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APRIL 1, 2007: Passion Sunday


Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Luke 22:14-23:56

Though the four passion narratives sound similar to the untrained ear, each is unique. Every evangelist emphasizes different aspects of Jesus' suffering and death - the aspects he believes his particular community needs to hear.

As we listen to Luke's narrative today, notice how considerate and forgiving Jesus is throughout his horrible ordeal. Probably the words we most remember from these two chapters are those Jesus says as he's being nailed to the cross: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." Though scholars agree this part of 22:34 wasn't in Luke's original gospel, it's easy to understand why some scribe eventually inserted these memorable words. Luke's Jesus is always considerate, always forgiving. Only Luke, for instance, passes on the parable of the prodigal father and the story of Jesus' encounter with Zaccheus the tax collector. He alone teaches the lesson of the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the temple. This theology carries over into his passion narrative.

As I remind my students when we deal with these powerful sections of the gospels, our evangelists are far less interested in telling us about Jesus' physical suffering and death than they are concerned with pointing out ways in which we can imitate Jesus' suffering and death. Since no one in the early church thought we were to accomplish this imitation by actually being scourged, crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross, the evangelists never emphasize those parts of Jesus' passion. (For instance, in none of the four narratives is it ever said that Jesus was actually nailed to the cross!)

The normal way Christians join in Jesus' dying is to imitate his psychological suffering. For Luke, more than the other three, that imitable pain revolves around Jesus concern for others, especially on a forgiving level.

Notice at the beginning of the narrative how only Luke, during the Last Supper, inserts Jesus' command, "Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant." This command sets the pattern for the remainder of Jesus' passion behavior. He not only promises to pray for Peter's conversion, but only in Luke's account of his arrest does he heal the severed ear of the high priest's servant. Then, later in the night, in one of the most poignant passages in Scripture, he "turns and looks at Peter" immediately after he denies he even knows Jesus.

Along the road to Golgotha he diverts attention from himself to the future sufferings the residents of Jerusalem will endure. "Weep for yourselves and for your children . . . ." And just before he dies we reach the height of his forgiving concern when he promises the repent-ant thief, ". . . Today you will be with me in Paradise."

Reflecting on Luke's unique passion theology, we begin to notice some overlooked aspects in our other two readings. In Deutero-Isaiah's third song of the suffering servant, it's significant that the prophet's pain comes from his mission "to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them." If he weren't so concerned for others, he wouldn't have to endure such suffering.

And in Paul's well-known Philippians hymn, we're forced to zero in on the words, "He (Jesus) emptied himself and took the form of a slave . . . he humbled himself . . . ." The form which the emptying and humbling takes is rooted in Jesus' day by day openness to those around him.

As I said above, Luke geared his passion narrative to his community's needs. No biblical writing is ever composed in a vacuum. If there weren't needs and problems in the communities for whom the writings were composed, we'd have no Scripture. It's interesting that of all four passion accounts, Luke's contains so many "memorable" events. I presume they're only memorable for us because we have the same needs his community had.