What do you say to the Romans?

Luke was written to “Most Excellent Theophilus,” whom I think was probably a Roman official. I ask, “What do you say to the Romans?” I think that Luke’s unique features in the passion come about because he is writing to the Romans, who had some major misconceptions about Jesus and the group of people who followed him.

Periodically Jews would rise up against the Romans occupying in their land. In 66 AD a man named Menahem claimed to the Jewish king and entered Jerusalem with a small army. He was defeated. A few years later a man named Simon, who had been a military hero, gathered a sizable army about him, who recognized him as king. Their entrance into Jerusalem led to the Roman siege of the city, which destroyed the temple and most of the city. Simon was taken to Rome and executed.

While these revolutionary kings appeared over 30 years after Jesus’ death, these events occurred 10 to 20 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. What does Luke need to tell the Romans about Jesus and about his followers? Remember that Jesus was crucified as King of the Jews. Was he a threat to the Roman Empire like these other Jews pretending to be kings? Are his followers threats to the Roman Empire?

At the time of Luke, there was almost nothing about Jesus and his followers that was written down. People learned about Jesus by hearing what others said about him. People learned about the Christian faith by hearing stories from other Christians. However, false stories about Jesus and his followers were also created.

In the first four verses of Luke, the author explains that he is researching all the stories about Jesus so that he might convey the truth — not just about Jesus, but “about us” — those who believed in Jesus some 50 years after his death.

Some of Luke’s Uniqueness. In the garden, one of Jesus’ followers asks, “Shall we attack with swords?” Unfortunately, he doesn’t wait for an answer, but cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus says: “Stop this!” Jesus’ way is not through fighting with swords. He further illustrates this point by touching the ear and healing the man. As Jesus healed throughout his ministry, he heals in the garden. This healing is only found in Luke. A faith-healer is no threat to the Roman Empire.

Jesus has a hearing at the home of the high priest, before a Jewish council. From there Jesus is taken to Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea. Jesus is accused of “deceiving the people; forbidding the people to pay taxes to Caesar; and claiming to be the Messiah, the king.” Jesus is presented to Pilate as an insurrectionist — stirring up the people against the Roman Empire. Is this true? There were probably people saying that in Luke’s day, but we know it’s not true. When Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar, he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” He didn’t tell anybody to stop paying taxes. Even if we didn’t have this story about tax-paying, Pilate, after questioning Jesus, tells the chief priests and the crowds, “I find nothing wrong with this man.” The Roman official declares Jesus innocent of these charges.

When Pilate discovers Jesus is from Galilee, he sends him to Herod who was a Jewish ruler in Jerusalem at the time. He finds nothing wrong in Jesus. He sends him back to Pilate.

Once again, Pilate calls together the chief priests and leaders of the people and declares: “I have examined him in your presence and I find nothing wrong with him. He is not guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Neither did Herod find anything wrong. … Jesus has done nothing worthy of death.” The Roman official declares Jesus innocent a second time.

The crowd calls for the release of Barabbas, who was an insurrectionist. He had started a riot in the city. He had committed murder. A third time Pilate declares about Jesus: “What crime has he done? I have found nothing wrong with him — especially nothing deserving death.” Not once in Mark or Matthew does Pilate declare Jesus innocent and only once in John. In Luke, three times Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges.

On one hand, that should satisfy the Romans in Luke’s day that Jesus and his followers were never threats to the Roman Empire — even one of their officials had declared it three times.

On the other hand, that can add even more guilt to Pilate’s sin. If he considered Jesus innocent, why did he turn him over to the crowds to be crucified? While Pilate is guilty of this, perhaps he had no other choice. It was part of plan that was beyond human control.

Jesus is crucified. The first thing he says from the cross is, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” These words are only found in Luke. The one who is innocent forgives those who are guilty. Pilate, who was too weak-willed to save Jesus is forgiven. The Jewish crowds who had called for his crucifixion are forgiven. The guards who had beat him and made fun of him are forgiven. The soldiers who had nailed him to the cross are forgiven. Did any of those people ask for forgiveness? Did any of them repent? Is confession necessary before forgiveness can be given? Since these words of Jesus are not found in some early manuscripts, what reasons might be given from dropping them (if they were original)? What reasons might be given for adding these words (if they were not originally part of this writing)?

The sign above Jesus’ head declared: “This one is the King of the Jews.” Jesus does not use his royal power to overthrow governments, but to heal a severed ear and to forgive sinners. He doesn’t blame those who turned against him and unjustly killed him. He forgives them.

Jesus’ final words from the cross in Luke are: “Father, into your hands I am placing your spirit.” These are much more peaceful words than in Mark and Matthew: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” In Luke, Jesus dies not with a cry of despair, but of a peaceful rest. God’s plan is complete.

A Roman soldier, after seeing all this, praised God, saying: “Indeed, this man was innocent.”

What do you say to the Romans? Yes, they had Jesus put to death; but it wasn’t because he was a threat to their empire. Three times Pilate declared Jesus innocent. At his death, the Roman soldier declared Jesus innocent.

What do you say to the Romans? Yes, they could have prevented Jesus’ death, but they didn’t. They, as well as the Jewish people, are guilty of killing this innocent man — but Jesus forgives them all as he is dying and that is that should be the attitude of the people who follow Jesus. The early church is no threat to overthrow the empire. They, like Jesus, are to seek to forgive the Romans, not to get even. The Romans, the Jews, and the entire world need to hear Jesus’ powerful words: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

I am not sure that I wrote this piece. Normally I annotate the work of others. I found none in this document. Check online to no avail. In any case, I thought it worth sharing.

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