrary to the doctrinal zeal and political calculations that had given this centurion a job to do that day.
Jesus prompts something different from how things should’ve played out.
That’s true for the centurion; that’s also true for the crowd. Luke says they’d assembled to witness a spectacle, a bit of macabre entertainment to spice up their otherwise drab existence. Seeing another purported religious insurgent executed should have brought them at least a little delight—a little satisfaction at watching one who spoke with such commanding authority now reviled and humiliated for all the world to see.
They should’ve gone home happy, but instead the text says they returned home remorseful. Whether they felt complicit in Jesus’ death or just sorrowful at the apparent death of an innocent is unclear. But of this we can be sure: whatever disdainful things they’d come to believe about Jesus were confronted by the image of how He faced both his accusers and His death. His poise, His love, His confidence before His Father didn’t fit with how a true criminal should’ve responded. So Jesus provoked a reevaluation from those who should’ve found pleasure in His destruction.
Jesus alters what should’ve been in the crowd—and also in those who knew him best. His acquaintances and the women who’d followed him from Galilee, Luke says, stood at a distance.
At the very least they should’ve been sitting at His feet listening to Him teach as He had before. But by a providence they could not understand, he’d been taken from them and annihilated before their eyes, while they watched at a remove so as not to be seen, not to be associated with Him or implicated in the same crimes for which he was being crucified.
And in their minds, they should’ve been following a conquering king into the city limits of Jerusalem. Instead they were staring dumbfounded at a suffering servant. What should’ve been just wasn’t materializing.
Jesus provoked respect from the Centurion, remorse from the crowds, and now reflection from His acquaintances. In every case, Jesus alters what should’ve happened. Which is fitting. For the most glaring example of Jesus altering what should’ve been centers on Him being on the cross at all.
He should not have been there, but He was. We should have suffered the punishment He received, but we did not.
Jesus upends—he overturns—what should’ve been through His righteous living and dying. He did that in this moment. But He does that for us too, here and now. Middle-Eastern despots and peoples aren’t the only ones who face the should questions. We do all the time, and Jesus transforms our experience with the shoulds of life in two fundamental ways.
One, He transforms how we think about what we should have done in the past.
I’m talking about how He transforms our regrets. We all have them. Say the word regret, and it’s likely something or someone shoots into your brain effortlessly—something we should or should not have done.
Regrets follow us in this life. But by bearing the cross we should have borne, by paying the penalty we should have paid, by suffering the estrangement from God we should have suffered, He forgives where we have failed—Him and others.
Into His Father’s hands he committed His Spirit so that we might live as fully forgiven men, women, and children. By His death, He swallows up in His love all that we regret so that our regret will not swallow us up in despair.
Now, by dying to bring us forgiveness, Jesus does not deny the sinfulness of our sin; His grace doesn’t minimize our guilt.
Nor does He relieve us of the responsibility of acknowledging our sin to those we’ve offended; in fact, it’s His mercy that both compels and enables us to seek reconciliation where we can with whom we’ve wronged.
But His righteous self-sacrifice was enough to cover all the grievous things about our past; all the errors that haunt us; all that we should or should not have done.
How can I make such an audacious claim?
Zaccheus was an embezzler. The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet was a whore. Peter was a bigot. And Paul was an accomplice to murder.
They all saw with searing clarity what in their past they should or should not have done. They all ran to Jesus for forgiveness, but also for Him to transform how they thought about all the shoulds of their past.
If you’re a sinner, you’re in good company. If you’re in Christ, you’re in the care of a greater Savior. In the face of past regrets, Jesus shouts in a loud voice, “trust in my blood.” He transforms the shoulds of our past.
Our experience with should isn’t limited to the past though.
There’s as much unsettling about the present and future as our regrets foist upon us about the past. We can become paralyzed by having innumerable options, or exasperated by having precious few. As circumstances can change so quickly we can be derailed by forces outside our control in the blink of an eye. Or we can begin to think that our present trajectory increasingly seems like it’s either bound for nowhere or for catastrophe.
And so the questions emerge, “what should I do?” “how should I choose, change or live?” “How should I face a present or a future I cannot control?” Those are anxiety-riddled questions.
What is Jesus’ answer to that anxiety? What do His righteous living and dying say to what we should do about now and henceforth?
To our anxieties He simply says, “live for Him.” Implicit within His final words of trust to His Father on the cross is an invitation to trust Him in the midst of whatever your circumstances and to let that trust shape our life.
Let His Fatherhood shape our parenting; His work in us shape our work in the world; His investment in us shape our investment in others; His sacrifices for we who were His enemies shape our sacrifices for those who may still be our enemies.
And why does living for Him transform our anxieties about how we should live now and forever? If Jesus’ honor is without equal, then there is joy in knowing He is worthy of our labor. If His promise is sure, then there is confidence that no effort for Him is a waste. If His love is everlasting, then there is peace knowing that whatever we might lose in this world is nothing compared to what we have, and will have forever, in Him.
In His horrific death, Jesus transforms our every encounter with the shoulds of life.
Mohammed Bouazizi, no matter how incalculable and noble his self-sacrifice, did not die an innocent man.
None of us, no matter how laudable our lives, shall ever die an innocent death—whether untimely or timely, violently or quietly.
That is why our only hope of dying with any confidence that we shall enter our rest with God’s favor is to trust in the One who really was innocent in both life and in death.
And our only hope of having the regrets of our past and the anxieties of our future transformed is to trust in the One who altered—and alters—everyone’s experience with should.