Commentary on Luke 23:32-47
Luke goes to great lengths to characterize Jesus’ death as a continuation of his ministry.
Maintaining continuity between Jesus’ ministry and his death provides one key marker of healthy theology. Jesus announced the reign of God. His works of compassion restored people to wholeness. Dining with Pharisees and sinners alike, Jesus demonstrated the all-inclusive nature of God’s reign. His parables invited people to imagine a world in which Samaritans demonstrate righteousness, scoundrels model wisdom, and widows win justice. His path led him to Jerusalem, where crowds acclaimed him as king while he took possession of the halls of power. For Luke, and for good theology, Jesus approaches his death just as he lived.
Some folks accuse Paul of creating a rift between Jesus’ life and death. Paul committed no such error. In perhaps Romans’ key passage, Paul insists that God demonstrates God’s righteousness precisely through Jesus’ own faithfulness. Our translations have tended to read, “faith in Jesus Christ,” where Paul means something much broader and far more compelling: “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:21-26). Surely Paul has Jesus’ death in view, but he also appeals to Jesus’ life. The faithfulness Jesus demonstrated throughout his life — even in death — demonstrates God’s righteousness in a decisive way.
We all know the kind of bad theology that has little to say about Jesus apart from his death. It almost seems that Luke knows that kind of theology too. Luke refuses to identify Jesus’ death as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), but instead refers to Jesus’ death as his “exodus” (9:31). To be sure, Luke perceives the crucifixion as part of the larger divine plan (esp. 9:22; 24:44-47). Jesus’ death is “for you” in a profound way (22:19-20). Jesus’ death is an essential component of the Gospel story. But in a unique way Luke demonstrates how Jesus faced death just as he had lived.
Living for Others to the End
Many churches recognize Good Friday with a Seven Last Words service that includes the reading of all seven sayings attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This reading, Luke 23:32-47, includes three of those sayings. Indeed, these three sayings occur uniquely in Luke and they convey Luke’s distinctive emphasis regarding Jesus’ death. Jesus lived in faith, and he lived for others; he dies in faith and for others as well.
Luke has already shown Jesus’ orientation toward others just verses ahead of this reading. At Luke 23:27, Jesus encounters a crowd, including women who are mourning on his behalf. Jesus turns the tables of lament, saying, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (23:28). Jesus has already lamented Jerusalem on two occasions (13:34-35; 19:41-44). His words here simply reiterate that concern.
Jesus’ first word within our passage poses a vexing textual problem. Some very important manuscripts lack Jesus’ famous prayer, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34; see Acts 7:60). At the same time, several considerations lend themselves to including the saying in Luke’s text. In my view, a faithful preacher may include the saying, perhaps with brief recognition of the problem, for it is consistent with Luke’s larger presentation of Jesus. Even during the act of crucifixion, Jesus voices his compassion for those who harm him.
How does forgiveness relate to repentance? Luke is famous for emphasizing repentance (5:32; 15:7, 10; Acts 2:38), but Luke often portrays instances in which Jesus pronounces forgiveness apart from overt demonstrations of repentance (see especially 7:36-50; 19:1-10). In this case Jesus seeks forgiveness for others even as they mock, torture, and kill him.
Jesus addresses his second saying to the thief on the cross. With the “leaders of the people” mocking Jesus along with the soldiers (23:35-38), one of the criminals insults him as well. The other criminal rebukes the first and implores, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). As he has so many times in Luke, Jesus again opens the path of blessing to a sinner: “today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).
Quite a few interpreters have pointed out that Mark 15:27 identifies the “criminals” crucified alongside Jesus as lestai, often interpreted as “rebels” rather than “thieves” (the New International Version now adopts “rebels”). The implication would be that their crime involved sedition rather than ordinary banditry. However, Luke labels the men as “criminals” or “evildoers,” while the second criminal acknowledges, “We have been condemned justly” (23:41). Luke’s point is that even as he faces death the innocent Jesus considers the salvation of sinners.
We arrive at Jesus’ final words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46). Here Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5 (and not Psalm 22:1, as in Mark and Matthew). Luke’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ prayer life more than any of the others — and at key moments in his ministry such as his baptism (3:21), his selection of the disciples (6:12-13), the revelation of his messianic identity (9:18), and his transfiguration (9:28-29). He instructs his disciples to pray for strength in time of crisis (21:36; 22:40), and he prays in particular for Simon Peter (22:31). This life, defined by prayer and offered in trust, ends in faithful prayer.
Jesus’ final three sayings epitomize the larger story Luke has told. Jesus has lived for others. Trusting in a forgiving God, he forgives sinners freely. Whether they abuse him or seek his blessing, Jesus continues his work of healing and reconciliation, demonstrating his remarkable trust all the way to the end. Jesus’ death is important for Luke, not as a vicarious sacrifice, but as the culmination of his larger vocation.