‘Irony’ means using words which have the opposite meaning to that which is usually intended. It is a powerful device, and can sharpen up our understanding of people and events by showing us who ‘gets it’ and who ‘doesn’t get it’.
Irony is not only a verbal device. There is also ‘dramatic irony’, in which the ‘real’ meaning of an entire event may be the opposite of its assumed, or apparent, meaning.
The account of Jesus’ crucifixion as recorded in Gospel of Matthew (Mt 27:27-51) is dripping with irony. Don Carson identifies, in this passage, four ‘ironies of the cross’:-
- The man who is mocked as king, really is the king.
- The man who is utterly powerless, really is powerful.
- The man who can’t save himself, saves others.
- The man who cries out in despair, trusts God.
In Mt 27:27-31, the Roman soldiers strip Jesus of his clothes, drape a scarlet robe on on, place a ‘crown’ ( of thorns) on his head, and put a ‘sceptre’ (a wooden staff) in his hand. They bow before Jesus in mock reverence, crying ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ While they are mocking him in this way, they also spit in his face and repeatedly hit him with the mock sceptre. He is then dressed again in his own clothes, and led away to be killed. The charge against Jesus is written above his head: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews”, and his continues to be mocked as king of Israel, in v42.
But Matthew knows that Jesus really is the king. He has told us in the very first verse of his Gospel: ‘The genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ He knows that Isaiah, the greatest of the writing prophets, had predicted one who would sit on David’s throne, and would be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6). In Mt 2 the Magi ask, ‘Where is he who is born king of the Jews?’ Jesus himself spoke repeatedly about the kingdom of God, and in his parables sometimes represented himself as the king. When asked by Pilate ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus replies, ‘Yes’.
So, while the soldiers mock Jesus as a pretend king, Matthew knows, and wants us to know, that he really is the king. There is irony n the soldiers’ mockery, but there is deeper irony for Matthew, because he knows that the soldiers are unwittingly telling the truth.
As for us, we know that Jesus is not only king of the Jews, but king over all. After his resurrection, he would declare that ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’ (Mt 28:18). And before him, says Paul, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In our own day, the concept of kingship has been seriously weakened. In a constitutional monarchy, such as applies in the UK, the king (or queen) is a figurehead, but has little authority. In New Testament times, however, a king had real power.
In Mt 20 we are told that the mother of James and John approached Jesus with her two sons asking that they might be given the two most important roles in his kingdom. Clearly, she had an earthly kingdom in mind. Jesus’ replied indicates that she does not understand the nature of his kingdom at all. ‘Can you drink the cup I am about the drink?’ he asks them, referring to his impending sufferings and death. ‘Yes,’ they reply. There is profound ignorance and over-confidence in their answer, and yet part of the irony is that they would eventually suffer for Jesus: James as the first Christian martyr, and John dying in exile on Patmos.
When the other disciples hear of this exchange, they are furious, not because of the impertinence of James and John and their mother, but because they had not put in their requests for the top jobs first. In response, Jesus calls them all together and explain how things are in the kingdom of God: they must be like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:25-28).
Based on Carson, The Ironies of the Cross, part 1.