Passion 4: Luke 23:26-49
An End and a Beginning
Have you ever experience an end only to find out it was a real beginning?
The tone of Luke's narrative changed from the question of innocence to a fulfillment of the divine plan. We must remember, however, that what God planned began on Good Friday and continues even today. In the next three mini-studies, we will peek into that plan.
A. The Way of the Cross
26 As they led HIM away, (the soldiers), having taken a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from the fields, placed the cross (beam) on him to carry behind JESUS. 27 A large number of the people were following him, (including) the women who mourned and lamented (over) him. 28 Having turned to them, Jesus said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not cry for me. Instead, cry for yourselves and your children. 29 For, look! The days are coming when (people) will say, 'Blessed are the sterile (women), the wombs which did not give birth and the breasts which did not feed.' 30 Then they will begin 'to say to the hills, 'Fall on us!' and to the mountains 'Cover us!' 31 For, if they do these things to the fresh wood, what will happen to the dried out (wood)?"
23:26-27 Notice everyone followed Jesus to Calvary in Luke: Simon the Cyrene, the crowd, and the women. In these passages, Luke fulfilled 9:22, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Everyone in the passage were implicitly Christians for they "followed him."
23:29 "Blessed are the sterile (women), the wombs which did not give birth and the breasts which did not feed." An unusual proverb which Jesus used in an eschatological context. In the time of Jesus, numerous children were considered to be an economic necessity and a support system for elderly parents. Factor in the extremely high mortality rate for children under 16 years old. The fertility of a woman became a large issue. Infertility might be grounds for gossip, family dishonor, and even divorce.
In the day of Lord, Jesus implied, fertility would be a curse because of the coming tribulation. The siege and fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. gave the proverb a context. Since many scholars believe the horrific events in the fall of city occurred prior to the publication of Luke's gospel, they maintain Luke emphasized it with the use of the proverb.
23:30 "'to say to the hills, 'Fall on us!' and to the mountains 'Cover us!'" Hosea 10:8c The context in Hosea is the day of Lord.
23:31 This parable of the green (rainy season) vs. dried out (dry season) wood is a summation of 29-30. The women weep for the injustice against the Master. But they should weep for that which is to come. It would be far worse. The verse on fertility and the one on the lament of the city point to the coming of the Lord in the Final Judgement. Many will experience extreme persecution in the end times. So, verse 31 placed the crucifixion in context. Only one was persecuted in the good times. But in the end, all will be affected by the Lord's wrath.
Luke changed the scene with an execution parade. Jesus led the mourners to the place of the "Skull," but turned to share a few words with the local women. In those few, brief remarks, Jesus compared the suffering of the day with those of the end times. On the day of the crucifixion, only one innocent man would suffer. In the end, the great tribulation would cause numerous innocents to suffer.
Notice Jesus used two parables that turned the expectations of common society upside down. Infertility and a quick death were diametrically opposed to everyone's desire for many children and a long life. The barren outcast would be called 'blessed' (a beatitude form!). The single woman (the least in the society) would suffer less than those with children. And the populace would desire a quick, sure end (from Hosea's prophecy of the last days). Mere existence in the underworld with one's ancestors would be better than living in such a time.
After these two images, Jesus added a third, the growth of the branch. If mourning in the time of peace was so terrible, imagine the lament in the time of war. According to Fr. Raymond Brown in his two volume work, "Death of the Messiah," the rule of Pilate was relatively peaceful. The Romans and populace had an uneasy, but working detente. Revolutionaries were few and the Jewish leadership at Jerusalem was in firm control. For Pilate and the Sanhedrin, this was the 'green' time.
But that time would pass. Pilate would be replaced. The make-up of the Sanhedrin would change. And the patience of the local populace would grow thin. Twenty years after the death of Jesus, revolution was in the air. Another ten years would pass by with the liberation of Jerusalem, the defeat of the regional Roman army, and the brutal Roman repression known as the "Great Jewish Wars." This was an era of violent change and violent repercussions. The children of the women who accompanied Jesus to the cross would indeed regret bearing children. They would wish for a quick death. The siege and fall of Jerusalem to the Romans had such unspeakable horrors. The experience of the locals in Jerusalem was as close to the final Tribulation as any would want to approach. In these terms, Jesus framed his reply to the "Daughters of Jerusalem."
What do you fear about the future? How have you presented those fears to God?
B. A Prayer, Three Insults, and A Change of Heart
32 (The soldiers) were leading two other criminals (along) with HIM to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called "Skull," there they crucified HIM and the two criminals, one to the right (of JESUS) and one to the left. 34 Jesus (kept) saying, "Father, forgive them. They do not understand what they do." Completely dividing up his clothes, (the soldiers) threw lots. 35 The people stood (there), watching (the spectacle). The leaders were insulting (HIM) as well, saying, "He saved others. Let him save himself if this ('man') is the Christ of God, the Chosen!" 36 The soldiers mocked HIM, approaching (HIM), offering HIM vinegary wine, 37 and saying "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself." 38 There was a notice above HIM: "This (MAN) is the King of the Jews."
39 One of the criminals having been hung (on a cross) blasphemed HIM, saying, "Are YOU not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40 Having answered, the other rebuking him said, "Do you not fear God since you are under the same judgment (as us)?" 41 Indeed, we (were treated) justly, for we received in the (same way) as what we did. But this (ONE) did nothing improper." 42 He said, "Jesus, remember me (kindly) when you come into your reign." 43 HE said to him, "Amen I say to you. Today you will be with me in paradise."
23:41 "(same way)" is literally "(same) worth." The "good thief" insisted he and the other criminal had received the same way they had taken. In other words, they were dying in shame because they lived shameful lives.
23:42 "Jesus, remember me (kindly) when you come into your reign." The "good thief" was asking for mercy in the Final Judgment. He acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and his function as Daniel's "Son of Man" who would come on the clouds as a judge.
23:43 "Today you will be with me in paradise." In the context of the conversation, Jesus was not referring to "today" as an immediate vision of paradise (i.e., heaven). He was speaking of an "eschatological" day (in the same sense God created the cosmos in seven days), the day of judgment. The day of crucifixion was the day of judgment, for the cross was the revelation of Jesus' reign. Those who believed would be saved on the day of crucifixion. In this sense, the "good thief" did not have to wait until Jesus came in glory. He was in his glory. And the thief was saved at that moment.
The scene at the crucifixion had two prayers bookend three insults. Both prayers use striking terms of intimacy. Jesus called God simply as "Father." The so-called "good thief" beckoned Jesus by his first name (the only time in Luke's gospel anyone called Jesus by his first name!). Both are prayers for mercy.
Jesus' brief, direct address of God was startling. No whether else in Scripture was a relationship with God so personalized. It was not "Our Father" which emphasized the group, or "Your Father" which emphasized the relationship between God and his followers. Simply, "Father." Luke recorded Jesus' title in five prayers: Luke 10:21-22 (Prayer of Revelation), 11:2-13 (Our Father), Luke 22:41 (Prayer in Garden at the Mount of Olives), and in the two prayers of Jesus on the cross (23:34 and 23:46) The address preceded a brief, direct prayer.
Jesus' prayer for forgiveness broke the flow of the narrative in an effective way, like a ray of light in a pitch black night. As the passages got bleaker, Jesus reached out to the Father for mercy on others! The dark character of the narrative would continue with the pattern of three. The leaders, then the soldiers, and, finally, the "bad thief" taunt Jesus about his status as "Messiah." Then, one voice recognized its plight and its justice. The "good thief" reached out for mercy in a direct, intimate manner. Possibly he could enjoy a taste of the mercy Jesus invoked upon his persecutors. Again the ray of hope shined.
The prayer of the "good thief" centered on the phrase "remember me." The Greek meaning for memory was more than a mental movie, replayed at the whim of the subject. To "remember" invoked the spirit of the person and/or experience from the past into the present. As such, the act of remembering was more communal than personal, more social than psychological. A modern family reunion is the best analogy for the ancient notion of memory imaginable. For the family gathers to bring alive an ancestor. Through the gathering of the living, a person from the past becomes tangible in the faces and the characters of his or her descendants.
There is a deeper meaning of memory, however, the "good thief" was invoking. In Luke 20:27-40, the Sadducees argued with Jesus against the resurrection of the dead. To answer, Jesus referred to the title "the 'living' God." This God was not a dead god of stone, but a God alive and active in the lives of people. Those he remembered, those he brought alive from the past were truly alive for all to see! "Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him." (Luke 20:38) When the "good thief implored the Lord to remember him when HE came into his reign, the man really asked to raised with the just in God's Kingdom.
The "good thief" looked forward to the coming Kingdom. So his prayer was short and direct. Jesus' answer must have been as startling: "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Not only would the thief live. He would live that day with Jesus and the Father! We moderns might think in terms of the particular judgment and the immediate joys of heaven. But, Luke had other thoughts in mind.
The key words in Jesus' answer were the first and the last. Obviously, "paradise" meant life with God in the Kingdom. But the emphasis on the word "today" changed the outlook of the gloom. The day of the crucifixion transcended time, just as much as the life-giving death of Jesus did. No longer was this a chronological day, the sixth day in the Jewish week. It was an "eschatological day." As the note above mentioned, this was the day that revealed the Kingdom, for it revealed the love of God for the world. That day, that hour, spread the seeds of the Final Judgement. The "good thief" was the first fruit of that hour, for he was the first to receive the eternal life in the waning moments of Christ's life.
How does God give you hope in the face of a desperate situation?
C. The Crucifixion
44 It was already the sixth hour and there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour. 45 The sun failed (to shine). The veil of the Temple was split down the middle. 46 Crying out in a loud voice, JESUS said, "Father, 'into your hands I give my spirit.'" Having said this, he breathed out. 47 A centurion, seeing that having taken place, glorified God, saying, "This MAN was certainly righteous." 48 All the crowds having gathered together upon this sight, seeing that having happened, (slowly) returned home, beating their breasts. 49 Seeing these things, all those knowing him and the women following HIM from Galilee had stood far from (there).
23:46 into your hands I give my spirit." Psalm 31:6 from the Septuatgint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament used in the early Church.
Three signs preceded the death of Jesus: darkness over the earth, the spilt in the Temple curtain, and Jesus' final prayer. All three point to the "end of time" motif. The darkness over the entire earth spoke of the mood that came with God's judgment. The tear in the Temple had many different interpretations: the Father's grief, the pouring of God's spirit from the Holy of Holies in the Temple upon the earth, and many others. The prayer was a sign of hope, entrusting his life to the Father. The darkness, the violence in the Temple, and the self-giving of the Christ prefigured the Final Judgment. The difference, of course, between these events and the final days lie in the particular, not the general. These events happened to Jesus. In the end, they will happen to all. All will suffer darkness and violence. The suffering will give people the same and only choice Jesus had in his dying breath: to trust God or not.
As a witness to the events, the centurion declared Jesus "right" with God and the world. He was the last of three who testified to Jesus' innocence and righteousness. (The first two were Pilate and the "good thief.") All three were Gentiles or outcasts, the audience that would soon fill the Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire.
Finally, the people slowly returned home. The spectacle interest and blood thirst had been satisfied. But the faithful stood at a distance.
50 Look! (There was) a man with the name of Joseph, being a council member [and] a good and righteous man 51 – (this) man had not consented to the decision (of the council) and to their deed – (he was) from Arimathea, a city in Judea, who awaited the Kingdom of God, 52 who, approaching Pilate, requested the body of JESUS 53 and, lowering (it from the cross), wrapped it in linen and laid it in a tomb cut from rock where no one was ever laid (out). 54 (It) was the Preparation Day and the Sabbath (was) beginning. 55 Having followed (closely after JESUS), the women who came along with HIM out of Galilee, noticed the tomb and how HIS body was laid (in it). 56 Returning (to their homes), (they) prepared (sweet) spices and perfume (oils). Just so, (they) rested on the Sabbath according to the (Torah) commandment.
23:50-53 This was a long, confusing sentence that could be loosely translated: "There was a man named Joseph from the Judean city of Arimathea. He was a good and righteous man who looked forward to the Kingdom of God. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, but did not agree with their plan or action against Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He took it down, wrapped it in fine linen cloth and laid it in a tomb that had been cut out of solid rock where no one had be laid before."
23:53b "where no one was ever laid (out)." This phrase contained a triple negative to strongly emphasize the honor Joseph gave to Jesus. Such a burial shelf was reserved for a patriarch of a rich and distinguished family. Literally, it was "...where no one was not not yet laid (before)."
23:56a "...they prepared sweet spices and perfumed oils." Since Jews did not embalm the bodies of the deceased like the Egyptians, they anointed them with scented oils and spices to mask the stench of death and honor the departed. Burying the dead was a praised act of social charity.
The scene shifted from Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea and the female disciples. In Luke, Joseph was a highly regarded civic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. He shared the same outlook with Jesus (maybe as a disciple?), since he had an apocalyptic world view (anticipating the coming of the Kingdom). He honored the Lord with an unused body shelf in his family's tomb; the clan reserved such a place for the patriarch. Basically, Joseph gave Jesus his final resting place; he surrendered his reputation for someone who died as a criminal, thus bestowing honor on that person. Such self-giving was a response to the sacrifice of the Lord.
The women noticed where and how Joseph buried the body of Jesus. They returned home so they could prepare the spices to anoint his body, but rested on the Sabbath, thus setting the scene for the Resurrection.
Reflect on the Passion. How does it reflect the ends and beginnings in your life?