Passion Sunday Lesson, Alternate Reading A
April 10, 2022
Read the passage: Luke 22:14 -- 23:56, The Message or Luke 22:14 -- 23:56, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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This post refers only to the text for Passion Sunday.
Click here, Luke 19:28-40, for commentary on the Palm Sunday text.
About the only thing I like about this lesson is that I get so many others things done while avoiding the hard work of engaging this painful text.
And in the congregation I serve, where we do not have musical, drama, or other artistic resources to present the story, the sheer length of the text is itself a burden. Who could possibly take this in in a single sitting within a worship service? (And unfortunately, even this post cannot be "short," though I hope it will still be easy to use and faith-provoking.)
Nonetheless, this lesson is crucial. Unless we immerse ourselves in it, the Good News of Easter loses its impact and power.
And yet, to truly enter into the story, we must place ourselves beside Jesus in his own time, in his own place, among his own people. But to avoid repeating here what I have frequently commented on elsewhere, I've summarized 7 key interpretative points:
- The conflict within the Gospels is NOT between Jesus and "the Jews." English translations of the Bible mistranslate the underlying original Greek word for JUDEANs. Judeans, especially those from the capital city, Jerusalem, look down on Galileans as uneducated, backwoods, small town, hillbillies. Jesus is a Galilean. The idea of a Galilean being presented as King of the Judeans is huge, collective insult. Of course Judeans would defend their honour and shout for the Galilean yokel to be crucified.
- The Judean authorities - King Herod, the chief priests, the Pharisees, and the scribes - are actually puppets and collaborators. They hold their positions solely at the whim of the Roman authorities and act as agents of the Roman Empire. Their self-preservation lies in preventing social unrest. See John 11:47-48:
What are we to do?
This man (Jesus) is performing many signs.
If we let him go on like this,
everyone will believe into him,
and the Romans will come and destroy
both our temple and our nation.
- Brutal execution by stripping naked, whipping, and nailing to a cross was carefully crafted by the Romans to inflict the maximum amount of pain and degradation because they wanted to kill not only the individual but also any followers. That is to say, by demonstrating their iron-fisted authority over Jesus, the Romans hoped to kill any aspirations in any of his followers to "take up their cross and follow."
- God did NOT send Jesus to die for our sins. God DID send Jesus because God so loved the world, and in Luke 4:18-19, Jesus declares why God has sent him as he reads from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent to proclaim release
to the captives, and recovery
of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year
of the Lord's favour.
Abiding in God's love and remaining loyal to God by proclaiming God's Kingdom of non-violent justice would unavoidably bring Jesus into direct conflict with Rome's violent injustice.
- Unlike all other victims of group-sanctioned violence, THIS story ends forever the selecting and killing of scapegoats to carry and atone for the sins of the community. (The metaphor of Jesus as the Lamb of God ought to refer to the Passover lamb - which is NOT a sin offering.) If not for the first time in human history, then certainly for the final time, ritual killing for atoning of the community's sins is revealed to be a charade - the victim is innocent - "there is no basis for the accusation." (Luke 23:4) God does not now, and never did, want death in order to forgive. God begins with forgiveness, unconditionally, freely, because that is who God is - God is love.
- We need to hear the story for inward-formation, not information. We need to hear it as a self-correcting story that confounds our accommodation of violence. Hearing this story as one that makes violence purposeful / meaningful / significant / redemptive is a form of violence if it legitimizes violence. God did NOT send Jesus to die as a sacrifice for our sins. God sent Jesus to proclaim that God's Kingdom of non-violent justice was at hand, and BECAUSE of our sin, we killed the one who taught us to call God, Daddy.
- Even though I refer to this text as a "story," remember that it is about real people who, like us, made decisions and took actions for complex and complicated reasons. They were NOT actors in a play. They were, like us, freely acting within their own limitations and faults. And as we read the lesson, we'll see how at many points discussions are held, possibilities are considered, and decisions are made that could have been made differently. Jesus' death is not inevitable and unavoidable; his death is not ordained by God.
OK. Having laid out my "interpretative framework" let's take a look at a very long passage.
Luke 22:14-21. (Be aware from Luke 22:1-13, that before they sit down to eat, the plan to have Jesus arrested is already set.)
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh's own words (page 316, see footnote below) describe the significance and poignancy of this scene:
The critical importance of table fellowship as both reality and symbol of social cohesion and shared values cannot be overestimated in this passage. Jesus' statement that he had "eagerly desired" (Luke 22:15) to eat the meal with his closest followers recognizes just this fact. Moreover, since the Passover, more than any other meal, was a family meal, eating it with his disciples is recognition of the group as a surrogate family in the deepest sense of the term.
In a rare transposition of the order of events (as given by Mark 14:17), Luke shifts the prediction of Judas' betrayal to the end of the Passover meal. ... Doing so intensifies the tragedy of the moment: betrayal comes from the very one who has participated in the Passover meal of the surrogate family. It is the sense of deep tragedy that one feels in Psalm 41:9:
Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate my bread,
has lifted the heel against me.
Notice the reference in Verses 16 and 18 to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God - which I take as completion of the mission announced way back in Luke 4:18-19. (See point 4 above.) I believe it is important to keep clear about this so that we don't slip into the error of believing that God's will for Jesus was to die. God's will for Jesus was to proclaim the Kingdom of God was at hand - within reach.
Verse 20. I wish Jesus had said a little bit more about exactly what "the new covenant in his blood" was. I'm guessing this is a reference to the "old covenant" in Exodus 24:1-8. In any case, this is not the blood of a sin offering, and later references to "washed in the blood of the lamb" are a mis-reading of this.
Verse 21 to 22. It is not a coincidence that the reference to the new covenant - which creates an unbreakable bond of loyalty and trust between Jesus and his followers - is immediately followed by Jesus announcing his awareness that one of them has betrayed him. "His hand" is symbolic of Judas' agency / action. Jesus going as it has been determined / decreed / settled means not resisting what has been plotted by his betrayer - it is they who have done the determining / decreeing, not God.
I find it interesting that Luke observes that they talked among themselves as to which one it was who would do this - leaving open the possibility that any of them were capable of doing it. And so today, also perhaps any of us?
Verses 24 to 30. As if to emphasize this, Luke reports them falling into a dispute about who is the greatest! If one needed any further proof of Jesus' divinity it would be his patience with this group. He has just made an unbreakable bond of loyalty and trust with them; told them he is about to brutally executed and that one of them has turned him over to his killers; and they begin to discuss which of THEM is the greatest! It is like: Having heard that Jesus won't be there anymore, which of us will be the chief?
Once again, Jesus has to patiently explain that in the Kingdom of God, "greatness" is reversed from what it is in this life. So the "kingdom" that Jesus confers on his followers is an upside-down one where friends who are equals eat together like family. Others - I can't recall where I first heard this - refer to this as the "Kin_dom of God." The realm of God's kin.
Verses 31 to 34. We first heard about Satan (or the devil) back in Luke 4:1-13 where Jesus successfully passes 3 tests and proves himself to be a worthy and loyal son. Satan originates in Persian culture as a secret agent of the King who tests the loyalty of his subjects - by using tricks or bribes, etc. to betray the King. Luke had ominously finished this account with:
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from (Jesus) until an opportune time.
That opportune time has arrived. Satan has already done his work with Judas. (Luke 22:3) And now Jesus warns his followers that they all will be tested. And specifically names Peter as one for whom he has prayed. (So, let's be clear here that as Jesus is on his way to be brutally killed, his thoughts and prayers are still for his followers.)
Peter, ever the one to be impulsive and whole-hearted, but also thick-headed and lacking self-awareness, makes a rash promise that he does not have the courage to keep - and indeed will run from even the hint of being implicated with Jesus. Jesus, ever the one to be loyal and trustworthy, tells Peter the truth about himself. Of these two, which one would you prefer to have as your friend?
Verses 35 to 38. These verses need to be read as Jesus making the necessary distinction between living IN the world as it is - his wisdom sayings; and living FOR the world which is at hand - his Kingdom sayings.
Notice that Jesus begins by recalling the disciples' experience of living in the world for the world yet to come - that time when he sent them out as his agents to proclaim the coming of God's realm. (See Luke 9:1-6 and Luke 10:1-12.) For that work, without purse, bag or shoes, they still lacked nothing.
But now that they are coming among criminals, wisdom is needed; purse, bag and swords are needed! Though in few short moments Jesus will also rebuke the use of swords by his disciples. (Luke 22:49-51)
Verses 39 to 46. Surely this is one of the most poignant passages in the Bible's story of Jesus.
Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not say that Jesus asked only Peter, James and John to come with him to Gethsemane.
The challenge in this passage is to NOT equate "this cup" (the events that lie ahead) with "God's will."
We really need to let it sink in how deeply Jesus does not want what lies ahead. He does not want the pain and suffering he knows will happen.
But neither is it God's will that Jesus must suffer.
God's will for Jesus was made known way back in Luke 4:18-19. (See point 4 above.)
God's will for Jesus is to proclaim the year God's favour; to proclaim good news to the poor; to proclaim that today this vision is fulfilled in our hearing.
What Jesus fully understood then, and is earnestly praying about now, is that being faithful to God's will for him will end badly. It will bring him into direct conflict with the Romans. And that can only mean one thing: execution by being whipped and nailed to a cross.
When Jesus prays, "Not my will but yours be done," he is praying, "Not my desire to avoid pain be done, but your will for the proclamation of good news be done."
And. As Jesus then found his disciples asleep because of their fear and grief, we might wonder if he wouldn't also find us asleep and failing to be proclaimers of God's good news because we too are afraid of the suffering that might come our way if we were to do that.
Verses 47 to 53. The crowd that comes with Judas is NOT the same crowd that welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday. As we learn in Verse 52, this crowd consists of the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders. The Roman sentries, who would have been patrolling the streets, would never have allowed any crowd of ordinary people to move about at night. So it is a mis-reading to preach that the crowd who shouted, "Hosanna!" on Palm Sunday are the same people who shout, "Crucify him!" on Good Friday.
Jesus' comment about his being arrested by force of arms at night when he has been present day after day in the temple is once again a way for him to make a non-violent verbal point against the authorities. He is rubbing their face in the reality that they have had to resort to stealth and violence because they could not honourably defeat him by day with their own teachings, wisdom, and example.
All of Luke's first readers would immediately realize that by resorting to stealth and force of arms, the authorities have demonstrated their defeat! The honour, wisdom, and truth of Jesus has been victorious.
Verses 54 to 62. Surely this is the second most poignant passages in the Bible's story of Jesus.
Poor Jesus. One of his closest followers has betrayed him into the hands of the authorities; the rest of them fell asleep while he was praying in deep anguish; one of them stupidly uses weapons to fight an enemy who has already been defeated; the "Rock" upon whose faith the church will be built denies even knowing the guy in order to save his own skin.
Poor Peter. And lucky us. For by telling this story of abject betrayal - instead of having it struck from the record - Peter has given hope to the rest of us. If we cannot aspire to be like Jesus, it certainly is possible to aspire to be like Peter - and still be counted as a saint, as a follower of Jesus.
Verses 63 to 65. Notice that the blindfolding, mocking, and beating of Jesus begins before his trial. This is because quite contrary to our modern presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the presumption at the time of Jesus is - if you've been arrested, you are guilty - the purpose of the trial is only to decide exactly what the punishment will be.
Jesus has been arrested for reasons that amount to treason against the Roman Empire. The punishment for treason is deliberately designed to publicly maximize the pain and shame of the individual.
Jesus could have been quickly killed behind the locked doors of the prison. But the Romans want everyone to see their iron-fisted power.
They want everyone to see Jesus shamed and degraded. They want everyone to see Jesus suffer. Preferably for 2 or 3 days as he hangs on the cross. They want everyone to see his body eaten by birds and animals for a week or more. The want everyone to see the remains thrown into a pit without proper burial. They do this because they want everyone to forget about taking up and continuing his cause. The sign posted on the cross might as well have said, "Look what we did to Jesus. Imagine what we will do to you."
Verses 66 to 71. The purpose of this "trial" is simply to confirm the charge that was the reason for Jesus' arrest and decide on the proper punishment.
Notice that like an honourable and worthy son, Jesus never claims for himself the honour that has been bestowed on him by his Father.
If Jesus were ever to say - "Yes. I am the Messiah. Yes, I am the Son of God." - that would be dishonourable - and, paradoxically - would demonstrate that he in fact was not worthy to be the Messiah, the Son of God; because only God alone can confer and confirm that honour.
Notice also that the way of testing Jesus by the authorities is exactly the same as the testing by Satan in Luke 4:1-13 with which we began this Lenten journey - they ask, "IF ...?" and "ARE YOU ...?" These questions are traps that Jesus skilfully avoids, and yet also truthfully answers, "You say that I am."
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all show Jesus using the accusations of the authorities as their unwitting affirmation of the truth of who Jesus is.
Which brings us to Chapter 23 of Luke.
Verses 1 to 5. Keep remembering that the "assembly" and "crowd" throughout this Chapter are the Jerusalem, Judean, elites and their officials, slaves, and followers.
The fact that the authorities do not have an honest charge to make against Jesus is emphasized by Luke reporting additional - and false - charges in these Verses.
And notice that the authorities specifically bring up that Jesus is from Galilee, and has been teaching EVEN to here. This hillbilly Galilean has dared to come EVEN to Jerusalem! Gasp.
It is difficult to know at this time and distance how much Pilate, as a Roman outsider, would be aware of the internal politics between Judeans and Galileans.
It is however very easy to know at this time and distance that English translators have mis-translated the Greek for "Judean" as "Jews."
And that Pilate's question in Verse 3 is:
Are you the King of the Judeans?
Luke does not record Pilate's tone of voice in asking this question. It could be a simple, neutral tone. It could be an accusatory tone. It could be a mocking tone.
And note that as before, Jesus makes no honour claims for himself, but instead uses the accusation as the truthful answer to the question.
Whether intended or unintended, it would certainly be heard by the Judeans as a major insult to them: A Galilean as our King! Outrageous!
Luke also gives no explanation for Pilate declaring that he finds no basis for an accusation against Jesus.
Verses 6 to 12. Pilate does know enough about the difference between Judea and Galilee to send Jesus to Herod.
Luke had reported Herod's curiosity about Jesus earlier, Luke 9:9.
Jesus' refusal to answer Herod's questions is challenging and insulting to Herod's status - in effect acting as one in a position above Herod. This results in Jesus being mocked to put him back in his place.
But once again, the mockers inadvertently confirm Jesus' status by placing a kingly robe on him.
Verses 13 to 25. As before, we find that the accusers are the ones who inadvertently are telling the truth about Jesus: "He has done nothing to deserve death."
And so, as the story continues to unfold, we know that an innocent man is being condemned to an undeserved death.
This story will haunt and undermine and reform succeeding generations of justice within Western culture until the principle, "presumed innocent until proven guilty," is established.
Verses 26 to 31. It is possible that Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus' cross because Jesus himself has already lost so much blood from the beatings and whippings that he is too weak to do it himself.
Wailing and beating of breasts by women are traditional Mediterranean expressions for grief. Jesus' response that the day will come when people will say, "Blessed are the barren," is a sharp reversal of normal expectations of blessing.
Verses 26 to 43. The mocking and testing of Jesus continues from every side. Notice that once again Jesus is challenged 3 times, "IF ...?" or "ARE YOU ...?"
Jesus responds only to the one statement, "WHEN ..." because this request presumes the truth that Jesus has a Kingdom that he will come into.
Verses 44 to 49. As with any good story, I recommend not commenting on the special effects here - darkness, tearing of the temple curtain. Special effects are never meant to be the story - they are always meant to help tell the story - something very special is happening now.
Jesus' final words are from Psalm 31:5
Father, into your hands,
I commend my spirit
you have redeemed me,
O Lord, faithful God.
Luke began the story of Jesus' ministry as an adult with the Spirit descending on him like a dove; (Luke 3:21-22) with Jesus filled with the Spirit and led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and testing; (Luke 4:1-13) and filled with the power of Spirit to return to Galilee where he declared his God-given mission. (Luke 4:14-21) He ends it with the Spirit leaving Jesus - "He breathed his last."
And again Luke has one of the opponents testify to the truth about Jesus,
Certainly this man was innocent.
And possibly to counter later claims that the whole idea of the resurrection was a hoax, Luke reports that all of this - and his burial - were witnessed. There can be no not-really-being-dead; switching of bodies; or other deceptions.
Verses 50 to 56. Joseph of Arimathea would certainly have had to be a man of some standing to be able to have an audience with Pilate. It was unusual for a person to die as quickly as Jesus did. Unusual for Pilate to be approached about the body of a crucified man. And unusual for Pilate to allow the proper burial of such a man.
As this day, Friday, ends, the Sabbath day, Saturday, begins. And so the women and other followers of Jesus rest - as accorded by the commandments.
The Sabbath day ends with sunset on Saturday, but because it is dangerous, and custom forbids proper people to be out at night, our story will resume with first light on the third day, Sunday.
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 314-321; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See link below.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.