Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Foolish Question

I have spent the last week “enjoying” a very debilitating back ache. It isn’t the first one I’ve endured over the years, but it had been several years since the last one and I had reason to hope, at 77 years old, I had outgrown them. Not so. It lingers on despite Tylenol and muscle relaxants. Many fellow sufferers will relate to the condition: a sudden onset of spasms in the lower back followed after a few days of misery by a migrating band of stiffness and pain that moves from one side of the back to the other and then eventually exits down one leg. I’m waiting for it to make its exit.

The misery of the constant pain triggered some thoughts about a Scripture passage in which we are told that Jesus, as our high priest – our advocate before the Heavenly Father – “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 NIV) The thought ran through my mind that Jesus didn’t live to be a middle aged man; he died at age thirty-three. What could he have known about the muscle spasms and back ache that an old man experiences.

No sooner had I entertained that thought than another hit me. The Cat of Nine Tails! That horrific instrument of torture with which the Romans extracted information or confessions from slaves and prisoners was used on Jesus’ back. A whip with anywhere from 3 to 12 strips  of leather at its end, each with nails, or glass, or broken bone embedded in it so that with every blow to the prisoner’s back great gobs of flesh were torn open. Tradition claims that such a beating was restricted in Jewish practice to 40 lashes, save one, or thirty-nine lashes. There is no guarantee that Jesus’ beating at the hands of Romans was halted at thirty-nine lashes. It may have been more or less. But one thing is certain; every muscle in his back was lacerated to the point that it is no wonder that he could not carry his own cross as the Romans liked to require their victims to do.

There is much about Jesus’ trial, beatings, and crucifixion that we can only appreciate through the lens of our sheltered western Christian culture. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ attempted to show the horror of Jesus ordeal, but even that fell short of the reality. Try as we may, unless we have personally witnessed a similar abuse of one of our fellow men (there are still atrocities as horrific committed in our day) we cannot begin to fathom the price in pure physical suffering that Jesus paid for our “healing.” The prophet Isaiah, writing centuries before the crucifixion of Jesus said of him, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement that brings us peace was laid on him, and by his stripes we are healed.” (Paraphrased from the King James.)

Jesus truly “has been tempted (tested) in every way, just as we are . . .” He journeyed to the farthest hill to die with common criminals at such a distance from his Father that he cried out in the agony of desertion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Had God truly deserted him? Probably not, but when one feels deserted it is nearly the same as actually being so.

Various author’s have tried to depict the temptations Jesus endured while on earth. One of the most moving depictions I have encountered is in the novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis. Kazantzakis portrays Jesus being confronted with temptations that are so base that it offended the sensibilities of many Christians who wanted to think of Jesus as never entertaining any thought of evil. But certainly, if the writer of the Book of Hebrews is right, Jesus was tempted in every way that any human being can be tempted – not necessarily every particular sin, but every temptation to corrupt the good things that God has intended for man to enjoy. And he came away from each temptation without sin.

Kazantzakis’ book portrays the last temptation of Christ as being the temptation to avoid the pain, and disgrace of the cross; to agree with the suggestions of Satan that his Messiahship was all illusory, that he was throwing away the chance for a good life in exchange for a horrible death. There were opportunities for him to reject the cross, even at the last hour. Pilate almost pleaded with Jesus to give him some reason to set him free. But, as another scripture tells us, he endured the cross, despising the shame, because of the joy that he saw beyond the cross; the joy of many who would come to faith in him and in the sacrifice he made for mankind.

I’m still waiting for the pains in my back to subside but while they linger it gives me reason to appreciate the incredibly greater pain that Christ endured for the salvation of all mankind. Did Jesus know what it meant to have a pain like I am enduring? It makes me blush to think I ever asked the question.

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