Life as a Roman soldier in Jesus’ time must have been quite dull.
Once you’ve conquered the world, as the Romans had, all that’s left to do is keep it. And occupying a country at that time, I imagine, would have been boring stuff on the day-to-day: lots of standing around, the occasional patrol or scowl at a local, hoping for a little action now and then. For a soldier, it must have felt like a life of inevitability, proceeding like the footsteps of a march, left, right, left-RIGHT-left. The next formation, the next order, the next arrest, the next tax collection, day after day, all of it numbing them into stupefied ennui.
Numbness like that cries out for interruption. Something different, anything different, to make you feel like you’re living and not just existing. Just one extra beat in the march so that, occasionally, it feels like a dance.
I wonder if that helps explain the curious part in Jesus’ crucifixion story when, after Pilate has sentenced him but before he is led to the cross, a moment of theater breaks out. (Matt. 27:27-31) The soldiers drag Jesus to the governor’s mansion, where “the whole company” gathers as an audience for a show (v. 27). They give Jesus a costume and props—the scarlet robe, fake staff, crown of thorns—and play out a scene of cruel improv, alternating fake worship (“Hail, king of the Jews!!”, v. 29) and real cruelty (“…they spit on him…struck him on the head again and again.”, v. 30).
This moment could perhaps be explained as common brutality, plain and simple. But v. 31 adds an extra detail that gives the game away: “… they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away.”
If brutality were the point, the soldiers could have left Jesus in costume as they took him to the cross. If mocking him was the point, they wouldn’t have needed an audience. But they “put [Jesus’] own clothes on him” before they led him away. The costume and props had served their purpose. The curtain had closed, the show had finished, the soldiers’ brutal play concluded. This moment wasn’t about Jesus. It was about them. In the relentless banality of their daily life, they hungered for an interruption—any excuse to feel like their march of life could have one moment of dance, of novelty, of play. Even a cruel one.
In Jesus’ passion story, the violence often grabs us first. We’re startled by the whips, the beatings, the nails, the cross, one after the other. But behind Good Friday’s violence lies something more startling and, in some ways, even closer to our daily experience: Good Friday’s boredom.
It is true that each day is an exquisite gift of God, filled with new mercies and precious hints of his presence that ignite our gratitude. But it is also true that, in some seasons of life, each day can feel relentless in its monotony. Like the Roman soldiers, we wake up into stretches of life where the tedium of life has so blunted our sense of wonder at God’s world and his ways that when any interruption comes, whether sacred or sinful, we’ll seize it—and live it badly.
That is the tragedy of these soldiers. The boredom of their lives as occupiers corroded their hearts so badly that, when Jesus appeared in their lives, it wasn’t enough to just hurt him. They had to play with him. Had to perform with him. Had to put him on stage and do a venomous “dance” with him. Because for them, tomorrow brought them back to the grind, to the march, to the boredom.
The soldiers took God’s gift of creativity, of imaginative delight and play which is imbued into every human who bears the image of God, and turned it against Jesus, who is “the very image of God.” (Col. 1:15). It is a heartbreaking degradation to see, imago dei defacing The Imago Dei.
But look at Jesus among the soldiers, at the vulnerability and power of his love. They have missed the greatest Interruption of all, the entrance of God into history for the purposes of salvation and transformation, including theirs. Even in their mocking play, in their broken dancing, they rightly worshiped Jesus as King and didn’t even know it. They are face-to-face with the very interruption they secretly longed for, torturing the one who could break their chains of monotonous oppression and sin and liberate them into an exhilarating life of holiness, transformation, and love. Yet they could not see it.
This is the mind-blowing depth of Jesus’ love: he sat there… and allowed it. In his incarnation, Jesus entered the humdrum, the daily grind, the relentless tedium of day after day. Even more, he submitted to the brokenness this tedium produces in us, like it did in these soldiers. Offered himself to our trivial violence, casual disregard, mocking indifference—towards him, and each other.
He did it because he loves us. We know this because after the soldiers finished and put Jesus’ own clothes on him, they led him away—to crucify him.
The soldiers missed Jesus’ interruption into their lives. They could only use their sin- and boredom-dulled hearts to make sport of him, to make him a small blip of novelty when they could have had a seismic, life-altering experience.
But Jesus let them. Even as they toyed with him, Jesus knew that he was going to the cross, the grave, and the resurrection—the ultimate Interruption by the great Interrupter, the one who disrupted sin and death forever with salvation and new creation.
Drew Larson works as a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. You can buy his book here (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09V21MXDF) or support his ministry at donate.intervarsity.org/donate#15790.
But the phenomenon of highway hypnosis reveals that there are many, many ways in which you are not the boss. You are so not the boss of you, in fact, that your conscious mind can take a full daydream holiday while you’re driving and some other part of you will manage that unbelievably complex task quite well.
As we remember our Lord and Savior’s sacrifice this Easter, take some time to reflect on these passages and questions. Pray for fresh eyes and an ability to place yourself within each passage. Read them more than once to fully soak them in. And may the Holy Spirit fill us all with a renewed sense of wonder and delight as we celebrate the empty tomb!
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