Commentary on Luke 23:32-47
Often, there is no sermon on Good Friday.
The reading of Luke’s Passion story from Jesus’ prayer in the garden to his burial (22:39-23:56) is the focus of the service. Perhaps the story is read by different voices with hymns corresponding to portions of the reading. If there is a sermon, poetry may be better than prose or silence after each portion of the story.
If our reading begins with 23:32 the background has already been set for the death penalty. Jesus was kept in custody by the religious authorities all night. In the morning, he was questioned by the religious leaders, then Pilate, then Herod, then back to Pilate. The charges against him were all political: perverting our nation, forbidding payment of taxes to the emperor, and claiming to be a king. (23:1) Finally, Pilate left the verdict up to the people: “Jesus or Barabbas?” Barabbas. Bar-meaning “Son.” abbas — meaning “Father/Papa.” Barabbas: Son of the Father.
We remember the words Jesus heard from heaven at his baptism: “You are my Son, the beloved.” Jesus, Son of the Father. Barabbas, Son of the Father. Which will they choose? Pilate gave in to the demands of the crowd and released Barabbas. Then he handed Jesus over to be crucified. This is where we enter the story …
“Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.” This detail sets up the later dialogue with the criminals and places Jesus among the condemned. As in life, so in death, Jesus spent time with outcasts. They were crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left.
In Matthew and Mark, two disciples asked for places at Jesus’ right and left hand. Surely this wasn’t what they had in mind. From the cross Jesus speaks words found only in Luke: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Some manuscripts omit these words and it’s not clear if Jesus means the criminals or those who condemned him. But the theme of forgiveness is consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching: love your enemies (6:27, 35) and offer unending forgiveness to those who repent (17:4). Of course, there is no report here of the authorities repenting.
Luke marks a distinction between the people and the leaders. “The people stood by, watching … ” Were they the women who had come from Galilee (23:49)? Were they the ones who had praised Jesus for his deeds of power when he entered the city (19:37)? If they were followers of Jesus, they were brave to even be there. There was nothing they could do to stop what was happening.
But the leaders didn’t stand by silently. They scoffed at Jesus with words echoing the devil’s taunts in the wilderness. Luke ended his temptation story in Jerusalem on the pinnacle of the temple: “IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Now Jesus has come again to Jerusalem and has been raised up on a deadly pinnacle. The devil’s words reverberate: “Let him save himself, IF he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers’ taunts were more political: “IF you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They must have been laughing when they posted the inscription over Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.” Some king! With that sign they mocked Jesus and all the Jews along with him.
One more taunt comes at Jesus, this time from one of the criminals: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” While the others chided Jesus to save himself, this criminal also wants Jesus to save him. Why not, IF he’s the Messiah? But the other criminal confesses his own guilt and declares Jesus innocent. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus assured him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” This condemned man saw what Jesus’ disciples failed to see or understand. “The repentant criminal thus becomes the only person to recognize that rejection and death are for Jesus the way to royal power at the right hand of God.”1
Jesus will hang on the cross for three more hours. We might imagine Pilate, still uneasy after the morning’s trial. He was eager for Sabbath to come for even he knew that the Jews wouldn’t cause trouble on the Sabbath. He looked at his watch. “Strange,” he said to himself, “so dark at noon and it doesn’t look like rain.” Jesus does not cry out in despair as in Mark and Matthew. His dying words are the psalmist’s words of deep assurance: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Psalm 31:5) Then Jesus breathed his last. It was a Roman soldier, a centurion, who dared to challenge this deadly verdict: “Certainly this man was innocent.” A criminal and a centurion both saw the truth.
Though our appointed text ends with Jesus’ death, it is important to read to the end of the chapter. A good and righteous man named Joseph came to get Jesus’ body. He was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, waiting as Simeon and Anna had waited in the temple. (2:25) Strange, isn’t it? When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger as Mary and Joseph watched over him. Now another Joseph came and wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth and laid him in the tomb. Jesus is not sleeping. Jesus is dead and we pray for him:
We commend to almighty God our brother Jesus,
and we commit his body to its resting place:
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The Lord bless him and keep him.
The Lord’s face shine on him with grace and mercy.
The Lord look upon him with favor and give him peace. Amen.2
1 Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 279.
2 Commital service from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2006) 284.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Dust and rocks groan. Deserts and prairies weep. Bushes and trees moan. Rivers and oceans roar. Animals of land, sea, and sky recoil. Sun cowers and moon wanes. Humanity fails. And darkness laughs. But it will not have its way with us forever. Amen.
Crucifixus, Antonio Lotti