The gospel passage for this week is the Lord’s Supper and the entire passion. To be completely honest, it’s overwhelming, and no one can possibly do justice to these words in one commentary or one Sunday or one lifetime. So sometimes we just skip them. After all, it’s just as easy to use the liturgy of the palms on Palm Sunday, followed directly by the resurrection on Easter! Move along, skip ahead, some stories hurt too deeply, and this is one of them. I get it. When asked to write this piece, I actually thought to myself, “This is an impossible task.” And it is… this passion narrative. But if you don’t want to play it safe (or if you have multiple worship gatherings during Holy Week which might allow you to spread it out over several days), it will forever be a story worth telling.
As is the case with all of the Gospel writers, there is a unique theme which runs through Luke’s version of the passion. It is one of explicitly outlined betrayal, abandonment, and violence. Luke, the doctor, is concerned with the body.
Jesus is hungry and thirsty. This Passover meal followed with bread and wine and the words of institution that become our Eucharistic sacrament are quite literally Jesus’ last meal. When we speak of the Last Supper in this context, it is not metaphorical. In addition, the betrayer’s hand… sweat like drops of blood… exhaustion… a fatal kiss… the servant’s ear… bitter weeping… a blindfold… and a beating. All of this occurs before the trial.
The trial itself is rather unremarkable. Realistically, it ends in acquittal. After the testimony of Jesus and his accusers, both Pilate and Herod find no grounds for the charges. I’ve always found it somewhat strange that Pilate then proclaims, “Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”[i] After all, why should an innocent person be punished at all? But, on a close examination of the original language, it appears that this word we often translate as “punish” or even “have him flogged” (παιδεύσας, paideusas) might also be interpreted as “correct.”[ii] It may be a long stretch, and it certainly doesn’t fit with the traditional interpretation, but it seems to me that Pilate may be suggesting the correction is not intended for Jesus but for the people. He will release this innocent man, setting things straight. Doesn’t happen.
I’m not sure he could possibly have imagined the outrage that followed, and carefully situated between Pilate’s attempts to release Jesus and the ultimate decision to crucify him, we find the strangest cut away from the main story in the form of an odd cultural tradition—the release of a prisoner, as chosen by the crowd. It should be noted that this Paschal Pardon only appears in the Gospels (here in Luke as a footnote). This does not necessarily affect the historical accuracy, but it does create questions while also allowing for broader connections to be made. Atonement theories can be difficult to navigate, and even before his death, we have this interesting twist in which Jesus is portrayed as an innocent sacrifice, given up by the people for the freedom of another. We often focus on the insistent anger and on the cunning of leaders who persuade both common and powerful people that Jesus’ testimony must be silenced at any cost. Anything is better than this embarrassment that they must surely be feeling when the charges are dropped. Release the riotous murderer by all means! Give us the very worst prisoner! Do whatever must be done to take the spotlight off the errors of the powerful.
We should focus on these things, but there is something else, as well. One of the reasons narrative is such a powerful tool for teaching is that we find ourselves in the story. And as often as I’ve been convicted, finding myself in Judas or Peter or even one of those unnamed members of the crowd just following along, I am struck by a new possibility on this reading (after having heard, read, quoted, and preached this passage so many times before). It’s the danger of living words. There is always something new to be gained. What if I’m Barabbas? What if we all are? In retellings of the passion, Barabbas is often portrayed as a giant of a man, unkempt, filthy, snarling and spitting at Jesus as he is released back into the world; yet it might be more responsible to image him broken, beaten, and a bit shell-shocked at his unexpected freedom. We don’t really know. There isn’t any significant follow-up. The parallels to Christian faith, in general, are telling though, because this is the least expected outcome. As is so often the case, tables are turned and Kingdoms are flipped upside down, because none of this feels right.
We can’t wrap our finite minds around this, and it is no surprise that the people who were present couldn’t either. No less than three times in this particular crucifixion account, Jesus is encouraged to save himself:
“He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”[iii] “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”[iv] “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”[v]
I have to think it was tempting, but that’s not Jesus’ modus operandi. Instead, he is obedient and self sacrificing. This doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t hope for another way. He prayed, in anguish, that the cup would be removed from him, but it wasn’t. Jesus was serious about living into (and dying into) God’s will, and as Luke records it, his last words were, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[vi] He doesn’t waver in his salvific nature, as he continues to save others throughout the passion narrative. Jesus goes so far as to not only embrace the cup but to become it, and as all the chains are rent he fulfills the covenant so freedom can reign.
I wish I could end with that, because it wraps neatly, but Palm Sunday is not Easter. Holy Week is not Easter. And at the end of this account, Jesus himself is not free, but dead. As death approached, he proclaimed to the women who mourned and wailed, “weep for yourselves,” and after his body is sealed in the tomb, “they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”[vii] That is how this passage ends—in lament and rest, Messiah’s body cold and alone.
[i] Luke 23:16 (NIV)
[ii] It is more apparent in Matthew that Jesus is, indeed, flogged, by Pilate’s direct order, but this is after the decision to crucify him has been made.
[iii] Luke 23:35
[iv] Luke 23:37
[v] Luke 23:39
[vi] Luke 23:46
[vii] Luke 23:56