First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Passion Sunday

William Loader

Passion Sunday: 20 March Luke 22:14 - 23:56

Passion Sunday is also Palm Sunday.

We pick up the story at the point where Jesus and his disciples sit down for a passover meal (22:14). Following Mark, his source, Luke had described Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in 19:28-40. There Luke changes the people's acclamation so that it now echoes the words to the shepherds in the Christmas story: "Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (19:38). Then he inserts a description of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (19:41-44). This emphasis remains constant. Unlike Matthew who is keen to portray the disaster of Jerusalem's destruction in 70 CE as God's judgement on the people for rejecting Jesus, Luke's manner of prediction is far more sympathetic. Unlike in Mark, Jesus' action in the temple (19:45-46) looks more like reform than prediction of judgement. Gone is Mark's clever construction which matches the cursed fig tree to the temple's fate. For Luke the temple is not cursed. In Acts the first Christians meeting there for worship

Luke includes the exchanges of Jesus with Pharisees, Sadducees and others in the temple, and even has the prediction of its destruction told not to a small group of disciples on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13:1), but in the temple itself (Luke 21:37-38). What is predicted is painful and Luke's Jesus holds out hope for an end to Gentile trampling of the city (21:24) and a return of Jesus to the city in triumph (21:28). Like Mark, Luke mentions the plot to kill Jesus and Judas' role, but he omits the contrasting scene of the woman who anoints Jesus' head, because he has used a variant of that story earlier in 7:36-50. So we move straight from the plot and Judas (22:1-6) to the preparation of the Passover (22:7-13) and then directly to the Passover itself where our passage begins.

Luke knows another version of the last meal, related to Paul's account in 1 Cor 11:22-25. That is his source for the actions and words over the bread and wine, with some supplementation by Mark. His main changes are to take Jesus' promise that the next time he would drink the wine would be in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25), and double it. He thus places a statement about future eating and one about future drinking at the beginning of the scene (22:16-17). The result has created some confusion because Luke refers to two cups. Luke may well be reflecting the pattern of Passover meals. The last meal remains as in Mark a central act in which Jesus interprets his death as a source of benefit and relates to the hopes which many had for a new or renewed covenant which would bring change and liberation.

Luke has however rearranged what he found in Mark to make the meal much more of an occasion of Jesus' final deeds and words. Mark has the meal begin with Jesus predicting Judas' betrayal. Luke reverses the order so that the very sacred moment of communion (22:14-20) is suddenly shattered in 22:21 with the statement that a betrayer's hand is with them on the table! Luke has then assembled from various sources some final teachings of Jesus and they all have a message for the church and church leaders of his day (and ours). John's gospel expands this pattern, finally producing 5 chapters' worth of material (John 13-17). From the embarrassing episode of James and John's ambition for power in Mark 10, Luke has excised the final teaching segment (10:41-45) and reworked to make it part of Jesus' final speech (22:24-27). From Q, the source he shares with Matthew, he weaves in the promise that the twelve would one day rule over Israel and share with him again at the sacred meal (22:28-30; Matt 19:28). From Mark's account of the conversation on the way to the Mount of Olives after the meal (14:26-31) Luke takes up the prediction of Peter's denial, but ensures the work of rehabilitation of Peter and his future authority is not undermined by adding Jesus' prediction of his leadership (22:31-34). The worrying words about having swords (22:35-38) is a good way of warding off suspicion that the disciples were a revolutionary movement. For then they would need many more than only two swords! Christians are peaceable. Rome should have nothing to fear. All travellers need some protection. It was as harmless as that.

Luke pares the Gethsemane story to a minimum (22:39-42), which later Christians supplemented with dramatic grief and angelic support (22:43-46). Perhaps Jesus seemed too brave and unmoved to them, but then that is a marked feature in Luke. Jesus is not distressed in Gethsemane. He does not cry a God-forsaken cry from the cross. Luke trims away such intensity. Jesus is more like Socrates. The arrest is much as in Mark. It is wholly inappropriate to come after Jesus as though he were a danger to society, but that is a constant theme in the story. The charge on the cross is equally inappropriate. Luke does more rearranging of material when describing Peter's denial and the hearing before the Jewish council. He may have been aware that a night meeting on a capital charge on Passover Day was so contrary to the culture it was hard to believe. Mark had mentioned a second gathering in the morning (15:1). So Luke deletes the night meeting and has everything happen in the morning meeting (22:66-69). As a result he has Peter's denial not take place on either side of the hearing as in Mark, but before it. Similarly the mockery is relocated.

The rearrangements make the movement from the Jewish authorities to Pilate seem much more direct. There isn't even a verdict, just a consensus that there is enough to charge Jesus. It is probably Luke's own work to have rejigged the Jewish hearing. He drops the charge about the temple. In his second volume it appears among the false accusations against Stephen in Acts 6. Luke has split: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" (Mark 14:61) into two separate questions. It is not altogether clear where the objections lie, except that the presentation before Pilate focuses on the political charge of subversion (23:2-5), including forbidding to pay taxes to the emperor (which Luke has previously shown to be totally false: 20:20-26!). Jesus (like Christians in Luke's day - Luke will want people to hear) is being  falsely charged. An injustice is being done.

Luke has also somewhat rearranged the trial before Pilate and the crucifixion, but the main details remain. He reports a hearing also before Antipas (23:6-12), but knows no detail of the encounter, so reuses material which Mark had in the encounter with Pilate and in the soldiers' mockery. The charge is the same: king of the Jews, in other words political subversion. Luke softens some of the political associations by describing Jesus' co-victims as criminals instead of Mark's brigands or revolutionaries (showing how Pilate categorised Jesus). Barabbas also fitted the categorising well. Luke highlights Pilate's insistence that Jesus was innocent, conversely portraying the Jewish authorities as making all the running. But he cannot exonerate Pilate, who is shown to commit an irresponsible act of giving in to the leaders.

So far Luke's emphasis is strongly on the miscarriage of justice and the murderous intent of the Jewish authorities - perhaps reflecting people's experience in his own day at a time when relations with Judaism had reached a serious low. Jesus, himself, is very much the victim of a complex injustice, but a model for all who would suffer the same fate. Luke is not engendering hate against Jews or Judeans or even the inhabitants of Jerusalem. His weeping at the entry now finds an echo in his deeply empathetic words to those who weep for him. He knows they will face the horrors of war and his heart goes out to them (23:27-31). "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (23:34) is a disputed text, but fits the image of Jesus facing his own execution but refusing to turn to hate.

Mark has mockery from passers by, Jewish priestly authorities and the co-crucified. Luke has broken this up. The crowd and passers by seem to be neutral or at least wondering. The leaders and soldiers mock. The co-crucified now serve to display two possible responses: ridicule or repentance and Jesus is quick to respond with a promise of hope (23:39-43). Luke is thus giving us an image of Jesus as bravely suffering injustice but forgiving to the end. As in Mark, Luke speaks of darkness (23:44). He also shifts the tearing of the temple curtain to this spot (23:45). It is like a sign of divine grief, whereas in Mark and Matthew it is more a sign of divine judgement and anger after the death of Jesus. Jesus dies not with the anguished cry from Psalm 22:1 about God forsakenness (Mark 15:34), but with the calm commitment of Psalm 31:6 (23:46). Perhaps this reflects Luke's ideal of suffering and bravery which he would have shared with many in the ancient world. It contrasts with Mark's story and probably with the reality.

Unlike in Mark the centurion does not utter a Christian confession, acclaiming Jesus, Son of God (Mark 15:39), but gives rather an admission that Jesus was a just or innocent man (23:47). Mark is always wanting to drop hints about the Gentile mission. Perhaps Luke sensed it was somewhat 'over the top' and in any case Mark's Greek could be heard as saying not much more than Jesus was godly. The crowd still appears sympathetic; they are disturbed (23:48). In Mark only the women stick by Jesus (15:40-41). The disciples had all fled and were probably on their way to Galilee. In Luke it is Jesus' acquaintances with the women (23:49). The acquaintances would probably include the disciples. Mark's sudden mention of the women has less dramatic impact in Luke. There is no implied contrast with the men. Joseph of Arimathea, as in Mark, buries the body. In using Mark's description of Joseph as one who was eagerly awaiting the kingdom of God (23:51), Luke will be reminding his hearers of how it all began: with people like Anna and Simeon and Mary and Zechariah. That hope remains the central agenda and the ultimate meaning of all these events.

Weaving our way through the material we have recognised Luke's hand and creativity. The result is loss and gain. The loss includes the image of a more Stoic Jesus, perhaps also an overemphasis on Pilate's good opinion (but bad judgement) with a resultant negative picture of the Jewish leaders. This probably has more to do with conflicts of Luke's own day - sadly. Yet Luke does bring out what he has recognised an inherent in the ministry of Jesus: compassion. This extends to the people of Jerusalem, the repentant criminal, the women who mourn his fate, and ultimately his crucifiers. Luke does indulge himself in narrative that hates, by depicting hateful almost subhuman figures, such as we see in Mel Gibson's film. Luke is very restrained. Goriness is irrelevant for Luke. The focus is not how much blood or even how much suffering, but the injustice against the one who proclaimed a way of peace and compassion and his persistence in sticking with it.

Epistle Passion/Palm Sunday: 20 March  Philippians 2:6-11

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