Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Death of the Messiah, Part 6: Luke's Gospel

2013 03 17 The Death of the Messiah, Part 6: Luke's Gospel

Today we begin our look at the very different portrayal of the Passion in the Gospel according to Luke. Luke wants us to see a Jesus who is aware of his approaching death, but also who clearly worries about others far more than he worries about his own fate.  Luke's Jesus is "Caring, Compassionate and Concerned" about others. But he is equally confident that he knows why God sent him, and confident that he knows what God expects him to do.

Luke clearly relies heavily on Mark, but many of his details are different. If addition to Mark’s Gospel,  Luke shares another common written source with Matthew, called simply "Q,"  Luke also clearly has his own sources of information which have been handed down by eyewitnesses over the decades since the crucifixion.  These sources are unknown to either Mark or Matthew, and many Gospel stories appear only in Luke.

Molding several sources into a coherent Gospel is clearly a task of great importance to Luke.  He tells us in the opening of his Gospel that he desires to "write an orderly account" of the events of Jesus' life, that we might know the truth. Luke makes it clear at the beginning that he is writing theology, not history. And it is clear that Luke has a different theological agenda than any of the other three.

Luke wants us to see a Christ who is at once aware of his approaching death, but also a Christ who clearly worries about others far more than he worries about his own fate.

In order to understand Luke's portrait of Jesus' death it is necessary for us to remember that Luke is a careful and consistent writer. Nothing about Luke's reporting of the Death of the Messiah is inconsistent with what he, earlier in his Gospel, has told us about Jesus, his disciples, his mission and his actions.

Thus, the Jesus who is accused by the Jewish leaders of "perverting our nation" is the same Jesus whose upbringing, Luke tells us, was in total fidelity to the Law of Moses. The Jesus who is accused of "forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar" is the same Jesus who has declared the opposite, to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's". These, and other incidents, highlight a major theme of Luke: that Jesus is totally misunderstood by all authorities, is innocent and is unjustly accused and killed.

Likewise, the Jesus who shows such great concern and compassion for others during his Passion is the same Jesus who is already compassionate; showing concern for the widow of Nain and praising the mercy shown by the father to the prodigal son and to the man beset by thieves on the way to Jericho. Thus, we should not be surprised by the Jesus who shows forgiveness toward those who crucified him.

When we are told by Luke that, after the Temptation, Satan leaves Jesus, "until an opportune time," we should not be surprised that Luke finds that Satan has returned to inhabit Judas, his betrayer at the end of Jesus' life. In Luke it is much more than personal greed and sin that motivates Judas, it is the work of the Devil himself. Luke is so clear about this that one could argue that Judas was innocent, because, literally, "the devil made him do it.”

Unlike Mark, who emphasizes the dullness and failures of the disciples, Luke finds them attentive and trying to learn.  Luke, for example, never mentions that the disciples fled at the time of trial.  In fact, while not at the cross itself, Luke places them, with the women, waiting and watching in the distance. Nor will they flee after his death and head for home in Galilee as in the other Gospels, but they will all await his return in Jerusalem, where Jesus will appear. And later, these same apostles will appear as major Christian leaders in the Book of Acts.

Even the way Jesus behaves during his passion will set the example for how others will behave in the future, as first Stephen, and later Paul, endure the same adversaries and will respond in the same way when their time comes to bear their crosses.

Therefore, there is a smooth consistency in doing the will of God from the Law of Moses through Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and, ultimately, to the early Church.  This consistency in achieving God's purposes, first through Jesus and then through the Church, is a major theme in Luke's work.

Looking at the Passion itself we see that the scene of prayer and arrest at Gesthemene as described in Luke is far less dramatic and suspenseful than Mark’s.  No words of rebuke are spoken to the disciples. In fact, just the opposite, for at the Last Supper Jesus has already told them, "You are those who continued with me in my trials."  And Jesus has already assured them of a leadership place in Heaven, including responsibilities for judgment of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Therefore, we can not imagine that the disciples will fall away at this late date; and they do not.

Even at Gesthemene he does not separate Himself far from them, going only "a stone's throw away" to pray. Luke describes them as sleeping while Jesus prays, but not falling asleep three times after being admonished to stay awake.  Rather they sleep but once, and then only "out of sorrow."  And, when Jesus finds them sleeping he does not rebuke them but shows his concern for them, telling them to get up and pray that they may not come into their own time of trial.  Thus, the drama of the scene focuses not on disloyal or cowardly disciples but on the compassionate actions of Jesus, which is startingly different than those described in Mark.

Unlike in Mark, this Jesus is not one whose soul is sorrowful unto death.  Rather, on his knees he prays in subordination to the will of the Father.  And, in Luke, that prayer does not go unanswered, for the Father sends an angel to give him strength. And, so, when he prays he feels "agony" or "anguish," with great drops of sweat like blood falling from him.  But for centuries Christians have greatly misinterpreted the meaning of  the Greek word, "agonia." It means the great preparatory tension of an athlete warming up for a great contest.  It does not mean fear or pain, as it is often misinterpreted.  The angel has given him strength, not weakness.

And, at the arrest, Jesus is very calm; a calmness that bespeaks a foreknowledge on the part of Jesus of what is going to happen.  He is in no way surprised to find Judas sitting beside him at the Last Supper –  betraying him. When the slave's ear is cut off by one of the disciples, Jesus, again showing compassion, heals him, and tells the disciples, "No more of this!"  As he has shown compassion to his enemies throughout his ministry, so he shows compassion here.

Jesus knows exactly what is happening and, having been strengthened by the angel, is intent on carrying out what he knows to be the will of the Father.  No underlings come alone to arrest him as in Mark, but rather the chief priests and elders themselves lead the Temple police. Jesus knows the evil in this, telling them that this is "their" hour, a time of the power of darkness.  Yet he also knows that he will overcome it.

As in Mark they arrest Jesus at night.  But they take him not to the Chambers of the Sanhedrin but to the High Priest's house. Nor is there any Sanhedrin trial that night as in Mark, but rather they hold him there, beating him and mocking him, but not asking him any significant questions.

For Luke the highlight of the evening focuses on Peter who has followed him; and, as in Mark, denies him three times.  Unlike Mark, however, Luke adds a poignant note: "The Lord turned and looked at Peter."  And it was then that Peter remembered Jesus' prediction. This dramatic look is found only in Luke, and is symbolic of Jesus' continuing care for Peter, as he promised the disciples at the Last Supper.  They may deny him but he will always be there for them, and he will not even turn away from them, even in their moment of deepest betrayal.

When it is day they lead him to the Sanhedrin Council Chambers and question him. Unlike in Mark, Jesus answers ambiguously. Also, unlike in Mark and Matthew, there is no formal Sanhedrin trial; it is simply an interrogation. There are no witnesses called, false or otherwise, and there are no condemnations issued by the Sanhedrin.  Ultimately, all they say is that they have heard enough to take him to Pilate. Here the Sanhedrin acts as prosecutor and inquisitor, not as judge.

In Luke there is but one trial and that is before Pilate. Through it all Jesus is calm and self-composed.  He exhibits the serenity of one secure in the knowledge that God is in charge, and he is content in the knowledge that he is wholly innocent. Yet he is prepared to go to his death, if necessary, secure in the knowledge of his unbreakable union with the Father. This is quite a different Jesus than the Jesus we have met in Mark.


We have to stop here for today. We will finish examining Luke’s dramatically different portrayal of the Death of the Messiah next week, when we wrap up this series of reflections. Next Sunday, which is now called Palm/Passion Sunday, we will honor both halves of that name. After we honor Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during the early part of the service, we will wrap up Luke’s story of the Passion during the sermon time, when I also will share a few concluding observations on this Series on the “Death of the Messiah.”

God bless.