Palm Sunday: What To Listen For in Luke's Passion Narrative This WeekendRead Now
This coming weekend [April 9-10] marks the feast of “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” which includes the traditional blessing and procession of palms and the proclamation of the Lord’s Passion and Death. Prior to the Vatican II reform, this feast was known popularly as Palm Sunday, though my 1956 missal refers to it as Second Passion Sunday or Palm Sunday. “Passiontide” encompassed the last two weeks of Lent when we old timers can recall that all the statues and crosses were veiled in purple.
Again, the missal of my youth observed Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew, a Gospel which enjoyed a preeminence in the Church equaled only by St. John’s Gospel, whose Passion narrative was and continues to be the text of choice for the solemnity of Good Friday. Any altar server of the 1950’s will recall that the Passion according to St. Mark was read in Latin on the Tuesday of Holy Week, and that of St. Luke on the Wednesday of Holy Week, an elongation of the Masses of those days that made us late for school and/or breakfast.
The reform of the Mass, which produced the Missal we use today, also reformed the Lectionary of Readings for Mass, initiating the A-B-C Cycle with which you are familiar. In this new format, the Passion narratives of the three synoptic Gospels are rotated through Year A [Matthew]; Year B [Mark] and Year C [Luke]. St. John’s account of the Passion remains the annual Gospel for the Solemnity of Good Friday.
As we are in the C Cycle in 2022, the Passion according to St. Luke will be proclaimed in Roman Catholic churches around the world. [Alas, I am not familiar with the format and liturgical specifics of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.] I suspect that when we attend the Palm/Passion Mass each year, we go in with a kind of smugness that “we know the story” and our primary responsibility is to produce sorrow for our sins. While this is certainly the end game, consider that we would only need one Gospel and one Passion Narrative to move our souls. Why, in the Church’s ancient wisdom, did it specifically sanction four accounts as the corpus of our knowledge of Jesus and his message? Approving four narratives—each with a variety of differences from the others—took a considerable amount of courage from the Church Fathers, and the wisdom of their Spirit-filled choices continues to create marvel in the Church to this day.
All four of the Gospels take their origin from a basic oral script of the reality and meaning of the historical Jesus. St. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2: 22-24 is believed to be derived from the earliest description of Jesus in Christian preaching: “Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.” If this is indeed close to the earliest apostolic preaching, then obviously much work remained to be done, not least of which was to confirm the very divinity of Christ, a task which was not finally and formally resolved until the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which roughly coincides with the full Church acceptance of the four Gospels as the definitive truth of Jesus Christ.
But each of the four Gospels is a “Christology” unto itself, a particular thematic understanding of the nature and mission of Jesus. One of the best ways to study a particular evangelist’s theological outlook is to examine closely the differences between the Gospels. These differences can be subtle but always significant. Where St. Mark quotes Jesus as saying one must “take up your cross and follow me,” St. Luke rephrases the text to “take up your cross daily and follow me.” This one-word addition speaks volumes to Biblical scholars. Mark wrote his Gospel prior to the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. when the end times and Second Coming were believed to be imminent. Death by persecution was a very real prospect. Luke wrote his Gospel some years later with the insight that Christianity might indeed last for the ages, and consequently that the baptized would need daily attention over many years to successfully follow Christ.
Scholars agree that in writing his account of Jesus’ death, Luke worked from Mark’s shorter draft, adding to the narrative exclusive segments which express the evangelist’s unique understanding of the cross, his inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
Luke describes the passion as Jesus’ ultimate battle against the powers of evil. Luke’s passage [Luke 22: 35-38] is unique; spoken at the end of the Last Supper and on the way to the Garden of Olives, Jesus urges his disciples to arm themselves; “And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” Jesus is describing the battle for men’s hearts. Just moments earlier, at the table he warned Peter that Satan was striving for his [Peter’s] allegiance. The disciples take Jesus’ call to arms much too literally and certainly too superficially. “Lord, look, here are two swords.” It is literally and morally a pitiful response against the true powers of evil, not to mention the sizeable guard that would soon overtake them. Jesus replies, “It is enough,” to be understood as “enough of this kind of talk.”
Luke describes Jesus as in total command of all that would happen to him. Recall the very purpose of Luke’s Gospel, in his dedication of the book to Theophilus in Luke 1:1-4. If, as we believe, Theophilus was a powerful and inquisitive man of good will, it was imperative that Luke present to him the narrative of Jesus’ appalling suffering and death as preordained in the plan of God and fully embraced by God’s Son. Luke is the only evangelist to record the miracle of the restoration of the servant’s severed ear, cut off by Peter during Jesus’ arrest. The miracle indicated that had he wished, Jesus could have escaped his captors. But rather, he embraced willingly and freely his suffering and death that God’s glory might be made eternally evident in the Resurrection.
St. John would later pick up on Luke’s theme; in his Gospel Jesus observes to his captors in the Garden that at his command legions of angels could come to his defense and save him from arrest if he sought to summon them.
Luke embraced his suffering with composure.
Mark’s account describes Jesus as going through considerable anguish from his multiple prayers in the Garden to his last moments on the cross--“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” By contrast, as Reid/Matthews record in Luke 10-24, “the Lukan Jesus comports himself with restraint. He makes no direct confession of emotional anguish. He prays only once for the cup to be taken away…after assuming the more formal posture of kneeling, rather than lying prostrate.” [p. 587]
As it turns out, scholars have come to see Luke’s description of Jesus “in the mold of a philosopher, facing his death in the manner of Socrates.” [p.587] Luke’s description of Jesus above the fray created problems in the early centuries, feeding the popular misconception that Jesus was not truly human. Again, modern scholars have come to accept that Luke 22: 43-44 is a later addition to the text; this is the famous “bloody sweat” passage, which is not consistent with the thrust of the entire Lukan Passion narrative.
Luke is the only evangelist to involve King Herod in Jesus’ trial.
Why the Lukan Gospel includes an appearance of Jesus before King Herod as part of his judicial processing is open to multiple conjectures. Reid/Matthews see the Herodian interlude as an example of “the narcissism and callous indifference that rulers who hold power of life and death over captives often display. Though the fact that Jesus has been interrogated by Pilate on charges of insurrection suggests that his life hangs in the balance, Herod shows no concern for Jesus’s precarity…Herod hopes for Jesus to perform a sign—a magician’s trick or some comparable amusement—to satisfy his curiosity.” [pp. 596-97] Given Herod’s lack of faith, Jesus does nothing. Reid/Matthews sees this text in the context of powerlessness—where government structures are corrupt, the poor and the powerless suffer.
There is another issue to consider here. Luke is writing a “universal Gospel.” His emphasis is upon Jesus as the savior of humankind, not just the Messiah of Israel. His target audience includes laypeople like Theophilus, presumably a Roman. It would do his purpose no good to heap all the blame for Jesus’s death on the Romans. Bringing Herod into the picture as a co-sentencer suggests to the reader that Jesus’s own people had abandoned him and found him worthy of death.
It is worth noting here that at the moment of Jesus’s death, a Roman centurion makes his faith in Jesus’s righteousness and innocence. [Luke 23:47]
Luke is the only evangelist to include Jesus’s forgiveness statements.
Anyone who ever attended a “Seven Last Words” service is familiar with these two passages found only in Luke’s Gospel. As Jesus is being nailed to the cross, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And later, in response to the thief’s imploring, Jesus tells him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” The Paulist Biblical Commentary presents a very insightful commentary on these two forgiveness clauses. In the first instance, Jesus prays that his Father [not Jesus] will forgive his persecutors. The PBC states; “It is pastorally helpful in that it shows Jesus praying that the Father forgive his offenders [an attitude more imitable than direct forgiveness of enemies carrying out an unjust execution.”] [p. 1098] Reid/Matthews make a similar point when they address the issue of abuse victims and their perpetrators.
But several hours later, when the “good thief” seeks forgiveness, Jesus himself assures him that he will have it. What has changed? Jesus has completed his work and the new age of grace has begun. Again, from the PBC, “The reign of Christ the King begins in the ‘today’ of the resurrection. This fulfills the prophesy of Jesus’s statement during the inquest before the Sanhedrin: ‘From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.’” [pp. 1098-1099]
Luke is the only evangelist to recount Jesus and the Weeping Women of Jerusalem on the way to Calvary.
The curious thing about Jesus’s intervention here is that these mourners are residents of Jerusalem, which is the key to understanding the passage. The city was filled with people for the Passover, but Jesus addresses this specific population. Recall that Luke is writing some years after the Fall of Jerusalem, an event he sees as the consequence of the failure of the holy city to recognize Jesus. Again, from the PBC, “In effect, Jesus is saying to the women, if the Romans readily perform this unjust crucifixion now, when things are relatively orderly and peaceful [when the wood is green], what will happen in the days of war that will surely come [when the wood is dry]—as actually happened in the years leading up to the destruction of 70 C.E.” [p. 1098]
I have barely scratched the surface of Luke’s Passion narrative, but I think I have made the case that the early Church intended for us to read each Gospel carefully, remembering that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John each bring a distinctive vision and narrative of the meaning of Jesus to the life of the Church. If you read your bible—and especially if you teach the Bible—do not throw the four Gospels into a blender! They are meant to be savored individually like fine wine.