Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

The “longer” reading assigned for this Sunday consists of 114 verses; the alternate, “shorter” reading (Luke 23:1-49) consists of 49.

Entry into the City
Detail from "Entry into the City," John August Swanson. Used with permission from the artist. Image © 1990 by John August Swanson, 36” by 48”,  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 24, 2013

View Bible Text

Commentary on Luke 22:14—23:56

The “longer” reading assigned for this Sunday consists of 114 verses; the alternate, “shorter” reading (Luke 23:1-49) consists of 49.

The preacher has to make a decision about which is to be read during worship. Moreover, if one makes use of the reading for the “Procession with Palms” (Luke 19:28-40), an additional 13 verses will be read.

In regard to the sermon, not all the features of these texts can be dealt with in much detail. In fact, if there is a Procession with Palms and the reading of either the longer or the shorter Gospel for the Day, it is particularly necessary to make a crucial decision about where one’s focus should be.

As background for further consideration, there are a few distinctive things about Luke’s Passion Narrative that stand out. Only those that pertain to the “shorter” reading of 23:1-49 will be listed here (they are relevant to the longer reading too). They include the following:

            (1) On Thursday evening, after his arrest, Jesus is brought to the high priest’s house (22:54) and is apparently kept in the compound as a prisoner over night. The Jewish Interrogation (22:54-71) is set on Friday morning (22:66) rather than on Thursday evening, as in the other Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:53 and Matthew 26:57). Following the interrogation, Jesus is brought that same morning before Pontius Pilate (23:1) where the shorter reading begins.

            (2) The charges against Jesus in 23:3-5 are distinctive to Luke. They are more political than in the other gospels, and therefore of more interest to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The charges are threefold: Jesus perverts the nation, forbids taxes to Caesar, and claims to be a king.

            (3) As in the other gospels, Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges brought against him. But what is unusual is that he does so three times (23:4, 14, 22), as in the Gospel of John (18:38; 19:4, 6).

            (4) The scene of Jesus before Herod (Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, 4 B.C. to A.D. 39) in 23:6-12 is found only in Luke’s Gospel. Significantly, Herod also finds Jesus innocent of any crime (23:15).

            (5) The scene provided in 23:27-32 is also distinctive to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has a large following on the way to his crucifixion. That following includes women from the area (“the daughters of Jerusalem”). But there are more that show up later on. Early in his gospel Luke (alone among the evangelists) told of women accompanying Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and providing for him out of their resources (8:1-3). The same women from Galilee are present at the crucifixion (23:49).

            (6) In addition to the declarations by Pilate and Herod of the innocence of Jesus, there are more. One of the two thieves declares him innocent (23:41), and so does the centurion at the cross (23:47). Moreover, Joseph of Arimathea, “though a member of the council” that brought accusations against Jesus, “had not agreed with their plan and action” (23:50-51), which implies that he too thought that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him.

In all of this and more, Luke tells a story of an innocent man who was accused by the leaders of his own people for leading Israel astray and being seditious against the Roman government, and who was consequently put to death by the Roman authorities. As we read the story, it becomes clear that there was a miscarriage of justice. This execution should not have happened. Despite the motives of the accusers, no one in authority actually thought that their charges were valid. In the end, however, Pilate caved in and went along with the wish of the leaders of the Sanhedrin and the crowds.

In spite of the blatant injustice committed by those in power, Luke is explicit concerning a larger drama that was transpiring. Quoting Jesus’ own words, all took place to fulfill the Scriptures (18:31-33; 22:37; 24:26-27, 44, 46). Jesus had a vocation to fulfill, which Luke spelled out back in 9:51, still quite early in his earthly ministry: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” His being taken up refers to his resurrection and ascension, which would take place in Jerusalem.

Essentially the grand story of Luke’s Gospel is that which is summarized in a speech by the apostle Peter, as reported by Luke in Acts 10:36-43. It is the story of one who was anointed by the Spirit and power, who went about doing good and healing those in need, was killed, was raised on the third day, and appeared to his witnesses. In regard to the significance of his death and resurrection, those events were the means by which Jesus would “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26) and there assume a role that extends his ministry beyond the confines of Galilee and Judea.

All this can be expanded upon. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus carries on an extensive ministry of preaching and healing. He is a sympathetic figure to those in need. That is particularly highlighted in the Passion Narrative. There he expresses sympathy for the women (“the daughters of Jerusalem”) who were following him to the site of the crucifixion (23:27-30). In addition, Jesus expresses sympathy for the thief on the cross who asks to be remembered by Jesus in his kingdom. Jesus says to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).

Another feature of the ministry of the earthly Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is that he forgives sins. Instances can be seen at 5:20-24; 7:47-49; 19:7-10. Those acts were restricted to particular cases. But everything changed with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ suffering and entering into glory, and his being enthroned as Lord, the forgiveness of sins is available from him to “all nations” (24:47). That is the message that the apostles and missionaries of the early church had for the world. As Peter put it in the Book of Acts, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).

The compassion of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins in his name (on his behalf) are two of the themes that have drawn people to him in both is earthly ministry and in the centuries that have come and gone. Those themes are still powerful. They are also so very central to Christian faith. Christians may disagree on many issues. But the image of the compassionate Christ and the good news of the forgiveness of sins are at the heart of the matter for all believers.