An Exegetical Reflection on the Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Year C, Luke 22:14-23:56, March 24, 2013
SO CENTRAL TO all the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) that the stories of the Lord’s passion, not without reason, have been described as passion narratives with an introduction. (By passion narrative we mean the sections of the canonical gospels which recount the last days of Jesus, beginning with his entrance to Jerusalem and ending with his crucifixion, death and burial.) But although they basically agree in the general outline of the story of the passion, yet they differ in many details and in their theological emphases. This year, we read the passion narrative according to Luke (22:14-23:56), whose unique features are the lack of any formal night hearing (22:54) and a separate hearing before Herod (23:6-11). But its theological interest lies, among others, in presenting Jesus as the innocent righteous one who suffers and extends God’s mercy until death.
That the innocent suffers is one of the enigmas of human life. That the guilty should go to jail, suffer and even die for his crime is logical as it is moral. But, for the innocent to suffer for a crime he did not commit—that is beyond human understanding. Reason does not provide any basis for it. That is why it is beyond comprehension why Jesus should undergo his passion. The Jewish leaders, according to Luke, lodged three accusations against Jesus: subversion, opposition to the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claim to kingship (23:2). The plot, of course, makes us understand that these accusations were false. In an episode which is found only in Luke, Herod declared Jesus innocent (23:6). Jesus’ innocence runs like a refrain in the utterance of Pilate: “I have examined him in your presence and have no charge against him arising from your allegations. Neither has Herod who therefore has sent him back to us; obviously, this man has done nothing that calls for death” (23:14b-15; see also 23:4,22). One of the criminals crucified with him likewise recognized Jesus’ innocence: “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:41). When Jesus expired, the centurion, having seen what had happened, exclaimed: “Surely, this was an innocent man”(23:47). Of course, in Luke’s Gospel, more than innocence is implied here—Jesus is the righteous one (cf 23:50; 20:21).
Innocent though he was, Jesus was made to suffer and die. Luke portrays Jesus as a rejected prophet, which he already indicated in the pericope on Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (4:16-30). In the passion narrative, soldiers taunted him to prophesy (22:64). Herod and his guard treated him with contempt and insult (23:11). At the crucifixion, Jewish leaders kept jeering at him, soldiers made fun of him, one of the criminals blasphemed him (23:35,36,39) and the crowd called for his death (23:21). Now fulfilled was what the prophets foretold: “He was counted among the wicked” (Isa 53:12). Here, Jesus is depicted as the suffering servant of Yahweh, the innocent servant who suffers on behalf of many, and the reference to the drinking of the sour wine implies that he was the suffering innocent, righteous one (Ps 69:21). Of course, Jesus accepted his suffering and death as the will of his Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). This was part of the plan of God (24:43,46). He was faithful to the end, dying as God’s righteous Son.
Despite the fraudulence involved in the trial and the travesty of justice, Jesus never harbored any ill feeling toward those who brought him suffering and death. When, during his arrest at the Mount of Olives, his companions asked whether they would use sword, he said “Enough!” He even healed the high priest’s servant whose ear was cut off (22”49-51). On the contrary, he continued to offer the mercy of God: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Such an attitude on the part of Jesus is consistent with his teaching on loving one’s enemies, on prayer for those who maltreat him (6:27-28) and on forgiveness (17:4). Even the criminal who was crucified with him received compassion: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). Clearly, Luke portrays Jesus as the embodiment of God’s mercy, the One who took the initiative in the work of reconciliation between God and man, and between man and his fellow man.
Far from being meant as an objective account of what actually transpired, Luke’s passion story is intended to present a Christology that invites the Christian reader to participate in the salvific event. Unlike Simon of Cyrene had to be forced to carry the cross (23:26), the disciple follows the way of faithfulness and forgiveness voluntarily and from the heart. Of course, the invitation exacts a high price for discipleship. For in this way of following Jesus, one has to go beyond an ethic solely based on the Ten Commandments. To forgive and pray for those who hate us, freely to suffer for them even though one is not conscious of any guilt, to repay injustice with absolute pardon, to seek their salvation when one is being condemned—and still be consistent in all these—that is what is distinctively Christian. A costly demand, it is true, but not impossible. This, however, requires a deep spirituality whereby one follows no longer his own will, but that of the Father, and really serves people. It assumes that one has been touched by the Spirit, which enables him to empty himself of his own desires, wants and needs, if only for the sake of others, especially the scum of the earth.