Thursday, April 28, 2022

May 1, 2022 - 3rd Sunday of Easter

                                                      Biblical Words                                         [770]

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20);  Psalm 30;  Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19.

The Risen Lord calls and directs servants in the world – while a heavenly court praises the worthy Lamb.

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20).  

How the apostles witnessed to the work of the risen Jesus is the continuing theme of the readings from the Book of Acts.  

Here we have the conversion of the fire-eating persecutor Saul into a transformed preacher of the gospel.  (His Greek name Paul is used only after he begins his work in non-Judean circles, at Acts 13:9.) 

The main reading (verses 1-6) presents Saul confronted by the risen Jesus. 

It is a heavenly explosion of light on the road near Damascus, traumatic to Saul but to his traveling companions only confusing.  As the narrator presents it, however, to Saul the message was clear.  The now long-dead false messiah had suddenly become overwhelmingly real.  Had now intervened in a devastating way and totally overturned Saul’s world.  This supposed false messiah has spoken from heaven and named Saul very specifically, challenging his futile campaign against the disciples.  Jesus’ last word here is, Get up and go into town; I have better stuff for you to do. 

Most of the rest of the book of Acts unfolds what that stuff is. (See Special Note below on Acts’ three versions of Paul’s call.)

The optional part of the reading, verses 7-20, does not add to the basic event; it only gives interesting detail and local color. 

We meet the reluctant Ananias, who in a vision is assigned by Jesus to rehabilitate Saul.  This was like sending the humble servant into the den of the fiercest enemy, and he complains of this absurd instruction (verses 13-14).  Ananias’ resistance must be overcome by a heavenly Lord with a divine plan. 

It is to Ananias that Jesus indicates the great and trying future he has in store for Saul/Paul.  “He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles [the nations] and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (verses 15-16, NRSV).  

As soon as Saul had recovered physically and been baptized, he “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues…” (verse 20). 

Psalm 30.  

The Psalm reading is one of the more memorable expressions of personal thanksgiving for delivery from – death, as the psalm puts it. 

A thanksgiving psalm expresses joy and gratitude in the present for release from severe trouble in the past – often recent past.  Reciting the overwhelming threats just now faced may be a major part of the now joyful release.  So here, “you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (verse 3). 

The speaker, whom we will view as a man, relates how he resorted to what, for a psalmist, is the ultimate appeal to God when things are at their worst:  

“What profit is there in my death,…Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (verse 9).  

The speaker insists that God’s reputation is involved in this faithful soul’s plight.  The speaker must make God urgently aware of the stakes! 

When this psalm is used as an Easter season reading, the speaker is understood to be Jesus, thanking God for deliverance from death.  In its earlier Israelite setting, the speaker was probably a person who was desperately sick, to the point of being given up for dead.  He had no resort except God, and uttered his hope in the most eloquent language available to him.  He recovered, and now brings his thanksgiving offerings to God – which offerings include a superb song in thankful praise of his savior God.  God has turned his mourning into dancing, has replaced his sackcloth with garments of joy! (verse 11). 

He who was dead is alive again – and in good health! 

Revelation 5:11-14.  

The reading from the Book of Revelation (which provides the Epistle readings for Easter season this year) is the climax of a heavenly drama.  The drama hangs on the suspense as we wait for the opening of the scroll of the world’s destiny. 

The whole scene (4:1-5:14) is a greatly elaborated version of the divine judgment and appointment of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:9-14. 

After evil on the earth had reached an intolerable climax, the heavenly court finally sits to render judgment.  The heavenly court consists of the supreme judge sitting on the throne, the four bizarre heavenly creatures that provide the throne’s mobility (at least in Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s visions that is their role), the sitting council of (here) twenty-four elders, and various brilliant accoutrements round about. 

The supreme judge on the throne holds a super-numinous scroll in his right hand (the Daniel passage says, “the books were opened”), and the total universe waits in suspension for someone with the authority, power, and honor worthy to take that scroll and begin to open it. 

The One capable of such action is the Lamb, who appears in the court and takes the scroll.  (This Lamb corresponds to the Son of Man in the Daniel scene.)  All the other members of the heavenly court burst into ecstatic praise of the worthiness of the Lamb to break the seals of the great scroll. 

Our specific reading within this court scene (5:11-14) presents the second rank of praise teams acclaiming the worthiness of the Lamb.  Joining the heavenly court are the massed singers of all the Tabernacle Choirs of all time (“myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands”).  They are, of course, angelic voices – presumably with never a missed tone or late entry! 

The whole chapter presents three hymns sung in the heavenly court.  The longest, sung by the inner cabinet around the throne, is two verses long; the second, sung by this massed choir of angels, is one verse long; and the last hymn, sung by everybody on earth as well as the heavenly folks, is only half a verse. 

The first hymn (verses 9-10) praises the Lamb as worthy to open the scroll; the second hymn (verse 12) praises the Lamb as worthy to receive power and glory (to overcome the powers of evil in the universe); and the third hymn (verse 13b) is a general blessing on God and the Lamb for all the above. 

All the universe is engaged in hymnic anticipation of the exercise of power by the risen Lord who will transform the world that humbly waits upon this heavenly drama. 

John 21:1-19.  

The Gospel reading comes from the appendix to John’s Gospel.   This chapter presents an alternative view of the appearance of the risen Jesus from the main narrative in chapter 20.  

This appendix knows about the two appearances of Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem (21:14), but adds an appearance in Galilee, beside the lake where earlier events occurred between Jesus and the disciples.  There are seven disciples, five named – enough to make us curious about the rest but leaving more questions than answers. 

The catch of fish after the unproductive night is a version of the story used in Luke for the call of Peter (Luke 5:1-11).  The two narratives have in common that Jesus is revealed in heavenly power on the lake shore (see Luke 5:8-9) and that Peter, and his particular assignment as a disciple or missionary, is the primary focus. 

What is the thrust of the dialogue between Jesus and Peter about loving Jesus and feeding the lambs? 

The suggestion is compelling that Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” to balance the three times that Peter denied Jesus at the passion.  Each of those “I am not (one of them)” statements must be cancelled by a “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  And with each affirmation of loving Jesus there follows an instruction:  “Feed my sheep” (with slight variations). 

This appendix, which strongly resembles the Gospel According to Luke, gives to the Fourth Gospel a pastoral boost into the world of the churches (a term not used in John), into human communities that have been changed because of the reign of the risen Lord.  

Special Note on Paul’s Call in Acts

The book of Acts gives three versions of Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, his “conversion” or “call” experience.  

  • The first is our text above (9:1-6), narrating the event in the third person. 
  • In 22:6-11, in a speech to hostile Judeans in the Jerusalem temple, Paul tells his experience in the first person as part of his defense for preaching the gospel to the nations.  
  • Then again, in a less hostile setting, Paul tells his conversion experience to King Agrippa II during the time Paul was a prisoner in Caesarea, 26:12-18. 

These three texts are given here for comparison.  Many details vary in greater or lesser degree, but the “core” is verbatim the same in all three versions (underlined in the following texts).  (All translations are the New Revised Standard Version.)

9:1-9.  Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 

22:4-11.  4I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.  6While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 8I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazarethwhom you are persecuting.” 9Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” 11Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus. 

26:12-18.  12With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads.” 15I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles [the nations]—to whom I am sending you 18to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” 

James D.G. Dunn sees the variations of the three accounts as typical of materials recited orally over time. 

In each of the three statements the brief exchange between Saul and the exalted Jesus is word for word:  ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  ‘Who are you, sir?’  ‘I am Jesus (the Nazarene), whom you are persecuting, rise…’ (22:7-10; 26:14-16).  This gives a good illustration of how stories would be told, then as now.  The core of the story is preserved, maintained with almost rigorous consistency, while the supporting details can be treated with greater flexibility, as circumstances [around the narrator] may demand.  We can well, and quite fairly imagine that the exchange had been burned into Saul’s memory, and so from the first was fixed in the tradition by which the event of the great persecutor’s conversion was retold and celebrated among the churches (cf. Gal. 1:23).  (The Acts of the Apostles, Trinity Press International, 1996, p. 121.) 

Finally, we have Paul’s own summary of this event (Galatians 1:13-17), written thirty or so years earlier than the book of Acts. 

13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles [the nations], I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Without doubt, this was a turning point, not only in the narrative structure of the book of Acts, but in the earliest shaping of the Christian religion! 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

April 24, 2022 - 2nd Sunday of Easter

                               Biblical Words                              [769]

Acts 5:27-32Psalm 150;  Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.

 Easter creates Alleluias, a heavenly drama, and a new Presence empowering mission and forgiveness. 

Between Easter and Pentecost, the Lectionary takes the first reading each Sunday from the New Testament book of Acts rather than from the Hebrew scriptures – from the witness of the apostles instead of the witness of Moses and the prophets. 

Acts 5:27-32.  

As Acts tells it, the people with the Easter message encountered opposition! 

Peter and his associates are dragged into court for disturbing the peace!  The Easter message, and the healing power of Jesus’ name, get people all worked up.  The authorities who try to suppress the message are the same authorities who turned over Jesus to the Romans for crucifixion.  They are the protectors of the status quo in the Jerusalem of Pilate.  (All this is reported in Acts 3-4:22, before our reading,) 

In our reading, the apostles once again have done jail time and are being warned yet again not to use the name of Jesus in public in Jerusalem.  The Judean authorities are concerned that telling the story of Jesus keeps alive their responsibility for his death – “you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” (verse 28, NRSV).  Peter tells them, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  The apostles take their stand as witnesses of the resurrection, in the face of the establishment. 

In making his reply to the Jerusalem council, Peter repeats in short form the message that is causing the trouble.  Jesus, whom you killed, was raised by the God of the ancestors and now sits at the right hand of God, exercising power as Leader and Savior on behalf of Israel, to whom he offers repentance and forgiveness of sins. 

The business of the witnessing apostles is to show the presence of this heavenly power by bringing joy and healing to the people. 

Psalm 150.  

In the Psalms we hear a great overflowing of Alleluias! 

This is the last psalm of the book (in the Western Christian tradition; Eastern Christians have one more).  It is one unbroken sequence of Hallelujahs (translated “praise the Lord” or “praise him”).  This is simply the intensified conclusion of a series of Hallelujah psalms that begins with Psalm 146. 

The Greek translation of the Psalms, used by the early Christians, does not translate this praise shout, but gives it in its Hebrew form, “Alleluia.”  This stands at the beginning of each of psalms 146 to 150, in the Greek translation.  The Latin scriptures and liturgy took over this Greek form and gave us all the Alleluia choruses of Western church music. 

Some churches have a tradition of giving up “Alleluia!” for Lent.  They avoid using the praise shout during the 46 days from Ash Wednesday until Easter.  Then, it breaks forth with a riotous joy at the Easter news.  This psalm reading is an insistent reclaiming of the joyfulness of praise after that period of penitence and searching. 

Revelation 1:4-8.  

In this Year C of the Lectionary, the Epistle readings during Easter season are taken from the New Testament book of Revelation

This first reading for the season continues the spirit of the Psalm:  it is mainly doxology.  It is presented here, however, as the seer’s beginning of his letter to the seven churches.  As the Easter season unfolds, glimpses and scenes of the vast visions of God’s completing the new creation are shown from the book of Revelation, but the opening is a revelation to the churches themselves of the heavenly glory of the risen Christ. 

The benedictions proceed by triads.  The first prayer asks for peace from God, “who is and who was and who is to come” (verse 4, NRSV).  Note it is not “who is to be,” a more Greek ontological turn, but “who is to come,” the active perspective of salvation history. 

Peace is also asked from Jesus Christ, who is also characterized by a triad:  “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”  The faithful witness was performed in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the firstborn of the dead is the victory over death signaled by the resurrection, and the rule over the kings of the earth is the assurance of Jesus’ heavenly rule, later to become more dramatically evident in this book of visions. 

The drama continues with an exclamation.  Someone sees it: 

Look!  He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him (verse 7). 

And over the scene of the one coming on the clouds the voice of God is heard: 

I am the Alpha and the Omega. 

For what lies ahead for God’s people, no vision is too vast or comprehensive. 

John 20:19-31.  

The Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in Easter is the same every year. 

A week after Easter, these things are emphasized:  (1) the joy of the disciples in the presence of the risen Jesus, (2) the physicality of Jesus in this temporary presence to his believers, (3) the gift of the Holy Spirit that brings forgiveness of sins, and, (4) in the Thomas episode, “the transition from sight to faith.” 

The Gospel narrates the appearance of Jesus to the disciples as they are gathered furtively in a locked room.  Jesus appears mysteriously among them, but his body is real.  (John’s Gospel here re-tells the appearance story given in Luke 24:36-43, with the doubting Thomas episode added to it.) 

There is strong emphasis on the solid, physical aspect of Jesus’ resurrected body.  It is a body not only seen but firm to the touch.  This emphasis on Jesus’ body seems to increase as the traditions of the resurrection appearances develop.  In the early empty-tomb tradition, Jesus is not present at all; then he is only seen; but in this upper room tradition in Luke and John his body is touched and he eats and drinks.

In his appearance to the disciples, Jesus commissions them for their work ahead.  He “breathes” the Holy Spirit into them and solemnly pronounces, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (verse 22).  The climax of this action, however, really has to do with the forgiveness of sins. “If you [who have received the Holy Spirit] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (verse 23).

This is an awesome authorization!  It is an early stage in a long history of the Christian Church’s rituals of absolution. (The equivalent in the Gospel According to Matthew is in Matthew 16:18-19.)

Our passage includes the episode of doubting Thomas.  Once the emphasis upon the physicality of the risen Jesus began, this Thomas episode was probably inevitable.

What does it take to convince some people?  “Unless I see” with my own eyes, etc., I will not believe.  That the demand for physical seeing and touching has already missed the nature of religious faith has long been recognized. The seeing can always be further questioned, further explained.  That is not what having faith is about, not the kind of faith that creates a spirit-empowered life and the forgiveness of sins. 

William Temple comments on this Thomas episode: 

The Lord is calling His followers to enter on the transition ‘from sight to faith’ – from outward companionship to inward communion, from the discipleship which rests on a bodily Presence to one which is perfected in spiritual union.  (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p. 376) 


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

April 17, 2022 - Easter Sunday

                            Biblical Words                          [768]

Isaiah 65:17-25;  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;  Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12.

 Ecstatic news of God’s new work leads to a vacant tomb – and retelling the gospel story. 

The voice of scripture for Easter Sunday is mostly ecstatic.  

It is elevated speech, lifted beyond all usual limits in the jumping-up-and-down joy of a vastly astonishing message.  All, that is, except the Gospel, which is a simpler story of surprised women and perplexed, doubtful disciples. 

Isaiah 65:17-25.

(The alternate reading is chosen here; the main reading is the Acts 10 passage, used for the Epistle reading below.) 

The Isaiah passage proclaims God’s making new the world for God’s chosen and suffering faithful remnant. 

It begins with God’s naming with delight the new creation: 

…For look, I am creating Jerusalem to be ‘Joy’
and my people to be ‘Gladness.’
I shall be joyful in Jerusalem
and I shall rejoice in my people. 
      (verses 18-19, New Jerusalem Bible Version) 

Sharing in God’s joy, the fortunate faithful will find that the world has been restored to paradise.  Infant mortality will disappear and all will live to enjoy a blessed seniority, with life expectancy well over a hundred years (verse 20).  

It will not be a world without work and constructive activity, but what is built will remain and be useful, what is planted will grow and be fully productive.  No invaders will seize the goods and produce, no impersonal agencies will foreclose or repossess.  “…For the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, / and my chosen ones will themselves use what they have made” (verse 22, NJBV) 

The comparison of human life with a tree is very favorable, for a tree can grow again from a stump.  So the sages understood it: 

There is always hope for a tree: 
      when felled, it can start its life again;
      its shoots continue to sprout…. 
Its roots may have grown old in the earth,
      its stump rotting in the ground,
but let it scent of water, and it buds,
      and puts out branches like a plant newly set. 
                        (Job 14:7-9; NJBV) 

The Greek translators of Isaiah also saw hope in the comparison to the tree.  Where the Hebrew text reads, “…for the days of my people will be like the days of a tree,” the Jewish scholars in Alexandria wrote, “…will be like the days of the tree of life” – that is, like the tree of which the first couple could eat when they lived in God’s garden, exempt from the power of death (Genesis 2:9). 

The coming conditions of paradise will include blessings for future generations (verse 23), and even the animal world will become peaceful and no longer carnivorous – except for that wicked serpent who disrupted the first paradise; his diet will be dust (verse 25). 

Repeating words of an earlier prophecy of paradise, the vision here concludes in peace:  “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (65:25b, NRSV, quoting Isaiah 11:9).   

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24.  

The Psalm reading repeats the victorious outcome of the battle against surrounding foes, the battle and victory presented in the psalm read on Palm Sunday.  That psalm had reflected the drama of salvation as consisting of desperate and mortal struggle, waged in the Kidron Valley (the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus’ Gethsemane, verses 10-13).  It culminated with the triumphant entry and welcome for the victor at the sanctuary of the Lord, who was the doer of these glorious deeds (verse 24). 

In the ecstasy of the Easter proclamation, the triumphal entry is no longer simply a procession into the waiting but hostile Jerusalem (as it was on Palm Sunday); it is the elevation of the Suffering Servant to a greater center of power from which he will reign over all things (the rejected stone has become the chief corner, verse 22). 

The decisive Easter message from the psalm is spoken by the delivered royal servant, “I shall not die, but I shall live…” (verse 17).   

Acts 10:34-43.  (This is the alternate reading; the main one is I Corinthians 15:19-26.) 

Easter Sunday’s Epistle reading is the speech of Peter to the household of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. 

As the book of Acts presents it, this was the time that non-Judeans, peoples of the nations, were, by God's revelation, first baptized and included in the community of believers.  Addressed to such people, the speech is itself a succinct statement of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.

It begins, however, with a strong statement of the inclusiveness of the gospel message – a  new emphasis at this point in the development of Acts. 

"God shows no partiality," but accepts anyone in whatever nation who reverences God and acts accordingly (verse 35, NRSV).  It is true that God's message of peace in Jesus Christ was sent first to the people of Israel (verse 36, referring to Isaiah 52:7) and it is Israel's prophets who testify to the forgiveness of sins available through the Christ (verse 43), but the gospel message is now to be preached to all people. 

That gospel message includes specific historical data:  the baptism preached by John the Baptist, the man Jesus of Nazareth with the power of the Holy Spirit, his healing works for those oppressed by the devil, his confrontations with authorities in Judea, and his death "on a tree" in Jerusalem.  His disciples have been chosen by God to bear witness to these things. But most of all, of course, they are to testify to his resurrection:  "God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear" (verse 40).

The Risen Jesus was not seen indiscriminately by everyone.   He was seen only by those chosen by God as witnesses, those who also ate and drank with the risen Lord (verse 41). The gospel message concludes with, or from another viewpoint begins with, the preaching of Jesus as the final judge of all peoples (verse 42). 

Luke 24:1-12.  

The Gospel reading gives us a more earthy presentation of the Easter message.  (Only by comparison with the preceding texts, of course.  This is still a pretty exotic piece of scripture!) 

The women have remained faithful to Jesus, even when male disciples have betrayed, denied, and generally disappeared.  It is a mournful business they are left with, seeing to the proper embalming of the body.  Their distress is protracted even further because the crucifixion happened just before a Sabbath, and they have to delay their ministries for an extra twenty-four hours – presumably an agonizing wait for them. 

Arrived at the tomb, things are not in order.  The tomb is open, and the body is missing!  More woe for these grieving servants. 

But now the text gets exotic.  Two wonderfully dressed gentlemen, clearly not of this world, present themselves to the women who drop to the ground in terror. 

These men bring the message of the new age – only it is approached in a round-about way.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (verse 5, NRSV).  And if this mystifies the women, the men remind them of what they should have remembered, that Jesus told them well ahead of time that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (verse 7).  Being reminded of this (which obviously was not taken seriously until the hard fact of the empty tomb certified it), they hastened off to tell any disciples they could find. 

Only now does the Gospel writer feel that we need to know who these women were.  (Unlike Mark, he does not name them back at the crucifixion or at the beginning of the tomb story.) 

Two of the women have been mentioned before in this Gospel, at 8:2-3.  Mary the Magdalene (that is, Mary from Magdala, a fishing village in Galilee) had had seven demons exorcised from her by Jesus, and Joanna was the wife of an official in the court of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee.  The earlier reference indicates that these, with other women of some means, supported Jesus and the disciples in the Galilee period.  If they were present at the tomb it was because they had come to the Passover with Jesus and persisted in their support to the end. 

Also mentioned by name is another Mary, the mother of one of the disciples named James, almost certainly not James bar Zebedee, but a younger or “lesser” James.  Several mothers of Jesus’ gang members may have come to Jerusalem with them, but only the names of these (and Salome in Mark’s tomb story) have come down to us. 

The report of the women to the disciples was not a big success.  “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (verse 11).  The journey from empty tomb to belief by the disciples is a prolonged one in Luke.  Some text witnesses mention that Peter ran across town (since he would have been staying in Bethany, probably) and checked out the tomb story.  The tomb was indeed empty and the linen cloths were in place, but he went home only confused about it all (verse 12). 

In time the women’s report will be vindicated by other people’s experiences, but we do not hear about any apologies to the women later! 

In time they will all shout, Hallelujah!  The Lord is risen indeed!  


Friday, April 1, 2022

April 15, 2022 - Good Friday (Luke's Passion Narrative)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; Luke 22:14-23:56.

… 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 for the same day a Liturgy for the Passion, which includes a reading of the entire Passion narrative.  I have separated these two and give the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday. 

Good Friday (The name is, of course, high holy irony!).  The Lectionary readings for Good Friday are the most awesome of the Suffering Servant passages from the prophets, psalms, and epistles.  These readings remain the same every year. 

The Lectionary also specifies that John’s very public Passion narrative is to be read on Good Friday every year.  However, Year C is dedicated to Luke’s Gospel and it seems better to stay with it here also. 

So here we will listen to Luke’s version of the climax of the mission of the Suffering Servant.   

Isaiah 52:13-53:12. 

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 about an enigmatic Servant of Yahweh who suffers because of the sins of others.  Its conclusion is a triumphant outcome on the other side of profoundly moving suffering. 

I am not going to repeat the detailed literary analysis I have given in previous years (in Good Friday readings), nor the explanation of how the Suffering Servant, a royal figure, is a profound reshaping of Israel’s historical destiny. 

The full discussions of both Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 are at:  

JW Study Bibles and Bible Studies: The Suffering Servant - Good Friday Readings

Suffice it to say that the main figures of the drama are God, who brings back on stage after his suffering the faithful Servant who is glorified and praised among the kings of the earth (52:13-15) and the “many nations” and their kings (probably) who speak in astonishment about the length to which the suffering of the Servant was carried – not for his own sins, but for theirs! (53:1-6). 

The Servant never speaks, though he is the primary topic of everyone else’s speeches.  It is God, again, who speaks the final word: 

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. 

            (53:11b-12, New Jewish Publication Society translation, 1999 ed.) 

Psalm 22. 

The Psalm for Good Friday has, with good reason, been read as a Suffering Servant liturgy. 

I’m also not going to repeat the literary analysis of this psalm given in previous years.  Succinctly, the psalm has three parts: 

·        The first is a magnificent lament (plea for deliverance) based on the radical difference between God’s past care for Israel and the speaker’s miserable condition (verses 1-11). 

·        The middle section is a powerful and graphic portrayal of the capture and slaughter of a beautiful wild animal – the agonizing language designed to evoke great pity and indignation on the part of the heavenly power appealed to (verses 12-21). 

·        The third part is a radical reversal, in which the speaker now gives thanks for deliverance, a deliverance which is celebrated by peoples far and wide and in times to come (verses 22-31). 

In the Jerusalem liturgy, the speaker was obviously not an ordinary figure, but a royal figure whose drama established the destinies of many around him.  He was the Suffering Servant, again. 

It is the opening words of this psalm, of course, that Mark and Matthew quote as Jesus’ one and only outcry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  They may have intended their hearers to remember the whole psalm, with its triumphant conclusion. 

Luke, on the other hand, has a very different picture of the serene Jesus of the cross, and he omits the agonized cry taken from this psalm. 

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; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.   (Hebrews 4:15 + 5:7-9, NRSV). 


Luke 22:14-23:56

Assumptions.  The primary purpose here is to let Luke’s version of the Passion have its own flow.  It is very confusing to constantly compare Luke’s presentation with reference to some “original” history behind it.  Serious scholars have slowly but surely learned to read the Gospels as different second-generation views of the Remembered Jesus (James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans, 2003).  We are still learning how to do our devotions and theologies based on that recognition.  This is an attempt in that direction. 

To achieve a measure of objectivity in how the narrative is structured, that is, of the relative importance of each portion of the narrative, I have done a word count of the narrative units.  Based on that count, the percentage of the total narrative taken up by each episode is indicated.  (The total narrative contains 1761 words, in the Greek text of UBS 4th ed.)  This provides a first indicator of the narrative’s perspective on what is presented. 

The reciter (“author”) of the Gospel is identified by tradition as “Luke,” a man who, when he was young, was apparently a companion of Paul.  In some of the later chapters of Acts, which he also wrote, he (obviously deliberately) allows the narrative to slip into the first person, indicating in a quiet and unobtrusive way, “I was present for this.”  Scholars call these 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 (around 57 to 59 CE).  Probable informants in Caesarea included the Evangelist Philip’s charismatic daughters, who could have given Luke local lore about Jesus’ family and more unusual public activities.    

[Note on terminology:  I try to avoid the terms “Jew” and “Jewish” when referring to the ancient people.  “Jew” came into usage only in some European languages in the Middle Ages – Old French and Middle English.  New Testament texts have only Ioudaios, properly translated “Judean,” though traditionally translated “Jew” or “Jewish.”  The ancient people preferred to call themselves “Israel,” but if they needed another term they used “Judean.”]

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).  This symposium incorporates 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 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 Judean 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 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 Judeans 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 Judeans 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 Judeans 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 pair is about the Last Supper of Jesus with the apostles, the second pair is about the church’s service of the Lord’s Supper. 

The first two sayings are about the gap between now and Kingdom Come.  “…[F]or I tell you I will not eat [the Passover] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (verse 16); “…[F]or 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 pair of 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 institutes 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).  (This blood of the new covenant re-enacts the blood of the old covenant with Israel, Exodus 24:8.)  After distributing the broken bread, Jesus also says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and something similar 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 ritual, 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), this ritual 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.  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 (the original sponsor of Luke’s work) 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 Lord’s Supper without the explicitly sacrificial language of verses 19b-20.

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 in Luke 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%).  The Last Supper symposium now includes 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). 

Hearing such talk, 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-two” 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 probably recognizes the conditions of warfare that came upon both Galilee and Judea in the Roman-Judean war and the associated hostility of Judean 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).  Whatever Luke meant by this exchange, 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. 

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). 

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 also 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 225 CE, which does not have verses 43-44.  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 in Egypt 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 blood-like 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 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 someone else 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 against the officials, but he alone adds Jesus’ resigned sigh 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 Judean 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 Judean 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 Judean 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.  Therefore, they condemn him 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 Judean leaders, always accusing from the background, are on a par with Pilate in this drama. 

The Mocking of Jesus

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 Judean 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 Judeans?”  Jesus gives the ambiguous answer, “You say so.” 

However this language is understood, 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 57 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 Judean 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).  Thus Luke informs us of another little consequence of Jesus’ journey among those who would not recognize him! 

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 Judean 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 Judean leaders – and, at this critical moment in the narrative, the Judean “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” Judean 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 Judean 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 Judean 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 (following Mark).  He is mentioned by name, including his native land (the northeast coast of modern Libya, very Greek and very Judean 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 that Jesus shouted 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 Judeans, save yourself!”  This referred to the condemnation posted on his cross, which said, “This is the King of the Judeans” (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 do 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.