…crucified under Pontius Pilate… “Certainly this man was innocent.”
The Revised Common Lectionary splits the traditional Palm Sunday in two, having a liturgy for the Palms on Palm Sunday, but also a liturgy for the Passion in which the Passion narrative is the dominant feature. I have given the Liturgy of the Palms exclusively to Palm Sunday (last issue of Common Good Network), but have moved the Liturgy of the Passion, with its reading of the full Passion narrative, here to Good Friday.
The other readings for Good Friday in the Lectionary are the most awesome of the Suffering Servant passages from the prophets, psalms, and epistles. (These readings remain the same every year.) For the Passion narrative itself, however, I am using the Gospel According to Luke instead of the Passion in John, which is the traditional Good Friday reading. This is Lectionary year C, the year of Luke’s Gospel, so here we will listen to Luke’s version of the climax of the mission of the Suffering Servant.
This prophetic reading is the climax of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah (see also 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11). Like the other Good Friday texts, this is a complex passage. It involves different scenes and speakers, and we need a map to follow the full drama. Here is a rather simplified one.
The text makes clear that God is speaking in 52:13-15 and in at least 53:11b-12. It makes equally clear that someone else is speaking – a plural, as in “we” and “for our…” – in 53:1-6 at least, and perhaps all the way to 53:11a. What the “we” passages describe is the astonishing career of the Servant (whom God introduced in the first God speech). This Servant was disfigured, despised, and generally hounded to death – a fate that he submitted to like a sacrificial animal taken to slaughter. Further, this suffering by the Servant was on somebody else’s account, or for their benefit. “…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6, NRSV). The Servant suffers for someone else, and that someone else has finally come to realize the truth of all this, and is declaring that truth as a new revelation (“Who has believed what we have heard?”, 53:1).
Thus we have the following structure:
(A) God introduces the Servant as newly exalted, 52:13-15.
(B) A group proclaims that the suffering was for their sins, 53:1-11a.
(A’) God announces the Servant’s reward for that suffering, 53:11b-12.
Let’s begin by focusing on the God speeches together, without being distracted by the details of the Servant’s labors. We will use the New Jewish Publication Society translation (2nd ed., 1999).
Indeed, My servant shall prosper,
Be exalted and raised to great heights.
Just as the many were appalled at him –
So marred was his appearance, unlike that of man,
His form, beyond human semblance –
Just so he shall startle many nations.
Kings shall be silenced because of him,
For they shall see what has not been told them,
Shall behold what they never have heard.
(52:13-15, NJPSV, 1999 ed.)
My righteous servant makes the many righteous,
It is their punishment that he bears;
Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion,
He shall receive the multitude as his spoil.
For he exposed himself to death
And was numbered among the sinners,
Whereas he bore the guilt of the many
And made intercession for sinners.
In between these two God speeches, the “many” speak, saying such impressive things as,
Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God;
But he was wounded because of our sins,
Crushed because of our iniquities.
He bore the chastisement that made us whole,
And by his bruises we were healed.
The whole passage spoken by the “we” or the “many” is designed to evoke great compassion at the suffering and disrespect endured by the Servant. But even more, it evokes wonder because this suffering was not only undeserved but was endured on behalf of others, to spare them from guilt and punishment because of their sins and iniquities.
What is this really about? What lies behind the imagery of the Suffering Servant? A fairly straightforward reading sees here an interpretation of Israel’s historic destiny. The Servant’s career is Israel’s historical decline, defeat, and apparent extinction – beyond any reasonable hope of recovery. (That is to say, it is the destruction and exile of first the old Northern Kingdom and then of the Kingdom of Judah. Ultimately, we are talking about political entities.)
The divine announcement is that there was a secret purpose working through that defeat and disaster – a secret purpose that, when known, will be astonishing to both the other nations and kings as well as to the defeated and exiled offspring of Israel themselves.
From the other parts of Isaiah 40-55 we learn the following: The sinfulness of Israelites, that brought judgment upon them, was running after other gods (who are really no-gods). Israel’s experience proves to the nations that such a pursuit leads to only futility and falsehood. This is because there is really only one Lord of history to whom unqualified loyalty is due. It is through Israel that other nations will learn this. It was through Israel’s sinfulness [unfaithfulness to Yahweh], leading to punishment and death, that the greatest lesson of all was learned: idolatry and multiple gods are a way of death. Israel has demonstrated this lesson to the world, suffered for its waywardness, but will be raised up again to live among the nations as Yahweh’s restored and honored Servant.
In the later twentieth century, scholars shied away from seeing royal features in the Servant. The Servant songs never say clearly that the Servant is a king. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the collective-individual character of the Servant probably makes most sense as a royal figure. He will stand honored among kings and he certainly plays a representative role: his experience is Israel’s collective experience, in some sense. In any case, the Servant makes most sense to me as a royal figure, the figure seen also in several psalms (22 and 118, for example). He stands as a personification of Israel’s leadership that exactly parallels the personification of City Zion as God’s spouse, which is celebrated so exuberantly in the text immediately following this final Servant song – the good news proclaimed to Lady Zion in Isaiah 54.
In the sacral realities and the prophetic rhetoric of that age, City and King were the makers – and the victims – of all major historical developments. In our passage, God declares that such a major development is about to occur for the insignificant community of exiles that still responds to the name “Israel.” Furthermore, that community will soon be led in prosperity by God’s Servant, to the astonishment of all the nations!
The Psalm for Good Friday has, with good reason, been read as a Suffering Servant liturgy.
The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s actions in the past:
1a. I am abandoned and unheard, verses 1-2;
2a. You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, verses 3-5;
1b. I am a worm, despised and mocked, verses 6-8;
2b. You have known and kept me since my birth, verses 9-10.
The logic of this alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker, expressed in the simple plea of verse 11: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”
The piteous descriptions of slaughter in verses 12 to 18 are intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty inflicted upon the speaker. Besides the opening line of the psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), this description of physical death has the closest ties with the Passion narratives in the Gospels.
In this passage, a single metaphor is sustained, that of a hunted animal, probably the “deer” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm. This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all about, bulls and lions. The attention is directed steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward the center of its body, as that body is violated: “Many bulls encircle me … they open wide their mouth at me, / like a ravening and roaring lion.”
As these beasts pierce the skin of the victim, the inner organs are exposed and torn open: “I am poured out like water, / and all my bones are out of joint; / my heart is like wax; / it is melted within my breast.” And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter: “… my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, / and my tongue sticks to my jaws; / you lay me in the dust of death.” Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of compassion.
The imagery of the animal hunted and surrounded by beasts is repeated, more briefly.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled [been “pierced” in KJV];
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots” (verses 16-18, NRSV).
In this imagery, the “clothes” divided among the hunters are, of course, the victim’s skin, to become “garments” for the hunters.
The agonizing and suffering part of the psalm concludes with the speaker’s final plea for deliverance, heightened by repeating some key words from the imagery of the death scene. “Deliver my soul from the sword, / my life from the power of the dog! / Save me from the mouth of the lion!” (verses 20-21).
The rest of the psalm proclaims a total reversal! The prayer has been answered, and the delivered one thanks God for salvation. God raised the suffering one from ignominy to glory. “For he did not despise or abhor / the affliction of the afflicted; /…but heard when I cried to him” (verse 24). Furthermore, this deliverance has world-wide significance:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and the families of the nations
shall worship before him (verse 27).
The sufferer in this drama is not just a marginal resident; this is a figure of destiny (a royal figure) whose rescue from death is good news for others far and wide.
The basic movement in the psalm is the same as in the Suffering Servant passage. Great suffering to death by a faithful servant is finally rewarded with exaltation by God. And all of that is recognized by the nations as an amazing work of God for their benefit!
When the Passion stories (in Mark and Matthew) report Jesus’ great cry of god-forsakenness on the cross, the hearers know what’s in the rest of the psalm! The suffering one was on his way to exaltation.
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
(This is the alternate reading; the first reading is Hebrews 10:16-25. I choose the alternate as closer to the human suffering Jesus.)
The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the most difficult major Biblical writings for modern progressive people to fathom, much less enjoy. However, this Good Friday reading gives us more of the human Jesus than is usual in this work. Let’s just listen to that.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin…. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death [thinking of Jesus reciting Psalm 22?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered [like the “Israel” who = the Servant]; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (4:15 + 5:7-9, NRSV).
THE PASSION ACCORDING TO LUKE
Guidelines for this Reading of the Passion. The goals of the present reflections are the following.
1) To focus on precisely what the Luke narrative presents, which means to not harmonize this narrative with the ones in the other Gospels.
2) To focus on the Remembered Jesus rather than on one or more reconstructions of the historical Jesus ( Jesus Remembered, James D.G. Dunn, Vol. 1 of “Christianity in the Making”; Eerdmans, 2003). This means we concentrate on Jesus as presented by Luke, not on “what really happened.” In Luke this is particularly important for the presentation of the Last Supper as a symposium and for the presentation of Pilate trying to free Jesus.
3) To allow the narrative itself to indicate the relative importance of each action and speech. The text is a device for distributing our attention over successive objects presented imaginatively. This distribution of our attention can be quantified. That is, the amount of time spent on each topic or moment can be measured. To facilitate this, a word count (in Greek) of all sections of the narrative has been made and the percentage of the whole taken up by each episode is indicated. (The total narrative contains 1761 words, in UBS 4th ed.) This is a mechanical – but objective – first indicator of the narrative’s perspective on what is presented. It is recognized, of course, that sometimes where attention is NOT given can also be important, such as the complete absence of a description of the crucifixion itself. Besides quantitative measures of importance, there are also qualitative ones, such as where direct quotation is used and where there are references to the scriptures.
The writer of the Gospel is identified by tradition as “Luke,” a man who, when he was young, may have been a companion of Paul. He wrote the book of Acts as the sequel to the Gospel, and in some of the later sections of Acts he uses the first person plural – called by scholars the “we passages” of Acts. These sections include an account of the writer accompanying Paul to Palestine (Acts 21:1-18), where he could have met some key people in the Jesus movement in Judea, especially in Caesarea where Paul was imprisoned for at least two years (somewhere between 56 and 60 CE). That was about thirty years after Jesus’ death. Antioch also plays a large role for early Christians in Acts, and Luke probably drew both Jesus tradition and early church tradition from Antioch sources. Even so, it was only long after the death of Paul that Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts (around 90 CE, give or take ten years). That was also long after the Roman-Jewish war (66-73 CE) had devastated the Jewish homeland and scattered any Christians left there to other places. The world in which the mature Luke wrote down the Gospel was very different from the scenes of Jesus’ activity.
Luke was more of a self-conscious author than some of the other Gospel writers (Luke 1:1-4). In composing his Gospel he adapted some written sources, especially the Gospel of Mark which had already become available among Greek-speaking churches. Luke followed Mark’s Gospel in organizing the early section of his Gospel (chapters 3-9), and Mark still provides much of the structure of Luke’s Passion narrative. Luke rearranges and abbreviates the Mark Passion materials and adds other materials to create the present Luke narrative. Compared to Mark, Luke presents a more “Greek” version of the Gospel, for it was the non-Jewish Christians of Asia Minor and Greece who were the original audiences of Luke’s Gospel and Acts. (Marcion adopted Luke’s Gospel as the only true one around 140 in Asia Minor.) These audiences had become accustomed to hearing the Passion narrative as Luke tells it.
Among such audiences was a well-to-do man named Theophilus, to whom Luke addresses his work (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Theophilus may have been a sponsor, one who would help finance distribution of Luke’s writings among Greek-speaking churches in Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor.
Luke’s Passion narrative is treated here in six scenes. The first scene is a significant development beyond Mark’s narrative, in that it turns the Last Supper into a symposium (a series of talks following a meal) incorporating many Jesus pronouncements, only a couple of which are pertinent to the meal before the crucifixion. (In John, this symposium becomes even longer and more profound, John 13-17.)
In this reading, I have been impressed with what happens to Mark’s episodes in Luke’s narrative. One example is the Announcement of the Betrayer. In Mark the announcement comes before the last supper, making it the very first thing in the upper room, and the action is a dramatic scene with dialogue between the disciples and Jesus – “Surely not I?” In Luke the announcement of the betrayer is one of the speeches after the Supper, and it is much shorter and without dialogue – the disciples’ anxious questioning dropped out. Another striking example is the Gethsemane scene. In Mark this powerful scene has a three-fold spatial division and a three-fold sequence of Jesus praying and finding the disciples asleep. In Luke, the name Gethsemane is not mentioned, the scene is drastically shortened, and the prayer and return to the disciples happens only once. For Luke the power of this impressive episode consists entirely of Jesus’ prayer, “not my will but yours…”
In these and other cases, what in Mark are separate story-teller’s episodes become in Luke a writer’s narrative line, the unfolding of a series of events. The power and value of the Luke Passion is the single continuous narrative, not the story-teller’s single impressive episodes. (Peter’s denial, 22:54-62, is an exception. Luke keeps the full dramatic power of this story-teller’s delight.)
There are some unique episodes and some striking touches in Luke’s story, though a couple of the “touches” are additions to Luke’s text by later devout copyists (the angel and the sweat in Gethsemane and the “Forgive them…” saying on the cross).
Scene I: Last Supper and Last Words, 22:14-38
(In the Upper Room. 419 words, 23.8% of the total narrative)
[All quotations are from the NRSV, unless indicated otherwise.]
In the Lectionary selection, Luke’s Passion narrative begins with Jesus and the disciples already in the upper room (“a large room upstairs,” 22:12). Luke’s full narrative, like Mark’s, began with the hatching of the plot against Jesus, with Jewish leaders seeking a way to eliminate him and with Judas appearing as the solution to their problem (Luke 22:1-6). Luke adds to Mark’s version of the betrayal by reporting that Satan had taken possession of Judas (22:3). The great drama was not caused by mere human caprice; it was engineered by the Prince of Darkness (see “the power of darkness” in 22:53). Luke also retains Mark’s story of the intrigue surrounding the finding of the upper room (22:7-13), though Luke adds that the two disciples involved were Peter and John, favorites in Luke’s stories in Acts 3-5. Thus things were ready for the symposium that began with the Last Supper.
The opening sentence of the Lectionary reading sets the scene. “When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him” (verse 14).
“The hour” refers in the first instance to the time of the Passover meal, in the evening. At that time observant Jews gathered in homes, whether in old times in the city of Jerusalem, or in the diaspora when their homes were scattered over the Roman empire, from Babylon to Marseilles. When the Jews spent the day preparing for Passover by scrupulously removing all leavened items from their homes (described at length in the Mishnah, Pesahim, 1-3), the Jesus followers in the same places prepared to observe a related but different memorial of deliverance. They remembered Jesus with a gospel narrative about the suffering of the Servant of God.
“He reclined” (as the Greek reads) “and the apostles with him.” It is a formal dinner, of the kind Luke has referred to often (11:37; 14:10; and 17:7. John uses the same language for the Last Supper, 13:12, 25, as well as the supper after the resurrection, 21:20.) “The apostles” – not the disciples or the Twelve as in Mark and Matthew. Luke is very conscious that those gathered in this room are the twelve “apostles,” chosen from many more “disciples” in Galilee (6:12-16). It is these apostles who will carry the Jesus message far and wide. The book of Acts is about these apostles, and the beginning of that book repeats who they were and that their number was kept intact (Acts 1:12-26, “apostles” in 1:2 and 26). The emphasis in Luke is that these companions of Jesus were “sent” (the meaning of apostle), not that they were disciples. What they hear at this table they will take out to diaspora Jews and believers among the nations.
1st Discourse. Words about Eating and Drinking, 22:15-20 (111 words, 6.3% of the total narrative). This paragraph consists of two sets of two sayings.
The first two sayings are about the gap between now and Kingdom Come. “…for I tell you I will not eat [the Passover] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (verse 16); “…for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (verse 18). These sayings declare that this is the LAST meal Jesus will eat with the disciples until God’s reign has come. The background idea is that when the kingdom does come there will be a great meal. A glorious banquet for the redeemed had long been an expectation for the age to come (see Isaiah 25:6-9). Luke elsewhere assumes a popular expectation of a banquet with the ancestors in the end time (13:28-29; 14:15). Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ last supper makes that meal the jumping off point for the wait – the wait until Jesus returns in God’s power to establish a new order with the apostles prominent in it (see verses 28-30 below).
The second set of two sayings concerns distributing wine and bread.
Between the two sayings about the coming kingdom Jesus receives a cup of wine, says thanksgiving over it (thus making it a “eucharist”), and says, “Take this and divide it among yourselves” – indicating to the apostles that what they drink now is an anticipation of the greater feasting of the coming kingdom (verse 17).
The second statement about wine and bread institute the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (called such in I Corinthians 11:20, which was written much earlier than Luke’s Gospel). This is not about the future kingdom; it is about ongoing devotion of Jesus followers to the “remembrance” of the sacrifice Jesus made for them all. A loaf of bread, with thanksgiving pronounced over it (eucharist again), is broken and distributed with the declaration, “This is my body which is given for you.” Similarly, a cup of wine is passed with the declaration, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (verses 19-20). (The blood of the new covenant is a new fulfillment of the blood of the old covenant, Exodus 24:8.) After distributing the broken bread, Jesus also says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and something of the same sort is assumed, though not actually said, after the cup.
As given here, with its language about “given for you” and “poured out for you,” this passage clearly interprets Jesus’ death as an atoning offering for his followers, even though Luke otherwise avoids that kind of language. The Supper as given here follows almost exactly what Paul gave to the Corinthians some thirty years earlier (I Corinthians 11:23-26, written around 55 CE). By the time Luke wrote (85-95 CE), the Supper was a relatively fixed element of Christian observance. (The exact language was not entirely fixed, as chapter 9 of the Didache shows.)
Related to this atoning language of the Supper is a famous text problem in this sacramental passage. An important minority of early text witnesses omits the last half of verse 19 and all of verse 20. (The 1st ed. of the RSV, 1946, had the courage to confine verses 19b-20 to a footnote, though the 2nd ed. of 1971 restored them to the text.) In these minority texts the cup of wine was passed in verse 17 followed by the saying about the coming kingdom, then the bread was broken in verse 19 and distributed with the words, “…This is my body,” and at that point the text stopped. Nothing was said about the atoning value of the Body.
It is clear that some early Christian communities, particularly around Rome (Old Latin manuscripts), had an alternate tradition to Luke’s cup-bread-cup sequence in verses 17-20 as they stand. In some communities the Luke text did not have verses 19b-20 at all; in others verse 19 (the bread breaking) was moved up to precede verse 17 to get the order Bread-then-Wine. (Bruce Metzger gives a chart of six forms of the text of verses 17-20 in the ancient church, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., 1994, p. 149.)
While it is possible that Theophilus first read verses 15-20 fully intact as we have them, it is also clear that some early Christian communities, particularly around Rome, read Luke’s version of the Last Supper without the familiar words about the body given as atonement and the blood being a new covenant.
2nd Discourse. The Betrayer is at the Table, 22:21-23 (46 words, 2.6%). The six speeches of this Last Supper symposium form a chain in which each speech or dialogue provides a point of departure for the next. Jesus and the apostles around the table in the first unit prompts the next speech, in which Jesus declares that his betrayer is reclining at the table with him. (In Mark and Matthew this declaration comes before the bread and wine are distributed.) What we get is a simple statement of fact: the betrayer’s hand is also on the table. The statement is not elaborated (in contrast to Mark’s treatment), but the topic allows Jesus to set the betrayal drama in a larger context of divine destiny. “For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” (verse 22). Both the betrayer and the divine destiny could have received much more comment, but here they are only topics given a place in the agenda of Christian memory, not developed discourses.
3rd Discourse. Great ones and Serving ones, 22:24-27 (67 words, 3.8%). Jesus’ pronouncement about the betrayer led the apostles to discuss among themselves who the traitor might be (verse 23). As Luke presents it, that seems to lead to a more general debate about who was greatest among the apostles. This is not a topic intrinsic to the Last Supper (Mark and Matthew place this discussion on the road to Jerusalem), but it is certainly appropriate in a farewell address about apostolic roles and destinies. Jesus sets up a contrast between the kings and lords of the nations on one hand and the leaders of the Jesus followers on the other. Leaders among the Jesus people must be servers (the Greek is diakonōn, as in “deacon”). At a dinner, before the kingdom has come, apostles should be like those who serve the meal rather than like those who recline at the table in luxury.
4th Discourse. But your Good Time will Come, 22:28-30 (43 words, 2.4%). Jesus’ pronouncement about the greatness/servitude of apostles was a word of warning, but it is immediately balanced by a word of assurance and promise. (The greatness discussion was repeated from Mark [10:42-45], but this added assurance is otherwise only in Matthew [19:28], though Luke has some noteworthy differences in wording from the Matthew passage.) The apostles have “stood by me in my trials” (the coming night notwithstanding), and therefore, Jesus can say to them, “you may eat and drink at my table in the kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (verse 30). In the tradition that Luke here follows there are no qualms about seeing a future world-domain with Jesus and the apostles as the rulers – at the very least for a restored and glorious Israel.
5th Discourse. A Denier Is also at the Table, 22:31-34 (62 words, 3.5%). Luke now includes in the Last Supper symposium some Jesus sayings found only in this Gospel. This pronouncement about the denier takes off from the previous talk about the apostles sharing Jesus’ trials or “temptations” (verse 28). Such temptations still lie ahead for the apostles. “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat” (verse 31). All the apostles, not just Peter and Judas, are being put to the test. Satan, the heavenly prosecuting attorney, is the cause of those reversals and defeats that lead people to doubt and turn away from the Lord (see “the satan” in Job 1:6-22). All of the apostles will be “sifted” by such trials, Jesus declares.
Jesus’ pronouncements look beyond the immediate trials, however. They assume that Peter will fall by denying Jesus, but will then recover faith and become a rallying point for the others. Thus Jesus says, specifically to Peter, “…when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (verse 32). After this glimpse into the more distant future, Peter insists that he will stay by Jesus to the death. Jesus, however, knowing the divine script that is directing their destinies, declares that the exact opposite will happen – that Peter (as he is called in verse 34) will be humiliated in his cowardly denying of Jesus three times this night.
6th Discourse. The Violence to Come, 22:35-38 (79 words, 4.5%). The symposium speeches continue to refer to future apostolic times. This speech about the “swords” is unique to Luke. It reminds the apostles of the mission of peace that Jesus sent them on in Galilee when they were sent out with “no purse, no bag, [and] no sandals” (Luke 9:1-6, and especially 10:1-12 when the “seventy” were sent out). At that time they went unarmed, but from this night on Jesus followers must be prepared for self-defense. “But now…the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (verse 36). In the Galilee mission the apostles could count on hospitality and support from the villages (see 10:5-9). That will no longer be the case. From now on one must be armed. This saying most likely recognizes the conditions of warfare that came upon both Galilee and Judea in the Roman-Jewish war and the associated hostility of Jewish communities to the growing Jesus groups, especially after 70 CE.
It is important that this saying not be taken out of context. It clearly assumes a long period in which both Jesus and the apostles were peaceful emissaries of healing and good news (as in chapter 10), but it anticipates a time of crisis and violent opposition against which groups of the faithful must find some security.
This discourse ends with the enigmatic dialogue in which the apostles say, “Look, here are two swords,” and Jesus replies, “It is enough” (verse 38). However Luke meant it, the “two swords” saying was to have a celebrated future in Medieval Europe as sanctioning the independent realms of civil and canon law. The two swords were wielded, one by the Holy Roman Emperor, the other by the Pope.
Scene II: Prayer Vigil and Arrest, 22:39-53
(On the Mount of Olives, 238 words, 13.5%)
Luke does not mention the name Gethsemane as the place to which Jesus took the disciples after the supper. If we had only Luke’s account, the scene at the Mount of Olives would not seem so dramatic and impressive as Mark and Matthew make it appear.
Pray… “not into temptation,” 22:39-46 (114 words [including verses 43-44], 6.5%). Luke indicates that Jesus went to this place “as was his custom,” probably implying that Judas would know where to bring the temple police to make the arrest. Those who follow Jesus are now called “disciples” rather than apostles (verse 39).
Jesus has come here for a prayer vigil, the disciples praying in one place, he alone further on. They are to pray that they “not come into the time of trial,” that is, such a time of testing as Jesus went through at the beginning of his mission, being tempted by the devil (4:1-13), testing that also has marked all his time with the disciples (22:28), probably referring to the opposition that developed steadily to the Jesus movement.
Jesus’ prayer lets God know how Jesus is feeling now – he would much rather not do this thing, thank you – but keeps the priorities clear. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (verse 42). This is a glimpse of the human Jesus facing up to the cost of his divine mission.
That’s all that Luke gave us, a glimpse of the human Jesus. Later copyists of the Gospel, undoubtedly following narrative variations that had developed in their regional churches, enhanced this human Jesus in two ways. First, in Luke’s original text Jesus sends up a fervent prayer – which remains unanswered by God. Later reciters telling the story could not believe that the Father would simply ignore such a model prayer – so they fixed it. In response to Jesus’ plea, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength” (verse 43). Secondly, later reciters added a description of Jesus’ profound agony during his prayer, such that his sweat fell down like drops of blood (adding verse 44). These two verses from later copyists are missing from many of the best and oldest manuscripts of the Gospel. (The oldest manuscript of Luke is P75 from around 250 CE; others without the additions are from 350 CE and later; the manuscripts with the copyists’ embellishments are even later, of course.)
There were church teachers, around the Roman church, who reported these verses as present in their versions of Luke in the period 150 to 236 CE (Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus). Other teachers, however, associated with Alexandria as late as 230 CE (Clement and Origin; also Marcion [150 CE] from Asia Minor) cite Luke without these verses. As Luke’s Gospel circulated in the Western churches its portrayal of Jesus grew in passion, and this gem of Jesus piety eventually was added to all the later copies of the Gospel, Greek and Latin. We may note, however, that both the angel appearance (verse 43) and the bloody sweat (verse 44) contrast greatly with the tone of Luke’s narrative otherwise.
The disciples, of course, fail Jesus in the prayer vigil (verses 45-46). Luke says they fell asleep “because of grief,” which must be intended to give them some benefit of the doubt. Luke is not unnecessarily hard on the disciples – not at all like Mark in this respect.
The Arrest, 22:47-53 (124 words, 7.0%) The prayer vigil ends with the arrival of Judas and the authorities. We have here three topics briefly presented, the kiss of Judas, the sword play, and Jesus’ resigned complaint about the devious methods of his opponents.
The mystery and horror of Judas is concentrated in Luke’s reproach from Jesus, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” The act of great reverence for a teacher becomes the sign of the greatest betrayal. (Luke’s final settlement with Judas is in Acts 1:16-19.)
The comments about the swords at the supper (verses 35-38) now have an impact on the later evening. Carrying swords when the enemy arrive, some of the disciples expect to use them. Some at least think they should ask first – “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” – but somebody did not wait for an answer! All four Gospels agree that a slave of the high priest lost an ear because of these swords among the disciples. However, all four Gospels differ in reporting the sequel to that side-of-the-head chop. In Luke, Jesus immediately repairs the damage. “But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him” (verse 51).
Now there is a listing of the “crowd” who have come for Jesus. Luke does not describe them as a mob, but rather as some substantial citizens: “the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders” (verse 52). These are not rowdies and street types. They are responsible officials. Therefore Jesus says to them, in effect, why didn’t you indict me during the days I was lecturing in the temple, instead of coming out at night with weapons? It is a rhetorical question which no one bothers to answer.
Luke is following Mark in reporting this complaint, but he alone adds Jesus’ resigned declaration about the divine destiny working through these events. “But this is YOUR hour, and [that of] the power of darkness” (verse 53). The Devil has his day – or hour – and this is it. From now on the evil that comes cannot be escaped.
Scene III: Peter’s Denial and Jesus’ Confession, 22:54-71
(In the High Priest’s House, 263 words, 14.9%)
The Denial, 22:54-62 (142 words, 8.1%). While Luke abbreviates Mark’s narrative in many places, he keeps the full version of Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus in the High Priest’s courtyard. It is one of the really well-told episodes in the passion narrative – and therefore needs little comment.
The most distinctive touch in Luke’s version is that, just as Peter has denied Jesus for the third time, “the Lord [not “Jesus” as mostly elsewhere!] turned and looked at Peter” (verse 61). That Jesus could be observing Peter is surprising, but not physically impossible in a priestly palace in Jerusalem. The narrative implies that at just that moment, Peter looked up and saw Jesus face to face, though perhaps at a distance – and his façade came tumbling down, “and he went out and wept bitterly” (verse 62). Luke has improved an already excellent narrative.
Jesus Mocked, 22:63-65 (27 words, 1.5%). Here Luke has performed some substantial surgery on Mark’s narrative. Mark has two meetings of the Council to examine Jesus, the main one at night and another the next morning (Mark 14:53-64 and 15:1). Mark’s narrative inserts Peter’s denial between these two meetings. Luke has only one trial before the Jewish authorities and it is in the morning. Left over from the night-time events in Mark, after Peter’s denial, is only the mocking of Jesus done by his guards. Though it is without any obvious motivation (which it did have in Mark, where Jesus was already condemned), Luke repeats Mark’s report of the abuse and mocking, his tormentors calling on him to prophesy who hit him while he was blindfolded, and heaping other verbal abuse on him (verses 64-65).
It is significant that the Jewish captors mocked Jesus as a prophet, not as a king. Herod and the Romans will mock him as a king (23:11 and 37).
The Confession, 22:66-71 (94 words, 5.3%). Luke places some emphasis on the completeness of the Jewish Council and on the fact that it met at daytime, not during the night (verse 66). The dialogue then conducted between the prosecuting priests and Jesus is quite different in Luke from that in Mark. Mark has much stuff about false witnesses and crimes. Luke simply has the priests demand, “If you are the Messiah, tell us” (verse 67). Jesus’ response here is to declare that if he answers them they will not follow correct judicial procedure. “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer” (verse 68). It’s clearly a loaded court. Nevertheless, Jesus will give them an answer (he has his divine script to follow). “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” – a reference to Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1. His prosecutors understand his references very well and ask further, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” Jesus’ reply to this question may seem to us confusing. “You say that I am.”
In most contexts, this answer is taken as a positive assertion, equal to “I am.” Thus, they cry out, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!” (verse 71). Whatever any historical Jesus may have said, the Gospels clearly understand that at this point Jesus went fully public in admitting that he was the Son of God, that is, the Messiah who would bring in the new age for Israel. To his examiners this is an utterly impossible claim for a self-effacing Galilean prophet, and he must be condemned as blaspheming God (claimed as a father) and dangerously misleading the people (making them think about a king of their own)!
Scene IV: Pilate Fights for an Innocent Man, in Vain, 23:1-25
(Before Pilate, 373 words, 21.2%)
Pilate dominates this part of Luke’s Passion narrative. Herod has a cameo role and Jesus is mostly passive. Only the Jewish leaders, always accusing from the background, are on a par with Pilate in this drama.
The First Verdict, 23:1-5 (89 words, 3.4%). Luke’s narrative of Jesus before Pilate has three clear episodes. The first is a formal accusation in which the Jewish leaders enumerate crimes that Rome is likely to take seriously: (1) misleading the nation (ethnos), (2) forbidding taxes to be paid to Caesar, and (3) claiming to be a king. In this narrative, Pilate only asks Jesus about the king business. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus gives the ambiguous answer, “You say so.” However the language is to be understood in detail, Pilate does not take seriously any threat from Jesus as king. He simply gives as his verdict, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” He is innocent, as far as the representative of Rome is concerned. The priests and elders object strenuously and declare that Jesus has been rousing the people all the way from Galilee to Judea.
Herod Antipas Has His Moment, 23:6-12 (121 words, 6.9%). This episode is found only in Luke. He seems to have some relatively inside information about the royal court of Herod Antipas (see Luke 8:3 and Acts 13:1), perhaps from hearsay in Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital, where Luke accompanied Paul around 58 CE (see Acts 21:8-16, a “we” passage). When Pilate heard that Jesus started his troublesome activity in Galilee, which was not Pilate’s jurisdiction, he decided to pawn off the Jesus issue on Herod Antipas, who was the Tetrarch (client king) of Galilee at the time. Herod was then in Jerusalem – on hand for the Passover, as Luke and his sources would have understood.
We get a mini-sketch of Herod. He had been wanting to see Jesus for a long time. He hoped for some royal entertainment from this magician, and perhaps something to feed his preoccupation with popular superstitions. He subjected Jesus to long interrogation, but apparently got back no banter, cheerful or otherwise (verses 8-9). Luke wishes to make clear that all the accusations by the Jewish authorities were heard by Herod (verse 10). After all, Herod was perfectly capable of executing would-be prophets in his own territory, as the disciples of John the Baptist had reason to know (see Luke 9:7-9). However, Herod apparently found Jesus pretty innocuous and simply sent him back to Pilate, after he had put a royal robe around him, making fun of the idea that Jesus was some kind of “king” (verse 11). This occasion marked a new bond of friendship between Herod and Pilate, who had previously been enemies (verse 12).
The Third Verdict and the Conviction, 22:13-25 (163 words, 9.3%). The final episode of Jesus before Pilate is introduced by re-stating the presence of the Jewish authorities – plus “the people” (verse 13). From now on these opponents speak as a group, appearing in the text simply as “they.”
Pilate reviews the situation, including the charge of perverting the people, and repeats emphatically that neither he nor Herod find Jesus guilty of these charges or anything deserving death. Therefore, Pilate’s verdict is to give Jesus a flogging – presumably to placate the accusers and to teach Jesus to keep out of the line of fire – and then to release him (verses 13-17).
If we step back and look at this narrative in perspective, we see what is undoubtedly a whitewash job on Pilate. Luke, and many reciters before him, wanted to down-play Roman responsibility for Jesus’ death. It was the Jewish leaders – and, at this critical moment in the narrative, the Jewish “people” themselves – who were immediately responsible for that death. That viewpoint was reinforced by theology – the conviction that the whole passion followed a divine script that could be discerned piecemeal from the Scriptures – but also by historical experience, namely, by the change in relations between Jesus followers and more “orthodox” Jewish communities after the disasters of 70 CE. The Jesus followers had adopted the view that the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s punishment for the people who had rejected Jesus. In the Gospels’ narratives, written at or well after 70 CE, Pilate is whitewashed while the Jewish leaders (and to some extent the people) are blamed.
We have no access to any other account of the passion ( pace Dominic Crossan’s theories about the Gospel of Peter, etc. ). We can only assume that the Roman governor contributed more directly to the decision for Jesus’ death than the Gospels suggest, and probably that the people at large had nothing to do with it. That some important Jewish leaders wanted Jesus permanently off the scene, and that Pilate was willing to accommodate their wishes, is by far the most likely historical kernel behind all the narratives.
The final scene with Pilate comes to its frantic conclusion when the priests and people reject Pilate’s verdict and demand that Jesus be crucified. (Crucifixion was a distinctively Roman mode of execution at this time.) The profound reversal of values going on in this drama, from a Christian viewpoint, is emphasized by the release of a terrorist and murderer instead of Jesus (Bar-Abbás, verses 18-19). The popular demand for crucifying the Galilean prophet became too much, and “Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted…and he handed Jesus over as they wished” (verses 24-25).
Scene V: The Crucifixion –
“He was counted among the lawless,” 23:26-49
(On the way to and at The Scull, 376 words, 21.4%)
Lament over the Daughters of Jerusalem, 23:26-31 (102 words, 5.8%). This episode begins with a single verse given to Simon of Cyrene. He is mentioned by name, including his native land (the northeast coast of modern Libya, very Greek and very Jewish in the first century), and is credited with what must have been regarded as an honor by later Christians – carrying the crossbar of Jesus’ cross up to the hill of crucifixion.
But Luke gives a distinct tone to the way to the cross by placing here Jesus’ passionate lament for the daughters of Jerusalem – a survival in the Christian story of the old Zion tradition (other similar sayings are in 19:41-44 and 21:20-24). As Jesus is exiting the city to die, he pronounces utmost disaster on it. Don’t cry for me, Jerusalem! Cry for the horror awaiting all of you! Better then adults with no children, for mothers and parents would only be compelled to watch the little ones suffer and perish. Such a state of agony will be reached that people will plead to the surrounding hills, “Fall on us”… “Cover us” (verse 30, quoting Hosea 10:8).
The lament concludes with the curious saying, “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” If there is this much violence for only a Galilean prophet, how much more when whole armies bring overwhelming violence! The Christian Gospel presents Jesus as foreseeing the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army of Titus in 70 CE.
Crucified and Mocked, 23:32-43 (107 words [including v. 34a], 6.01%). Even though Luke’s narrative of the crucifixion is relatively late among the Gospels, it is simple and compact. There is no report of actual injuries to the body. From this narrative you would not know that nails might be driven through the hands and feet, that the body might be pierced with spear or sword, or that death came from asphyxiation from the body weight gradually exhausting the muscles of the diaphragm. This narrative has no interest in the details of Jesus’ suffering on the cross! (Or, for that matter, in any whipping or scourging he might have received.)
A crucifixion was a deliberately public humiliation, as a deterrent to future rebels. With an agonizing death went mockery and shame. The soldiers, when their initial work was done, shot craps and used the criminals’ clothes as stakes in their game (verse 34b, a hook on which Christian teachers could expound the application of Psalm 22 to the passion. Note: Luke does NOT repeat from Mark Jesus shouting the opening verse of that psalm, “My God, My God…”). Religious leaders scoff at the criminal for religious reasons, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself…” Soldiers mock him for political reasons, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” This referred to the condemnation posted on his cross, which said, “This is the King of the Jews” (verses 37-38).
Luke, with the other Gospels, reports that Jesus died among criminals, one on each side. Luke knows more about these two criminals than is reported in Matthew and Mark. One of them mocked Jesus like the others below, saying “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other criminal castigated his comrade, saying, “…we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (verse 41). He then asks for Jesus’ help to enter the Messianic kingdom, to which Jesus makes the awesome reply, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (verse 43).
This is one of only two words of Jesus from the cross in Luke – Luke’s original narrative, that is. The other is the very last word, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (verse 46).
A third candidate for a “word from the cross” in Luke apparently was not one. Verse 34a of the traditional text of Luke’s Gospel reads, “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This is clearly one of the most “Christ-like” sayings ever attributed to Jesus. However, it is missing from many important early manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel – and it is not found in any of the other Gospels. Most scholars agree that such a saying would never have been omitted from the text on purpose. It was added to the text by someone in the second century whose local lore had it that Jesus said such a thing. Once this gracious word from the cross had been heard, of course, it was much too good to be lost. Jesus “must” have said it, and the faithful copied it into all the later manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel.
(As evidence that this ancient assessment of the saying still applies today, one may cite Bruce Metzger’s comment published in 1975 (repeated in 1994): “the logion…bears self-evident tokens of its dominical origin” – that is, it is too good not to be Jesus’ own saying, even if it wasn’t a part of Luke’s original Gospel! [ A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies, 1st ed., p. 180; 2nd ed., p. 154 ].)
The Death Is Awe-Some, 23:44-49 (94 words, 5.3%). When the time of Jesus’ death arrives, the heavens, the holy place, and the human witnesses are overwhelmed by the holy. Luke reports the cosmic signs in simple, stripped-down terms gleaned from Mark. “…darkness came over the whole land…the sun’s light failed…the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (verses 44-45). Jesus gives up his spirit, and the centurion, who commanded the death squad, declares on behalf of Rome, “Certainly this man was righteous [that is, innocent]” (verse 47). All the people who had come out to gloat over the grizzly spectacle have a dramatic change of mood, and “they returned home, beating their breasts” (verse 48).
And at this point we are made aware that Jesus still has friends, who watch these events carefully from a safe distance – especially the women who have followed faithfully since the departure from Galilee (verse 49), women who will still be around two days later.
Scene VI: The Burial, 23:50-56
(With Joseph of Arimathea. 92 words, 5.2%)
The narrative of the burial is the solo performance by a man who appears nowhere else. Joseph of Arimathea is another one of those friends of Jesus in Jerusalem who appear from the woodwork when they are especially needed (such as the owners of the donkey on Palm Sunday and the householder with the upper room available for Jesus’ last supper). Joseph was “a good and righteous man” and “a member of the council.” This last detail requires an explanation from Luke that Joseph had not participated in the condemnations of Jesus, but on the contrary he was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (verse 51). This presumably means he had listened hard to Jesus and is here contributing to the cause. As a man of standing, he has access to Pilate, and gets the favor of a rapid release of Jesus’ body for burial.
As Luke describes it, Jesus’ body is then treated with care. Joseph has it taken down from the cross and wrapped in linen cloth (cloth that would turn up centuries later at Turin, as some of the faithful believe), and placed the body in a tomb carved in the stone hillside, a tomb worthy of a king, since it had never been used before (verse 53). Luke’s abbreviated account does not mention a stone being placed before the opening of the tomb, but such a stone is assumed, since concern about rolling it away is mentioned in the next paragraph (Easter morning).
The Passion narrative concludes with a few notes preparing for Easter morning. “The women…from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath [the second day] they rested according to the commandment” (verse 56). The next day (the third day) they would act – and discover a new gospel message for all those who had followed the suffering of God’s Servant in this narrative.