Lectionary Commentaries for March 20, 2016
Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 22:14—23:56

Robert Hoch

“Which is more amazing,” asks Karl Barth, “to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?”

[Preaching on the Procession of Palms text? See this commentary on Luke 19 by Michael Joseph Brown.]

So Barth began his Good Friday sermon on Luke’s account of the two criminals with whom Jesus was crucified. Preached for the inmates of the Prison of Basel in 1957, Barth’s sermon proves tantalizing as well as instructive even now, nearly sixty years on.

Interpreters will find the sheer expanse of the text assigned for Passion Sunday challenging. How to begin? For his sermon, Barth focused on Luke 23:39-43, the unlikely community of the crucified. With that image firmly in mind, he cast his sermonic eye over the larger narrative, particularly Luke’s account of the Lord’s Supper in 22:14-23 as well as the contrast between the “indissoluble” community of criminals and the “vacillating” community of disciples. While you may choose a different image, the strategy used by Barth commends itself.

This text begs for a theological reading and Barth does not disappoint. Barth’s sermon delves into themes of solidarity between Jesus and the criminals, but it does not stop there. He describes Jesus’ suffering as the visible sign of God’s invisible grace. Although it seems impossible on the surface that Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death could “accomplish” anything good, Barth insists that where humankind intended evil, God produced the good.2

However “distant” our experience of God’s work of reconciliation, Luke testifies that in Christ’s suffering, God’s kingdom has drawn near.

As evidence, consider the paradox of distance and nearness in this text and beyond. Luke plays with the irony of those who are “close” to Jesus (even “laying hands” on him) and yet remain indescribably far from him. A few examples …  

•     Jesus immerses himself in prayer while the disciples, who are just a “stone’s throw” distant, are overcome with grief and go to sleep (22:45);

•     Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, the kinship of the kiss eclipsed by the enormity of the betrayal (47b);

•     Not only does Peter reverse his confession of 9:20, his three-fold denial, “I do not know him!” (57b), amplifies the physical distance he keeps from Jesus in the courtyard outside the high priest’s house where Jesus is being interrogated (22:54);

•     Likewise, the Roman soldiers deride Jesus: “Prophesy! Who slapped you in the face?” (64b). What might have been prayer, turns into mocking abuse; those who might have worshipped God, instead abused him.

In each case, the distance seems irrevocable and yet, curiously, Luke insists that Jesus remains radically present to those who would betray, deny, or cast derision upon him.

With the criminals, Jesus’ nearness takes on the form of solidarity in suffering, according to Barth. But something greater than solidarity is at stake: “We do well to remember that this [reconciliation] is what those who put him to death really accomplished. They did not know what they did.”3 They may not have known, but in Barth’s theology, Christ, God’s Son, surely knew.

Moreover, Jesus’ proximity to suffering is hardly benign or passive. What Barth says of the two criminals that were crucified with Jesus, we might extend to each of the characters in this text: “Nor could they escape his dangerous company.”4

In Luke’s account, distance does not mitigate or otherwise diminish the dangerous company of Christ.

In this connection, Fred Craddock describes three responses to the “spectacle” (Luke 23:48b) of Jesus’ death in verses 45-49: (a) in the person of the Roman soldier (47); (b) the crowds who returned home “beating their breasts” (48); (c) and in Jesus’ “acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee” who “stood at a distance, watching these things” (49).5

Craddock recalls earlier uses of this expression at Luke 16:23, 18:13, and 22:54. It turns out that in Luke’s estimation, distance is a tensive rather than absolute quality. For instance, in 16:23, distance awakens the formerly sleepy conscience of the rich man, wallowing in a sea of torment, as he contemplates God’s mercy for poor Lazarus.

It can also be a sign of humility, as it was for the tax collector who stood “far off” from the temple (Luke 18:13). Paradoxically, the tax collector was closer to God in the knowledge of his sin than the Pharisee was in the conceit of his good works.

As a witness to the “spectacle” of Jesus’ death, the Roman soldier watches as a matter of duty rather than devotion (Luke 23:47). The realist artist, Joseph Hirsch, gives us “eyes” to see this distance in his work, The Crucifixion (1945). Hirsch places the viewer behind the crucified, with all but Jesus’ left arm obscured by the cross itself.

Instead of Christ, an object of religious devotion, the viewer sees the round face and well-muscled torso of a Roman soldier, apparently whistling a cheerful tune as he aims his hammer at one of the iron nails that will fasten Jesus’ arm to the cross.

The Crucifixion reflects a grotesque activity treated as an ordinary task,” comments Robert Henkes.6

Hirsch succeeds in conveying the deep disconnect between Christ’s passion and the mindless exercise of duty. However, in Luke’s masterly command of the narrative, even this distance collapses: “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent’” (47).

To be sure, this text invites its readers to turn the page, to follow Jesus’ acquaintances and the women who joined him from Galilee, to see what will happen next. Readers familiar with Luke will recall the return of the prodigal son, will remember how it was with the father who saw him, how he was filled with compassion “while [his son] was still far off” (Luke 15:20). Though we may be far from God, God is never far from us.

Even so, on this Passion Sunday, perhaps the sermon should linger in the dangerous space of Luke’s gospel, standing at a distance, “watching these things” (49).


Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1978), 76.    

Ibid., 77-81.

Ibid., 80.

Ibid., 78.

Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 275.

Robert Henkes, The Crucifixion in American Art (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003), 76.


Alternate Gospel

Commentary on Luke 19:28-40

Michael Joseph Brown

In today’s Gospel text, we find a man who must enjoy living on the edge.

Jesus is a mysterious figure throughout the gospels, but here in Luke we get a distinctive glimpse into the ministry of our Lord. (One of the obvious mysteries that should be highlighted is the absence of palms in this story about Palm Sunday. We only find palms mentioned in John 12:13, 18.) Our attention in examining this week’s reading will involve exploring three questions.

What did Jesus think was going to happen on a Passover trip to Jerusalem? The Passion narrative, as a whole, is the most coherent part of the Jesus story, and so here we find much more agreement than we do in the literary representations of Jesus’ ministry in the other gospels. Nevertheless, Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem during the feast of Passover. Although not the most celebrated feast in the second temple period, Passover is, arguably, the most volatile and political. Passover is meant to invoke and memorialize the divine act of liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression. The blood of the lambs on the doorposts of the Hebrews saved them from the death that visited Egypt. Further, the Passover feast serves as a kind of shorthand for the entire Exodus experience — leaving Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, God’s election of Israel at Sinai, the giving of the commandments, the wandering in the wilderness, and the eventual movement into Canaan. God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day must have resonated in the minds of the Jews in their second temple celebrations of the event. The political — nay, the revolutionary — runs through the entire feast. This explains why Pontius Pilate and his legions would have left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem.

The Romans distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings such as the one we find in Jerusalem. For example, in his letter to Pliny the Younger, the emperor Trajan (c. 111 CE) wrote, “When people gather together for a common purpose — whatever name we may give them and whatever function we may assign them — they soon become political groups.” Put bluntly, give people enough time and space and they will soon turn against you. This suspicion, already embedded in this scene, haunted the Christian movement on its path to legitimacy under the rule of Constantine.

They had a reason to be concerned. Roman imperialism placed heavy burdens — both human and financial — on its conquered provinces. Portrayed by Augustus and his successors as a positive circumstance, even as a Golden Age for humanity, imperial Rome generated feelings of hatred and contempt from many of its subjects. Pointing to their feelings, the writer Tacitus said, “[The Romans] rob, they slaughter, they plunder — and they call it ‘empire.’ Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace.’” Thus, when Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem, he is placing himself in a dangerous situation — a cauldron of political intrigue and a potential disruption of the pax Romana (i.e., the Roman peace).

What role does Zechariah 9:9 play in our understanding of this text? Many commentators point to this prophecy from Zechariah as the backdrop for the events that take place in this scene. Matthew attempts to follow the prophecy slavishly. Luke picks up the gist of the reference, following the Gospel of Mark. (John makes no mention of an animal carrying Jesus on his final visit to Jerusalem.) Outside of reading it against Zechariah 9, the narrative is more mysterious than candid. Luke’s story is the only one that tells of their placing Jesus on a colt. And while there is much in this procession scene that bespeaks royalty, there is no place in the Hebrew Bible where we find kings riding on colts like this. So while it is clear that the “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem is meant to praise Jesus as God’s envoy or agent, it is not as clear that Jesus is a triumphant king riding into his capital.

The echo of Zechariah 9:9 may have been a creation of the church, specifically the gospel writers, who either read Jesus’ actions that day as a reference back to the prophet or introduced it into the story to clarify Jesus’ status. By contrast, this echo, which runs throughout the Synoptics, may indicate that Jesus fully realized and took on the mantle of his messiahship. Most likely, the invocation of Zechariah 9 represents a combination of fact and interpretation. In other words, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt. Nevertheless, a Hebrew Bible passage helped to shape the narrative as we have it, but it did not create it. Consequently, the prophecy serves to heighten the drama of the Gospel narrative.

The location and those praising Jesus are a little ambiguous, as well. The exact relationship between Bethany and Bethphage is uncertain. Bethany was more familiar to early readers than Bethphage. Some believe that Bethphage was a district of which Bethany was a part. According to John 12:1, it was the home of Lazarus and his sisters. Of interest is Luke’s omission of the supper at Bethany with Simon the Leper. The pilgrimage is simpler. Jesus would have been part of a large caravan of pilgrims. Thus, whether it was everyone in the group, or just “the whole multitude of the disciples,” who praised Jesus appears to be of little consequence.

Why does Luke downplay the political significance of Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem? The answer may lie in Luke 19:38, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” This is a clear echo of the angels in 2:14. In contrast to the other gospels, Luke presents a Jesus who represents peace. Was this an attempt on his part to disassociate Jesus from the enemies of Israel? Is it a tacit acknowledgement that acting on behalf of freedom is a dangerous thing? I doubt any of us will ever know. All of us are ambiguous characters. In fact, it is precisely at the edges of existence where we encounter God the strongest.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

Callie Plunket-Brewton

Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of a larger poem that extends to 50:11.1

Its subject is a servant of God (50:10), who speaks of his life in God’s service with both pride and pugnacity. The poem begins with his boast of being attentive to the word of God (verse 4), and he proclaims that his calling is “to sustain the weary with a word.” Then the poem takes a surprising turn: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from disgrace and spitting” (verse 6). 

This poem is in that portion of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) written in the final years of the Babylonian exile, so speaking a message of comfort to the weary exiles of that time would seem to be a compelling and attractive calling. Inviting torture is less so. And yet this servant, suffering so horribly, goes on to declare, “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced…” (verse 7a) and “he who vindicates me is near…” (verse 8a), all the while daring those who would oppose him to come forward and confront him!

He is a compelling and strong character, whose dignity and ferocity are at odds with his beaten visage, and the prophet of Second Isaiah offers him to the people in exile as a powerful symbol of courage and hope in the midst of profound suffering. Indeed, the prophet offers the model of the servant to the people and calls them to be like him — to understand their own suffering as he does — rooted in the call to be faithful servants of God.

There are several poems in Isaiah 40-55 whose focus is this individual whom God calls “my servant.” These include 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12. While there has been a tendency to view these poems as sounding a distinct note within Second Isaiah and excising them from their context, contemporary scholarship has moved away from this treatment of the servant poems and made solid arguments for regarding them as integral to Second Isaiah’s work and message. 

Understood within the context of Second Isaiah, the servant poems are best seen as part of the prophet’s effort to inspire and transform the people in exile from seeing themselves as helpless slaves of Babylon (see Isaiah 49:7) to servants of God, endowed with dignity and purpose. This commentary is not the place for a comprehensive study of the imagery of the servant in Second Isaiah, but a few notes on servant imagery within the book might be helpful:

No Name

The servant of God is never given a name in these poems, suggesting that the poems about the servant are not descriptions of a historical individual (or, at least, are not only descriptions of an actual person) but are deliberately non-specific in order to allow the people to imagine themselves as the servant. When there is a particular name associated with the servant, the name is “Israel” or “Jacob” (41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3, 5-6), indicating that the prophet’s intent is for the people as a whole to see themselves as the servant and not to associate the term with one particular person.

Blameless Individual

The servant of these four servant poems is a blameless individual, whose faithfulness to God is unparalleled and whose suffering is extreme (see especially 52:13-53:12). Some have argued that the servant cannot possibly be the people in exile because they were not beyond reproach, but Second Isaiah begins with the admission that the suffering of the people has exceeded the fault: “[Jerusalem] has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:2b).

Also consider the perspective of 52:4-5, which reads: “Now therefore what am I doing here, says the Lord, seeing that my people are taken away without cause?” The above examples demonstrate that there is room within the framework of Second Isaiah to regard the people in exile as suffering undeservedly. 


The people to whom the prophet writes were living in exile, but there is only a single mention of the people serving Babylon in Second Isaiah. In fact, Babylon is not even mentioned by name in that single text: “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” (49:7a). 

The Hebrew word translated “slave” here is the same word translated as “servant” in the texts that speak of God’s servant in the rest of Second Isaiah. Considering the fact that the people in exile were under the control of Babylon, it is surely significant that the prophet does not speak of their lives and their labor as belonging to anyone but God. As God’s own servant, the people are divinely called and empowered, and they will ultimately be vindicated (42:1, 6-7; 43:10; 44:1-5; 49:1-6; 50:4, 7-9; 52:13, 53:5, 10-12). 

Reading Isaiah 50:4-9a in light of the servant imagery we find throughout Isaiah 40-55 highlights the fact that the servant is not to be viewed simply as a description of a particular person in history. Open ears, learned and sustaining speech, a staunch faith and a willingness to suffer are the hallmarks of the ideal servant of God. God’s calling to be “my servant” is issued to the people in exile, struggling to maintain their identity as God’s own people in the midst of the Babylonian empire. It is a powerful calling, and it issues through the ages to Judea in first century ce and to us as well. 

This poem is, of course, the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, which is the Sunday of the Passion. This text will serve as background for most sermons delivered this Sunday, but it is my hope that it will deepen our sense of gratitude for the one we profess as Christians to have fulfilled the calling to be God’s servant in the truest sense.

I hope that gratitude is not the only response to this servant song and to the story of the Passion, however. In both the Passion of Christ and the suffering of the servant of God in Second Isaiah, a call is issued. The call is not to a life of ease but to a life in the service of God, grounded in our faith. May our ears ever be open to the word of God and our mouths ever ready to speak a word of comfort. May our faces never be hidden out of fear or shame because the God “who vindicates me is near.” 


1. This commentary was first published on this site on March 24, 2013.


Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16

Amanda Benckhuysen

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, a time in the Christian calendar when we journey with Christ to the cross, remembering Christ’s suffering for our sake as well as our own dying with Christ in the waters of baptism.

Holy week can be a time for reorienting ourselves again to the ways of the kingdom of God where suffering rather than a sword brings freedom and life, where the humbled are exalted, where the last become first.

While the temptation this week may be to focus almost exclusively on the Gospel or Epistle selections, the Holy Week psalms can be a valuable resource for reflecting more deeply on the significance of Christ’s passion for our daily life with God. Through the psalms, Christ joins his voice with ours and we with his, raging against the darkness of this world, naming the daring and unwelcome truth that things are not the way they are supposed to be, while clinging to the audacious hope that in Christ, God is making all things new. Through the psalms, we voice our conviction that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).

As a psalm of lament, Psalm 31 takes us to the heart of the passion narrative. The nature of the psalmist’s distress is described in broad terms using images of physical illness, isolation, mental anguish, and persecution. The cyclical nature of the psalm, moving as it does from lament to trust (vv. 1-8) to lament and trust again (vv. 9-13), gives the impression of sorrow upon sorrow, or a “life spent with sorrow,” which has left the psalmist at wits’ end, pushing him to the limit of human forbearance. This life of hardship threatens to undo the psalmist, his humanity, dignity, and spirit battered and bruised. “I have passed out of my mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel,” the psalmist moans (v.12).

This, however, is not the whole story. The psalmist knows that there is one who has both the power and the will to deliver him from his suffering. Casting himself upon the Lord, he cries, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress.” It is an act of resolve to trust in God, God’s goodness and God’s covenant loyalty, when it seems like God has abandoned him. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God (v. 14).” Allusions to God’s covenant with Israel are latent throughout this section of the psalm. Evoking the language of the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26, the psalmist prays, “let your face shine upon your servant (v. 16a),” appealing to the God who established Israel as his people so long ago, and promised to bless and keep them. He now asks that God would make good on this promise — that God would shine his face upon him. While not part of the lectionary reading, the psalm closes with shouts of praise that God has indeed responded to the psalmist’s plea and has manifested his covenant loyalty again in showing him steadfast love.

In the context of the passion of Christ, we are invited to read this psalm as a reflection of Christ’s own suffering. Certainly the psalmist’s complaint coincides well with the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9. Additionally, the gospel of Luke records Jesus praying the words of v. 5 in the final moments before his death, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46),” suggesting that Jesus himself identified with the psalmist’s sorrow.

This association of the psalmist’s suffering with that of Christ provides a number of fruitful avenues for reflection. First, in the act of praying these words, Christ quite explicitly takes on the suffering and hardship of the psalmist and by extension, all who would pray this lament. The implication here is profound. While it is common in North America to associate God’s presence with material blessing, implicitly identifying suffering and hardship with God’s absence, Luke and the New Testament writers clearly reject this theology. Instead, the association of Jesus’ suffering with the psalmist’s suggests that where there are cries of lament, where there is pain, where there is hardship, that is where Jesus is. Jesus took upon himself the pain of world, entering into the darkest places of this world to bring redemption.

Second, while Christ joins us in our suffering, taking our pain upon himself, his suffering is markedly different from our own. The lectionary’s careful selection of verses from this psalm (Psalm 31:9-16) signals this difference well. The psalmist, out of his pain and distress, goes on to pray in v. 17 for shame and death to come upon his enemies. Jesus, however, did not. “Forgive them,” Jesus cried, “for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” By contrast, Jesus absorbed the evil of his enemies and returned their ill will with love. In this sense, Christ’s suffering and death is unique because in the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, the cross puts an end to sin and evil, making possible a future world in which there will be no more suffering or pain.

As such, for all of us praying this prayer today, Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s answer to our lament. Yes, we live in a troubled world plagued by fear and insecurity, violence, racism, homelessness, disease, and senseless death. But we also live in a world in which Christ really died on a cross so that all could be made new. As we wait for that day when the fullness of the kingdom of God will be realized, the Scriptures invite us to join with the psalmist in saying, “I trust in you, for you are my God. Save us in your steadfast love.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

Sammy Alfaro

To our present American culture obsessed with taking selfies and getting the most likes, views, and follows on social media, Paul’s message to the Philippian church about having the mind and attitude of Christ is a slap in the face.

Significantly, it is worth noting the kenosis passage of Philippians 2:5-11, which ends with one of the highest Christological declarations in the Bible (vv 9-11), is written in direct response to the exhortation to put others first and place our own interests second (vv 3-4). To capture this, the New International Version transitions between the exhortation and example with the phrase: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (v 5). Thus, our reading of this passage on Palm/Passion Sunday is a much-needed sobering reminder that Christ’s road to exaltation came by way of the self-emptying of his life for others.

In the Philippian Greco-Roman context, Paul’s exhortation to humility following the example of Christ would have been heard as completely counter cultural. Roman culture placed great emphasis on fortitude, self-reliance, and indifference to circumstance. On the contrary, humility would be considered a shortcoming. More to the point, Philippians felt great civic pride due to their unique status as a Roman colony, which granted them Roman citizenship and absolved them from paying taxes to Caesar. In addition, their allegiance to Rome had given them considerable political and economic privileges that translated to higher social standing. First century Philippi was a city preoccupied with the procurement of honorific titles and offices: a culture where social standing was everything. So what happens when Roman citizens anxious about their social standing and desirous to move up the social ladder become part of the community of Christ? How would their sense of superiority and self-sufficiency be placed in check? Through a hymn (Philippians 2:6-11) meant to subvert arrogance, pride, and selfish ambition by juxtaposing these sinful vices with Christ’s supreme example of humility.  

With great irony one has to acknowledge that a passage theologically mined to excessive depths seeking to understand the very nature of the person of Christ in his pre-existent form, earthly manifestation and future glorification was in its origins a simple hymn sung by the early Christian communities. It defies theological snobbery to dwell upon the probability that Paul may have simply copied and pasted this poetic hymn from a worship set of the early church. It is almost like Paul is forcing the Philippians to listen to the actual words of one of their most precious hymns in order for them to reckon that their attitude and corresponding actions do not align with those of Christ who is the Supreme Lord of the church. What a great wake up call to consider how at times our beautiful rendition of worship lyrics might be nullified by behavior that denies we have the mind of Christ. Through this Christ hymn, the original readers were challenged to see the humility of Christ as the highest virtue for being in community.

Perhaps as they hummed the familiar melody while rereading the words of the Christ hymn, they would realize the folly of their presumptuous conduct with one another. Such is the power of worship transforming our hearts; for as we gaze at his presence we become more aware of our shortcoming of being more like Christ. Even the most educated person of high social or political rank in the Philippian congregation could not compare him or herself to the equal nature and standing that Christ Jesus had with the God of the universe (Philippians 2:6). And yet, he stepped down from his glorious position with God and entered into our earthly realm by triply emptying himself becoming a nobody, living in the condition of a slave, and dying the death of a criminal on account of his divine selflessness. Here is the divine mystery of the ages: the glorious Son of God became one of us through his incarnation in order to serve us and die our death. What utter contradiction of terms for the Philippian community to fathom: the Servant Lord dying out of love for those who are lesser than he. In a culture obsessed with attaining social status, where lords are served and servants are expected to die for those in power, supreme status and authority are given to Him who humbled himself. Thus, if Christ’s road to exaltation came by way of his passion, suffering, and death, our aim as his followers should be to imitate him in his humble service toward others.

As we prepare our hearts to virtually walk the way of the cross this upcoming week as we meditate upon his passion, let us remember his self-emptying as a model for living in relationship with others. A life well lived is a life lived with others’ best interest in mind. But unlike Philippian society much of our life is lived in the world created by social media platforms, and at times we measure our status by the number of likes and followers we are able to generate. Don’t get me wrong; social media can be a great tool for cultivating relationships. Yet, the narcissistic abuse of social media is such that at times even Christians cannot escape it. Even for pastors and church leaders the virtual reach of our message becomes more important than the content and its edifying purpose for others. Let’s face it; we covet likes, shares, and retweets as if they were really worth something. What if in the modern extension of our lives through social media as well as in our face-to-face interactions we sought not so much to be ourselves, but to truly be Christ-like in our words and actions. Beware the contemporary vice of worshipping with phone in hand as we take pics and upload selfies being more worried about someone liking our most recent post instead of worshipping Christ and seeking to live like Him for others.