In Luke, Jesus’ death and resurrection is “the Exodus that Jesus [accomplishes] at Jerusalem” (in Luke 9:31, “departure” = exodos in Greek).
Jesus leads his followers on the journey to freedom. As the embodiment of God’s reign, Jesus gives himself in service to others, using his authority to heal, save, and free. The religious and secular leaders exercise a starkly different authority, the power of darkness that dominates, imprisons, and kills. The whole story emphasizes the dramatic contrast between the kingdom of God and the authorities of this world.
Jesus’ Passover meal with his disciples sets the stage for the events that are about to unfold. As Jesus recalls God’s liberation of Israel and the covenant made at Sinai, he anticipates the fulfillment of the Passover in God’s kingdom. His words point forward both to the heavenly feast and to his presence among the community when they break bread together after his resurrection (Luke 24:30-35; Acts 2:42-46). Luke’s version of the last supper is distinctive, with Jesus offering a cup, then bread, then a second cup after the meal. Some ancient manuscripts have only one cup and different sequences of events in verses 17-20, but NRSV follows the witness of the earliest and best manuscripts both in the order of events and in retaining the two cups.
At the last supper, Jesus models self-giving love. Here at the table he is, quite literally, among his disciples as one who serves. He gives thanks and offers them wine, commanding them to share (diamerizo) the first cup among themselves, just as the first Christians will have all things in common, distributing (diamerizo) their goods (Acts 2:44). He gives thanks and breaks bread, saying, “This is my body, which is being given for you. Keep doing this for my remembrance.” Remembrance (anamnesis) is not simply the memory of a distant past; it connects the past with the present and the future, where the living Christ continues to be among his followers, still giving himself for them.
What are they to keep doing? Not only breaking bread together, but giving their own bodies in witness to his love. This is the new community that Jesus forms, created through the new covenant in his poured-out blood.
Yet, even as he pours himself out for them, the disciples fail to live in Jesus’ way. At the table with him reclines one who will reward Jesus’ giving (didomi) by giving him over (paradidomi) to the religious authorities, who will bring him to Pilate, who will give him over (paradidomi) to be crucified. When Jesus announces this fact, the other disciples react first by arguing about which one of them it is and then by getting into a serious dispute over who among them is greatest (compare 9:46-48). Jesus uses the occasion to contrast God’s reign with earthly authority and calls them to continue his ministry by taking their places as servant leaders at his table in his kingdom.
Though Jesus appoints them to positions of authority, they are about to learn their weakness and their need for strength beyond their own. Jesus warns Peter, whom he addresses here as “Simon, Simon,” that Satan has asked to sift all of them like wheat. Jesus, however, has prayed that Peter will not fall away. Over Peter’s protests, he prophesies that Peter will deny him, but tells him to return after his failure to strengthen the rest.
Then Jesus reminds them of the instructions that he had given them earlier, when he sent them and the seventy out to preach and heal (Luke 9:1-3, 10:1-4). Back then they could depend on a warm reception, but no longer. He will soon be regarded as a criminal, counted among the lawbreakers. From now on they, like him, will be rejected and persecuted. Jesus’ command to sell their cloaks and buy swords (22:36) is figurative, a hyperbolic statement meant to illustrate their changed situation. When they take him literally (verse 38), he corrects them with a curt, “Enough!”
The scene now changes from the Passover meal to the Mount of Olives. After instructing his disciples to pray that they might not enter into the time of trial (compare 11:4), Jesus withdraws and kneels in prayer. He asks the Father to take away this cup, but willingly yields to God’s will rather than his own.
Luke’s version of this scene is quiet and dignified, lacking the repeated interactions with the disciples that Matthew and Mark describe. He presents Jesus as a model philosopher, calm and self-controlled. Even if the textual variant in 43-44 is included, it portrays Jesus as engaged in a mighty athletic struggle, not as overcome by emotional agony. The disciples, not Jesus, are the ones exhausted by grief.
While Jesus again commands his disciples to pray, Judas arrives, leading a crowd. The disciples react violently, asking whether they should use their swords. Before Jesus can reply, one of them cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus rebukes them all and immediately heals the man. His words and actions make it clear that his earlier command to buy a sword was meant figuratively. Surrounded by swords and clubs, he chooses peace and healing. This, however, is the hour of those who rule through force. The power of darkness is here.
As Jesus is led away to the high priest’s house, Peter follows at a distance. Jesus has prophesied that Peter would deny three times that he knew him, and the story unfolds just as Jesus has said it would. Even as Jesus’ prophecy about Peter is fulfilled, Jesus’ captors are beating him and daring him to prophesy who hit him. When the cock crows, Jesus turns and looks directly at Peter. His gaze marks the moment when Peter remembers and repents. As John Calvin said, “he had to meet Christ’s eyes to come to himself.”
At daybreak the first of four hearings begin. Luke shows Jesus on trial before the council of religious leaders, then before Pilate, then before Herod, and then once more before Pilate as the religious authorities press for a death sentence. The whole sequence depicts Jesus as a just person who is wrongfully convicted so that the religious and secular authorities can preserve their own power.
In the trial before the Sanhedrin, the elders, chief priests and scribes ask Jesus to tell them whether he is the Christ. He evades the question, saying they will not believe his answer in any case, but announcing that from now on they will see the Human One seated at God’s right hand. When they ask whether he is the son of God, he says only, “You say that I am.” Though he has not given them a direct answer, they conclude that he has given them all the testimony they need.
Before Pilate, the religious leaders accuse Jesus of misleading the people, preventing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a king. Pilate declares that the charges are not founded, but the leaders persist in their accusation that he has been creating an uproar among the people from Galilee to Jerusalem. As soon as Pilate learns that Jesus is a Galilean, he passes the buck to Herod, since Galilee is Herod’s jurisdiction. After Jesus refuses to perform wonders on command and remains silent under interrogation, Herod despises him, mocks him by dressing him up in expensive clothes, and returns him to Pilate.
Until the second trial before Pilate, only the religious leaders have pressed charges against Jesus. Now, however, when Pilate declares Jesus innocent of inciting a revolt and says that neither he nor Herod have found any reason to condemn him to death, the people join in the uproarious shouts to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus. The irony is rich here.
The religious leaders, not Jesus, are creating an uproar among the people. The leaders and people together demand that Pilate free Barabbas, a criminal who is guilty of revolt and murder, and crucify Jesus, who has been found innocent of all charges. Over Pilate’s threefold protest and repeated offers to have Jesus whipped even though he is not guilty, the cries of the mob prevail. Pilate hands Jesus over to their will.
As Jesus is led away the mood abruptly changes. Luke once again distinguishes between the religious leaders and the people, with the whole scene suggesting the people’s repentance. Simon of Cyrene, pressed into service, assumes the role of a disciple by carrying the cross and following Jesus. A great crowd of the people follow Jesus too, and the women in the crowd beat their breasts and mourn for him. Turning, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who cannot have children (contrast 11:27-28). Because their leaders distort justice and seek only to preserve their own power, disaster looms.
Fulfilling the prophecy that he will be counted among the lawbreakers, Jesus is led to his execution along with two criminals and crucified between them. Some important early manuscripts lack verse 34, but other excellent early manuscripts include it, and several second-century church fathers refer to it. By praying that God will forgive his enemies, Jesus practices what he preaches (6:27-28, 35, 37; 11:4; 17:3-5) and becomes a model for his followers (Acts 7:60).
The division between the people and their leaders continues at the cross. The people stand silently watching, but the rulers and the soldiers taunt Jesus, mocking his apparent powerlessness and inability to save himself. Ironically, even as Jesus nears death he uses his authority to save others. When one of the criminals confesses his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, Jesus promises the dying man that he will be in paradise that day, and that Jesus will be with him.
When he was arrested, Jesus said, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” Now the power of darkness becomes visible, covering the whole land, and the sun’s light fails. Jesus entrusts his spirit to God and dies.
The centurion becomes the second representative of Rome to declare Jesus innocent. Seeing what has happened, he recognizes that God is at work and that Jesus was a just man. Luke does not tell us how the religious leaders react to Jesus’ death, but the crowds who had gathered expecting a spectacle leave shaken and contrite. Jesus’ friends, including his female disciples, witness everything from a distance.
The story of Jesus’ burial emphasizes once again the divisions within Israel. Luke says that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, opposed the decision to crucify Jesus. Though he could not protect Jesus, he honored him by requesting his body, wrapping it in fine cloth, and burying it in an unused tomb.
Luke ends his account by returning to the faithful women. They have been with Jesus from the beginning, following him from Galilee. They have witnessed and supported his ministry. They have witnessed his death. They have witnessed his burial. Now they prepare spices; they rest, and wait.
Jerusalem is the geographical and hermeneutical center of Luke’s Gospel.
The drama of the narrative begins and ends in the Jerusalem temple (1:5-8; 24:52-53). Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem unfolds over many chapters in Luke, from 9:51 when Jesus “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem, until 9:28 when Jesus finally “goes up” to Jerusalem. This is where our text, and the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, begins.
Jesus’ “going up” to Jerusalem is a public event, interpreted by Luke as a royal entry. First, Jesus sends two of his disciples to find a colt for him to ride into the city, telling them that if anyone asks why they are untying it, they should simply say, “The Lord (kyrios) needs it.” In fact, the owners (kyrioi) of the colt do ask, understandably, why the disciples are untying it, and the disciples respond, “The Lord needs it” (19:30-32). One wonders why the owners of the colt accepted this response so readily. The text seems to highlight the fact that the Kyrios Jesus has authority over and above all human kyrioi.
The fact that Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a colt to the acclamation of the crowds recalls the oracle of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” Though the verse is not cited in Luke as it is in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, it almost certainly informs Luke’s account.
The royal implications of this entry on a colt are clear in the words of “the whole multitude (plethos) of disciples” who praise God for the deeds of power they have seen and cite Psalm 118:26 (Ps 117:26 in the Septuagint), with a notable addition. “Blessed is the one who comes (ho erxomenos) in the name of the Lord!” (Lxx Psalm 117:26) becomes in Luke 19:38: “Blessed is the king who comes (ho erxomenos ho basileus) in the name of the Lord!”
The second part of the multitude’s acclamation, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven” echoes the song of the multitude (plethos) of angels at the announcement of the birth of Christos Kyrios (Luke 2:11-13). The multitude of disciples, like the multitude of angels, seems to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come.
This acclamation makes the Pharisees very nervous. Some Pharisees had warned Jesus in Luke 13:31 that Herod wanted to kill him and had advised Jesus to lay low. Now again some Pharisees implore Jesus to order his disciples to stop their subversive chant. The Pharisees understand that such a display of royal pretensions may very well bring down the wrath of those in power in Jerusalem, whether it be the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Pilate. As it turns out, Jesus will pass in judgment before all three (Luke 22:66-23:25).
Yet just as Jesus had brushed aside the warnings of the Pharisees before (Luke 13:32-33), he does so once again, saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (19:40). Jesus knows full well the opposition he faces, but he will not be deterred from his mission.
It is worth noting that just as Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s warnings in Luke 13:32-33 led directly into a lament over Jerusalem (13:34-35), the same is the case here in Luke 19. Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees leads directly into another lament over Jerusalem, this one accompanied by weeping. Although our assigned text ends at 19:40, the lament of Jesus in 19:41-44, followed by his clearing the temple of its vendors in 19:45-48, are of a piece with his entry into Jerusalem. Jesus’ destination is the temple, and all these events happen the same day, in one fell swoop.
The lament in particular offers a poignant interpretation of the events taking place. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus goes on to describe the destruction that is coming upon Jerusalem and finishes by saying that these tragic events will happen “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God’ (19:41-44).
The “time of visitation” (kairon tes episkopes) was intended to bring salvation to Israel, as Zachariah had announced in Luke 1: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon (or visited: epeskepsato) his people and redeemed them” (1:68). Jesus now weeps because many in Israel have not recognized him as Messiah and Lord and have not accepted his peaceful visitation. Their refusal of “the things that make for peace” will have tragic consequences for the nation.
In Luke as in the Prophets, the city of Jerusalem is personified. In Jesus’ lament, Jerusalem is symbolic of the people of Israel, but in a larger sense, of all of humanity. It is the center of opposition to Jesus, but also at the center of God’s salvific purposes for all people. In the sequel to Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, it is from Jerusalem that the good news will go out to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So it is that Jesus, knowing the opposition that lies before him, nevertheless remains undeterred in his mission, entering boldly into the temple and clearing out the vendors, then teaching in the temple every day until his arrest.
Palm/Passion Sunday places preachers in a bit of a dilemma in terms of how to focus our preaching. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is royal, triumphant, but we know how the people will turn against Jesus, even if the whole passion story is not read this Sunday. We know that many in the crowds who hail Jesus as king on this Sunday will be crying out for his crucifixion by Friday. Perhaps they expected a mighty warrior-king who would drive out the Romans. Seeing Jesus held by Roman soldiers, weak and vulnerable, they will decide that he is not the king they want after all. In fact, supporting him could be downright dangerous.
One question the preacher might ask is, “Where do we see ourselves in this story?” We have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight, and it is easy to judge the characters in the story from a distance. But are we really so very different from them? How quickly does our faith falter when God does not deliver what we are expecting? How quickly does our discipleship falter when we realize the great cost and risks of following Jesus? How often do our self-serving instincts lead us to deny Jesus and his claim on our lives?
Luke’s passion story records a variety of human responses to Jesus — from faith and jubilant praise to mockery, hostility and violence. Yet throughout this story of vacillating human responses, of human blindness, weakness, and hardness of heart, one thing remains constant: God’s will to show mercy and to save. Without jumping ahead to the end of the story just yet, we can affirm that even in the midst of this human tragedy, God is at work for good.
Hardly any figure in all of Scripture simultaneously holds the notoriety and elusiveness of the “Suffering Servant” of Deutero-Isaiah.
In the brief collections of verses known as the four Servant Songs,1 the figure who, despite unwarranted suffering, trusts and serves God without question or complaint remains unidentified throughout. As a result, scholarship is replete with efforts to identify the servant, some more plausible and potentially helpful than others. Is the “servant” actually Israel, or an even more generic imaginary figure, or a real person who was simply never named, or perhaps even Jesus himself!?2
Efforts to identify the servant are certainly worthwhile and can bear significant theological fruit. Equally if not potentially more fruitful, however, is turning our attention toward not just the identity, but the function of the servant. Just what is God up to in and through this extremely intriguing figure?
Claus Westermann helps point us in the right direction through his identification of the form of this the third of the Servant Songs.3 Rather than an individual lament as some have suggested, Westermann argues convincingly for viewing these verses as a psalm of confidence. The servant enumerates personal experiences that are definitely unpleasant (verse 6). However, there is neither complaint about them nor petition for release from them. Instead, the servant declares the certainty of help and vindication from the Lord, challenging anyone to find guilt or shame or even unwillingness in what the servant is experiencing (verses 7-9a).
The behavior and exceeding trust of the servant presents a dramatic and ironic counterpoint to the behavior and lack of trust that has been exhibited by Israel. Long ago, God had entered into a covenant, promising to use these chosen people as a light to the nations, even entering into an everlasting covenant with the house of David. Yet, the people are now in exile. The glory days of kingdom and temple are gone. How dare God break covenant promises in this way! How could they still be a light to the nations? How could God still be committed to covenant promises if God had brought such judgement against the people??
The irony here is two-fold. If there is blame to be placed on violence being done to the covenant relationship between God and Israel, it rests solely with the party who had turned to sources of sustenance, trust, and commitment outside the covenant. That party was Israel. Further, who is to say that punishment, and thus suffering brought about by God necessarily means that God is in any way backing away from covenant promises? Perhaps God in judgement is in fact stubbornly refusing to give up on the covenant, continuing to pursue the promises made therein while leaving the door open for the real estranged party to return and be a part of God’s mission as intended.4
How could Israel have missed this, have gotten the scenario so backwards and wrong? Simple really — by not looking and, especially, not listening. Israel’s propensity to fail at these basic tasks is clearly highlighted elsewhere by the prophet.5 But then comes the servant, saying, “The Lord God has given me a tongue of taught ones.”6 Unfortunately, many translations render limmudim as “teacher.” However, the sense is not someone who is teaching, but rather someone who is being taught — a student or disciple. In other words, the servant has a tongue attached to eyes that still effort to see in order to perceive, and ears that strain to hear in order to understand — not to a brain that thinks it has absorbed all the information it needs, knows it all, and thus thinks and speaks misinformation and misrepresentations.
“Morning by morning,” (verse 4b) in other words, daily, the Lord God “wakens”7 the ears of the servant so that they might listen like the ears of those who are taught (same root word as earlier in verse). Verse five continues the ear motif, saying that “The Lord God has opened my ear.” Furthermore, the servant does not resist being taught, being thus stirred up by God.
One who has this disposition toward God, having the ears of a student, indeed open ears, is someone who is in a close relationship with God — a relationship from which Israel had backed away and in so doing brought punishment upon themselves with the exile.
Nevertheless, this open-eared, receptive servant also endures harsh treatment — suffering. The text is unclear as to the exact source or reason. The automatic assumption of the times would be that the receptor of such suffering had done something to deserve it, that the person is guilty in some way and worthy of shame — bringing upon themselves the righteous wrath of God. But that’s not the case here.
Unlike the Israelites who are deserving of their punishment, the servant neither scoffs at God nor pushes back on the justification of the suffering. Instead, the servant professes that suffering is not a sign of abandonment, insisting in verse seven that there has been no disgrace and will be no shame. In verse eight, the servant challenges anyone to see things otherwise.
If anyone will take on ears or eyes as stirred up and open as those of the servant, they will know that it is Israel who is guilty and should be ashamed. Their plight is the result of their dumping God, not of God dumping them. So, while there is punishment to be endured, it is punishment wrought by a God who has not abandoned this people or God’s covenant with them.
The servant is certain of vindication, despite suffering. Israel can be equally as certain of vindication. It may not be one that Deutero-Isaiah’s contemporaries (at least not all of them) will directly see or hear, but it will be no less wrought by the God who refuses to accept the breaking of covenant with them. No frivolous divorce writ has come to light. The heavenly host has yet to declare bankruptcy. Somehow, God will still make this rebellious people a light to the nations. From the eternal covenant with David will yet come one who will embody what it means to be messiah for all God’s people.
The hymn in Philippians opens up a different dimension of Palm/Passion Sunday.
There is no triumphal entry into Jerusalem, no last supper, no betrayal by Judas, no complicit religious leaders, and no Roman overlords. Instead, it offers an intimate view of Christ’s passion revealed through his attitudes and actions. Paul then pushes this intimacy further by inviting us to adopt the mind of Christ.
Philippians 2:6-11 bear more in common with poetry than systematic theology. There are echoes here of Genesis (“Adam” who is in the likeness of God, but who disobeys God), as well as John (in the movement from being with God to taking on the form of human likeness). Yet there are also enough differences to caution against using the one to interpret the other. In the hymn, Christ (unlike Adam in Genesis) exchanges one form for another, and nothing is said about Christ revealing God (John’s “Word became flesh”).
To complicate things further, the hymn also contains language found nowhere else in the New Testament (such as morphe, “form;” harpagmos, “plunder”) or in Paul (isos, “equal”). It also employs words that, only here, are used in reference to Christ (see upekoos, “obedient”). All of these caution against trying to find meaning too precisely. Rather, it may be more productive to leave space for questions, or to explore images that draw us into the mind of Christ.
Philippians 2:6-7 describe Christ’s movement from the “form” (morphe) of God to the “form” (morphe) of a slave, born in human likeness (homoiomati anthropon). Homoiomati can refer to both similarities in appearance as well as similarities in experience. The English creates some confusion in Philippians 2:7 by translating the phrase parallel to “human likeness” as “human form.” The word translated “form” is not morphe but sxemati. Like homoiomati (“likeness”) sxemati can describe outward appearance. It can also refer to the way or nature of life. Together, morphe and sxemati round out the idea of becoming human to suggest that Christ enters into the fullness of that experience.
To what extent do we allow ourselves to fully enter into the experience of being human? What does that mean? How does this experience align us with other human beings? With Christ?
The parallel use of morphe (“form”) suggests that the primary contrast lies here, between the form of God and the form of a slave. In terms of the social hierarchy of the ancient world (much alive in the world today), the contrast could not be more extreme. God is the one who reigns above all other rulers, before whom every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth bends (the earth here conceived of as a flat surface). In between God and slaves are many social strata, each one serving those above while also being served by those below. A slave, however, only serves. A slave owes absolute obedience.
Where do we view ourselves in relation to the social strata that describe our contexts? Whom do we serve, either because we choose to or because social custom mandates it? Who is below us in the social strata? Who is above? How is this evidenced? Have you ever experienced a change in social status? How did that feel? What did you notice?
Christ, says the hymn, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” It is difficult to know how “equality” is to be understood here. The word isos leans more toward equivalent than identical. There can be no question, however, that Christ has a status similar to the status of God.
More intriguing is the word translated as “exploited.” Hapargmos is a noun rather than a verb (as the English suggests), and is perhaps best described by words such as “plunder” or “booty.” It was common practice for soldiers (or robbers) to claim goods, properties, and people as part of their due wages — as something to which they had a right. To say that Christ did not count equality with God as “booty” is to say that, although he had a right to that status, he did not claim it as his due.
The English says that Christ “emptied himself.” There is no uniform understanding of what this means. Yet it must be understood somehow in relation to what Christ possesses that makes him equivalent in some way to God, and which he utterly abandons in order to take on the status of a slave. In Philippians 2:8 the hymn fills out this idea by saying that Christ “humbled himself.” The Greek tapeinoo can mean to either cause someone to lose status (“humble”) or to lower one’s own status. It is critical here to notice that the text says Christ humbled himself.
In the passion narratives of the Gospels, the emphasis is on how Christ is humiliated — spat upon, tortured, crucified. Here, no one does this to Christ. He chooses for himself. In emptying himself of his status, he does give up his self; rather he gives full expression to his self in his obedience to God.
Have you ever willingly given up a bonus? A raise? A title? Or chosen not to push for something that you perceive is your ‘right’ by virtue of status, such as gender, race, or class?
Other texts in the New Testament ascribe various meanings to Christ’s death. Philippians does not, except to say that Christ’s fully embracing the human experience as a slave in order to fulfill his sense of obedience to God leads to his exaltation. Paul urges us to take on the mind of Christ. Only we can determine for ourselves what this means. But the model we have requires that we carefully scrutinize ourselves, that we do not discount the ‘booty’ we possess but rather recognize it for what it is, and consider carefully what we need to empty ourselves of in order to be faithful to God and to Christ who shows us the way.