Friday, April 5, 2013

The Death of the Messiah, Part 7: End of Series

2013 03 24 The Death of the Messiah, Part 7: Luke; Concluding Thoughts

Before our look at Luke’s description of the Death of the Messiah, resuming as Jesus is taken for trial before Pilate, let me summarize how we got to this final sermon in this series. At the beginning I pointed out that while we may think there is only one story of the death of the Messiah, repeated four times, in fact there are four very different versions of the story of Jesus' death, both in the details and in the portrait of Jesus presented. These Gospel stories were divinely inspired and God is mindful of the inconsistencies but wants us to be able to see Jesus from four unique vantage points.
Therefore, we do not improve on the Gospel accounts by trying to harmonize them.  Ultimately, all attempts at harmonizing the Gospels fail and never give a true picture of those sacred texts. This fact, however, gives ulcers to those who insist on viewing the Gospels as history, which they are not.  They are theology told in stories, and are kerygma, proclamation of the Good News of Jesus the Christ.
Then, as we studied examples of the differences in three of the Gospel accounts of the Death of the Messiah, we explored the idea that having four different writers of the stories allows us to see that Jesus is a far more complex person than we might otherwise think he is. We then looked in some detail at Mark's Gospel portrayal of the events leading up to Jesus’ Crucifixion.  Mark, the earliest Gospel written, portrays a scene of stark human abandonment of Jesus.  Mark portrays a very human, very vulnerable Jesus. In the end, Mark shows that we all, even Jesus, have no choice but to depend on God.
We moved then to a look at Luke’s portrayal of a very caring, compassionate and concerned Jesus, one who is also absolutely confident that what he is doing is right and is God’s will. We are wrapping up that review, beginning with the trial before Pilate.
Luke gives us many more details of the trial before Pilate than do Mark and Matthew. The chief priests and scribes make more numerous religious and political accusations against Jesus than in the other Gospels. And, as Luke describes in Acts, Paul will later encounter an almost identical sequence of actors, issues and events in his trials.  Thus, an important point is made in Luke: the tone for the bearing of later Christian crosses by faithful disciples is set by Jesus here.
Pilate comes off well in Luke, even if he is ultimately weak, finally giving in to the demands of the crowd, led here by the chief priests and other Jewish leaders.  Initially, having heard their complaints, Pilate tells them that he has examined the charges against Jesus and that he finds Jesus guilty of none of them. Then, on hearing that Jesus is a Galilean, he sends Jesus off to Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee, who is in town for the Passover.  Herod finds, as did Pilate, nothing against Jesus and so returns him to Pilate.

Once again Pilate examines the charges against Jesus, and, once again, tells the Jewish leaders that he does not find Jesus guilty of any of the charges.  Pilate tells them that "Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death."  Pilate then proposes to have Jesus flogged and released. But all of the accusers, not just the crowd as in Mark, but the chief priests, other Jewish leaders and the people, shout to do away with Jesus and to release Barabbas. Luke tells us that Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addresses them a second and third time, telling them Jesus is not guilty.
However, Luke then tells us that Pilate caves in to the accusers, and "their voices prevailed."
Because Luke contains no scene in Pilate's courtyard of Roman soldiers beating and mocking Jesus, the implication is that Pilate handed over Jesus to the Jewish leaders who take him to Calvary and crucify him. But later we read of soldiers, presumably Roman, who were present at his death, so there is ambiguity as to who was involved in getting Jesus to the Cross, and who was actually involved in nailing him to it and watching him after he was crucified.
What is clearly different than Mark and Matthew, is that the people who followed Jesus to his crucifixion included a great many who were not hostile to him, particularly women,
who were lamenting what was happening to him by beating their breasts and wailing over his fate. To these Jesus shows great compassion, warning these "daughters of Jerusalem" of the coming trials, telling them not to weep for him, but for themselves.

And through it all Jesus remains calm and concerned for others.  Unlike in Mark, the first words uttered by Jesus from the cross are not of his feared abandonment, but rather, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The implication is that the Jewish leaders acted out of ignorance, not with deliberate evil and viciousness, as in the other Gospels. This is a far more humane treatment of the Jewish leaders than in the other Gospels, and is a clear directive to later Christians to be gracious toward, and forgiving of, our worst enemies. Thousands of Christian martyrs will go to their death finding courage in these words from the Cross.
In another major departure from Mark and Matthew, both criminals do not mock him from their crosses.  Rather, one of the two thieves acknowledges his own guilt and confesses the innocence of Jesus. This "good thief" as we often call him, asks to be remembered by Jesus when he comes into his kingdom.  And, still filled with compassion, Jesus does him far better than that, promising him that he will be with Jesus in Paradise yet that day.
In the last, dark, hours of Jesus’ life he does not lose confidence.  He does not, as in Mark and Matthew, feel abandoned by the Father.  Rather he is calm and at peace, secure in his knowledge of the goodness and justice of the Father. There is no agony recorded, only the confident giving of his life over to the Father, even as he has given his life to others throughout his ministry.  Jesus dies saying, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

Just as the words of forgiveness have given many a martyr courage in their own deaths, so to have these words of confident trust in God given hope to many ordinary Christians at the time of their death.
And, if the innocence of Jesus has not been clear enough for all who read Luke, at the foot of the cross the Roman Centurion says that Jesus was "innocent." Even the crowds who watched share the feeling of Jesus' innocence , returning to their homes in great distress, beating their breasts. In Luke’s version it is not necessary for the Centurion to say the Jesus is the Son of God because in Luke's Gospel we have long been aware that Jesus is God’s Son.
Standing at a distance are not only the women, but all of Jesus friends who had followed him from Galilee, including, of course, the disciples, who have not had the courage to go to the foot of the cross, but who clearly have not totally abandoned him as they do in Mark's rendition. Likewise, Luke clarifies the role of Joseph of Aramathea, saying that he had not agreed to the Sanhedrin's plans. Joseph takes the body and lays it in a fresh tomb.  And Luke tells us that the women went home to prepare spices and ointments for his body.

After the Sabbath Luke tells us that they came to the tomb with their preparations, only to find the tomb empty. Later, Peter, who, in Luke’s version, has not gone to ground in Galilee, but has stayed in Jerusalem, will run to the empty tomb. Still later, Luke tells us that the Risen Lord appears to Peter, thus confirming Luke's message:  Jesus will be with and watch over all of his disciples, even those, who, like Peter, deny him in periods of weakness.
There should be much consolation in that fact for us, because most of us falter in periods of weakness and doubt.  But Christ is there for us and will watch over us. He will never abandon us regardless of the strength of our faith at any given moment.
Summary of this Series of Lenten Reflections
And so ends this exploration of The Death of the Messiah. It is my hope that this series has been a help to those who truly want to understand the Christ and his Passion by looking at the event through the writings of four disciples, all who wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I particularly hope that this series has put to rest some of the nonsense about harmonizing the Gospels, and particularly the Passion, which may seem appealing but which totally misses the point of having four Gospels in the first place. God did not send his Spirit to guide the writers of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus by accident.
And please remember that the Gospels do not pretend to be history books.  Writing history as we know it today was not practiced at the time the Gospels were written.  To apply today's historical research methods to the Gospels is at best a silly exercise. Those who fruitlessly search for the "true Historical Jesus" will forever sell their books to those who insist that only one portrait of Jesus can be "the right one.”
This is the same mind set that stunts understanding of the four Gospel accounts by insisting on treating the Gospels as if they were simply data sources for the "one" "real" story of Jesus. But the Gospels simply cannot yield anything approaching an "true" history of Jesus simply because they were never history.  They were always theology, theology told in story form.  They are now, always have been, and always will be kerygma, proclamation, of the Gospel, the Good News, of  Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ. As such they form and inform our faith today, even as they did almost 2000 years ago for the members of the early Church.
I pray that each of you will have a keener awareness of, and a better understanding of, Christ’s Passion. Within those painful yet glorious hours we are shown the love of God for us in the person of His Son, Jesus, the Christ.
Because the Church has chosen to preserve all four original Gospels, each divinely inspired by God, we have the privilege to find within them a portrayal of our Lord that will meet our own needs when we turn to Jesus in times of trouble, a portrait of our Savior that gives us strength, hope, and ultimately, peace. And that is truly a blessing of incomparable worth.