|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
You may also want to check the Overview of Palm Sunday texts or the Palm Sunday notes on Luke 19.22-48.
Because of the great length of this text, I will highlight some themes that I find significant in Luke's passion narrative.
Luke was written to "Most Excellent Theophilus," whom I think was probably a Roman official. I ask, "What do you say to the Romans?" I think that Luke's unique features in the passion come about because he is writing to the Romans, who had some major misconceptions about Jesus and the group of people who followed him.
Periodically Jews would rise up against the Romans occupying in their land. In 66 AD a man named Menahem claimed to the Jewish king and entered Jerusalem with a small army. He was defeated. A few years later a man named Simon, who had been a military hero, gathered a sizable army about him, who recognized him as king. Their entrance into Jerusalem led to the Roman siege of the city, which destroyed the temple and most of the city. Simon was taken to Rome and executed.
While these revolutionary kings appeared over 30 years after Jesus' death, these events occurred 10 to 20 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. What does Luke need to tell the Romans about Jesus and about his followers? Remember that Jesus was crucified as King of the Jews. Was he a threat to the Roman Empire like these other Jews pretending to be kings? Are his followers threats to the Roman Empire?
At the time of Luke, there was almost nothing about Jesus and his followers that was written down. People learned about Jesus by hearing what others said about him. People learned about the Christian faith by hearing stories from other Christians. However, false stories about Jesus and his followers were also created.
In the first four verses of Luke, the author explains that he is researching all the stories about Jesus so that he might convey the truth -- not just about Jesus, but "about us" -- those who believed in Jesus some 50 years after his death.
In the garden, one of Jesus' followers asks, "Shall we attack with swords?" Unfortunately, he doesn't wait for an answer, but cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. Jesus says: "Stop this!" Jesus' way is not through fighting with swords. He further illustrates this point by touching the ear and healing the man. As Jesus healed throughout his ministry, he heals in the garden. This healing is only found in Luke. A faith-healer is no threat to the Roman Empire.
Jesus has a hearing at the home of the high priest, before a Jewish council. From there Jesus is taken to Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea. Jesus is accused of "deceiving the people; forbidding the people to pay taxes to Caesar; and claiming to be the Messiah, the king." Jesus is presented to Pilate as an insurrectionist -- stirring up the people against the Roman Empire. Is this true? There were probably people saying that in Luke's day, but we know it's not true. When Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar, he said, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar." He didn't tell anybody to stop paying taxes. Even if we didn't have this story about tax-paying, Pilate, after questioning Jesus, tells the chief priests and the crowds, "I find nothing wrong with this man." The Roman official declares Jesus innocent of these charges.
When Pilate discovers Jesus is from Galilee, he sends him to Herod who was a Jewish ruler in Jerusalem at the time. He finds nothing wrong in Jesus. He sends him back to Pilate.
Once again, Pilate calls together the chief priests and leaders of the people and declares: "I have examined him in your presence and I find nothing wrong with him. He is not guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Neither did Herod find anything wrong. ... Jesus has done nothing worthy of death." The Roman official declares Jesus innocent a second time.
The crowd calls for the release of Barabbas, who was an insurrectionist. He had started a riot in the city. He had committed murder. A third time Pilate declares about Jesus: "What crime has he done? I have found nothing wrong with him -- especially nothing deserving death." Not once in Mark or Matthew does Pilate declare Jesus innocent and only once in John. In Luke, three times Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges.
On one hand, that should satisfy the Romans in Luke's day that Jesus and his followers were never threats to the Roman Empire -- even one of their officials had declared it three times.
On the other hand, that can add even more guilt to Pilate's sin. If he considered Jesus innocent, why did he turn him over to the crowds to be crucified? While Pilate is guilty of this, perhaps he had no other choice. It was part of plan that was beyond human control.
Jesus is crucified. The first thing he says from the cross is, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they are doing." These words are only found in Luke. The one who is innocent forgives those who are guilty. Pilate, who was too weak-willed to save Jesus is forgiven. The Jewish crowds who had called for his crucifixion are forgiven. The guards who had beat him and made fun of him are forgiven. The soldiers who had nailed him to the cross are forgiven. Did any of those people ask for forgiveness? Did any of them repent? Is confession necessary before forgiveness can be given? Since these words of Jesus are not found in some early manuscripts, what reasons might be given from dropping them (if they were original)? What reasons might be given for adding these words (if they were not originally part of this writing)?
The sign above Jesus' head declared: "This one is the King of the Jews." Jesus does not use his royal power to overthrow governments, but to heal a severed ear and to forgive sinners. He doesn't blame those who turned against him and unjustly killed him. He forgives them.
Jesus' final words from the cross in Luke are: "Father, into your hands I am placing your spirit." These are much more peaceful words than in Mark and Matthew: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." In Luke, Jesus dies not with a cry of despair, but of a peaceful rest. God's plan is complete.
A Roman soldier, after seeing all this, praised God, saying: "Indeed, this man was innocent."
What do you say to the Romans? Yes, they had Jesus put to death; but it wasn't because he was a threat to their empire. Three times Pilate declared Jesus innocent. At his death, the Roman soldier declared Jesus innocent.
What do you say to the Romans? Yes, they could have prevented Jesus' death, but they didn't. They, as well as the Jewish people, are guilty of killing this innocent man -- but Jesus forgives them all as he is dying and that is that should be the attitude of the people who follow Jesus. The early church is no threat to overthrow the empire. They, like Jesus, are to seek to forgive the Romans, not to get even. The Romans, the Jews, and the entire world need to hear Jesus' powerful words: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing."
I find that Luke's treatment of Judas offers an important message. There are some major differences between Luke's account of Judas and what the other Gospels say about him -- and in our day and age, it might be good to hear about Judas -- at least Luke's presentation of Judas.
First of all, there is some significant agreement about Judas in all the Gospels. All indicate that he was one of the select 12 of Jesus' followers. All indicate that Judas betrayed Jesus. That's about where the similarities end. Three gospels say that he received money for betraying Jesus. John says nothing about money. But John says that Judas was the disciples' treasurer and a thief. None of the other gospels describe him in this way.
Judas is mentioned by name four times in the gospel of Luke. The first is in the list of the chosen 12. Jesus has spent the night in prayer. He calls together all his disciples -- of which there may have been hundreds -- and he selects 12, whom he designated apostles. Judas was one of those selected 12. He wasn't just a plain, ordinary disciple; he was part of the inner circle of Jesus' apostles.
The next time Judas is mentioned, it is in the verses that began the passion reading. Satan enters Judas -- "one of the twelve," the text reminds us. Judas could say, "The devil made me do it." In Matthew and Mark, Judas acts all by himself. He decides to betray Jesus to the authorities. He doesn't need any demonic help in those gospels. He acts on his own. Why? We aren't told why. In John, the devil is mentioned, but only as one like the serpent in the garden. He makes a suggestion to Judas about betraying Jesus. It is still up to Judas to follow that suggestion or not. Luke says that Satan entered Judas. Does Judas have a choice in this matter or not? Is he really guilty of his dastardly deed or not? Is "the devil made me do it" an acceptable excuse or not? We will see, but remember the name Satan. We will hear it later.
The next story is Jesus celebrating the Passover Meal with his disciples. At this meal Jesus has the first celebration of Holy Communion. In the other gospels, Jesus talks about the betrayer before sharing the bread and wine, so Judas may have left before the communion celebration. But in Luke, Jesus says nothing about a betrayer until after the Supper. Luke makes it clear: Judas is at this meal. The one who will betray Jesus; the one whom Satan has already entered shares in the bread and wine with the other disciples.
Jesus, throughout Luke, is eating with people. He is criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors, yet he also eats with Pharisees and other church leaders. In the upper room, he eats with his betrayer. He eats with Peter who will deny him. Jesus eats with sinners. The sacrament is a meal for sinners.
After the meal Jesus says, "My betrayer is sitting at the table with me. The Son of man must keep going to meet his destiny, but woe to that man who betrays him."
The first thing to notice about this quote is what Luke does not say. Both Mark and Matthew include this sentence: "It would be better if he had not been born." Luke doesn't say that for a very important reason which will come later.
The second thing is the irony in this quote. Jesus must keep going to meet his destiny. Jesus must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die. That is his destiny. That is God's plan. So, on one hand, Judas is helping Jesus meet his destiny by betraying him. But on the other hand, Jesus says, "Woe to that person!" What he is doing is wrong! Even if God is going to use it for good, that doesn't make the betrayal a good thing.
Even though Judas' betrayal led to Jesus death and then to the resurrection and salvation for all who believe, it was still not a good thing. I think that in our day and age we desperately need to call sin, sin. We need to say some things are wrong. Sexual immorality is wrong. Fornication and adultery are always on lists of evils we need to avoid. Drunkenness is wrong. Even if such sins make you feel good. Even if no one gets hurt. Even if some good might come of it. It is wrong.
Sin is wrong and you shouldn't do it. What Judas will do is wrong. He can't blame Satan for his evil.
A little bit later in the upper room, Jesus says: "I am giving you the right to rule, just as my Father gave me the right to rule. You will eat and drink from my table in my kingdom and you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
The only other gospel to have this saying of Jesus is Matthew, and in that gospel it occurs before Jesus and the disciples entered Jerusalem. It occurs before Judas has decided to betray Jesus, so, of course, Jesus would talk about the 12 thrones -- one for each of the 12 apostles.
But Luke has this saying after Satan has already entered Judas! Judas has already accepted money to betray Jesus. Jesus has pronounced a woe on the one who will betray him. Shouldn't Jesus have said eleven thrones? Or said, there will be twelve thrones for twelve judges? Jesus says to the apostles, "You will sit on twelve thrones." Judas, at this point, is still one of those twelve, with the promise of a wonderful future in God's coming kingdom. How can that be?
A major theme in the gospel of Luke is repentance. Even though Satan has entered Judas; even though Judas will betray Jesus; even though what Judas will do is wrong; he can repent and be restored as an apostle of Jesus.
The next words Jesus speaks in Luke are: "Simon, Simon! Watch out! Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat. I have pleaded for you so that your faith might not fail. When you repent, come back and strengthen your brothers."
Remember, I told you to remember that name, Satan. Here it is again. Satan is going to work on Simon Peter next. Will Simon's faith fail or not? You know that it will fail. He will deny knowing Jesus. Satan succeeds in Simon just as he succeeds in Judas; but repentance is possible for Peter, but even more than that, he will be restored to the twelve and be able to strengthen them. Good will come of Satan's attack on Simon, but denying Jesus is still wrong. But Peter repents and is restored. After he realizes his wrongs, he weeps bitterly. With a mistake like that in his life, he probably couldn't be elected president of the United States, but he became the head of the ancient Christian church. I believe that with repentance, forgiveness and restoration was available also for Judas in the gospel of Luke.
Only Matthew and Luke record what happened to Judas after Jesus is arrested and tried and their accounts are quite different. In Matthew, when Judas sees that Jesus was condemned, he repents. He brings back the money he had been paid and says, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." He repents, but he isn't restored. He doesn't feel God can forgive him. He goes out and hangs himself. Maybe Jesus statement in Matthew: "It would have been better if that one had not been born," means that there was no hope for Judas.
There is hope for Judas in Luke. Luke has no such condemning sentence about him. In Luke, Jesus says this about those who actually crucify him, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Certainly the same forgiveness was available for Judas. Certainly the same forgiveness is available to each of us, no matter how bad a sinner we might be or how many wrongs we have committed.
However, Judas, according to Acts, also written by Luke, never repents. In the first chapter of Acts we are told: "With the money that Judas got for his evil act he bought a field, where he fell to his death; he burst open and all his insides spilled out." Only after Judas is dead do the eleven apostles decide that another one has to be chosen to be part of the twelve. I think that Judas through repentance, could have been forgiven and remained one of the twelve. He would not repent.
What Judas did was wrong. Much of what we do is wrong. We might blame the devil. We might blame society. We can rationalize it away. God pronounces woes on those who do wrong. But God's proclamation doesn't end with a woe against wrong-doers, but with forgiveness for wrong-doers.
The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus telling the disciples: "Repentance for the forgiveness of sins shall be proclaimed in my name to all nations." That is the primary message of Jesus in Luke. Forgiveness was available for Judas, but he wouldn't receive it. Forgiveness is available for each of us, will we receive it?
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