Death’s impact

Jesus’ death has an immediate impact. The Roman centurion who had overseen his execution is struck to the heart by the manner of Jesus’ death, the first of an endless stream of believers touched by the cross of Christ. “This man was truly just.” The wording of his confession fits perfectly with Luke’s portrayal of Jesus in the passion. Jesus the martyr prophet was indeed a just man: totally committed to God’s cause; willing to face death for the sake of the gospel.

Luke also uniquely describes the impact of Jesus’ death on the bystanders. The people who had walked the way of the cross with Jesus (23:27) and now witness his death return “beating their breasts” – a sign of repentance (23:48). And standing at a distance are those “who knew” Jesus (Luke’s subtle way of inching the frightened and scattered disciples back into the story?) and the faithful women “who had followed him from Galilee” (23:49). The gathering of the community which would burst into life after the resurrection already begins, at the very moment of Jesus’ life-giving death.

47 The centurion who witnessed what had happened glorified God and said, “This man was innocent beyond doubt.” 48 When all the people who had gathered for this spectacle saw what had happened, they returned home beating their breasts; 49 but all his acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events. 50 Now there was a virtuous and righteous man named Joseph who, though he was a member of the council, 51 had not consented to their plan of action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea and was awaiting the kingdom of God. 52 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 After he had taken the body down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb in which no one had yet been buried. 54 It was the day of preparation, and the sabbath was about to begin. 55 The women who had come from Galilee with him followed behind, and when they had seen the tomb and the way in which his body was laid in it, 56 they returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils. Then they rested on the sabbath according to the commandment.  (Luke 23:47-56)

The passion narrative ends on a muted note. The power of Jesus reaches beyond death as Joseph of Arimethea, whom Luke describes with his favorite terms as a “virtuous” and “righteous” man, a member of the very council who had condemned Jesus yet one who had not consented to their verdict, takes courage and comes to claim the body of Jesus for burial. In any age, claiming the body of an executed man from the authorities is a public act, exposing one’s allegiances for all to see. Joseph stands clearly with the crucified Jesus.

He wraps Jesus’ broken body in a linen burial cloth and places it in a rock tomb in which no one had yet been buried. Luke carefully sets the stage for the marvelous events of the resurrection. The Sabbath eve was approaching so there was no time to anoint the body. But the faithful women who had ministered to Jesus in Galilee (8:2-3) and stood by him at the moment of death (23:49) prepare spices and perfumed oil – ready to return and anoint the crucified body of Jesus as soon as the Sabbath rest was completed.

One cannot miss the touching poignancy of these details: the courageous devotion of Joseph, the faithful women who abide by the Sabbath law yet with their hearts in that tomb with the one they loved and had lost. The reader knows, however, that death will not have the last word. The “just one” would break the bonds of death and the tomb would be robbed of its treasure. The Spirit that had fallen on Jesus at the moment of his Baptism would once again pulsate within his living being as the Risen Christ would rise triumphant from death and charge his disciples to bring God’s word and the witness of their lives to all nations.

Epilog

The Gospel of Mark is one of the sources for Luke’s own accounting, but as already noted in the introduction there are unique Lucan features. In addition, having studied the Passion account, perhaps we can add a few more items to our list;

  • Where Mark/Matthew characterize the isolation of Jesus and failures of the disciples, Luke portrays Jesus free of “trouble and sorrow unto death.”  In fact Jesus’ prayer to his Father receives a comforting angel in response.
  • Readers are given the sense that Jesus is in constant communion with the Father, such that Jesus’ last words are not a cry of anguish from someone forsaken, but more a tranquil release of life, trusting in his Father’s plan
  • As for Jesus’ disciples, Peter is assured that Jesus is praying for him in order that his faith not fail. When Peter denies the Lord, the Lord is there to remind Peter of that his prayers are continuing

Overall there is much less of a negative tone in Luke’s Passion account. The other gospels have healing, forgiveness and reversal only after Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Luke, the healing and forgiving power of God is already active in the passion before Jesus’ death. The Jesus who healed throughout the ministry, as he now goes to death, heals the ear wound of one who came to arrest him, and heals the antagonism between his judges (Pilate and Herod). The Jesus who forgave throughout his ministry, as he now goes to death, forgives those who crucify him not knowing what they do, and rewards with the promise of communion in Paradise, the repentant wrong-doer.

The Jesus who called all people to the kingdom experienced those who accepted his word and those who did not. In Luke’s Passion account, a multitude of people follow Jesus to the place of execution, take no part in the mockery, and return striking their breasts. The Daughters of Jerusalem beat themselves and lament for him. There are Jewish figures at the end of the Gospel (Joseph and the women) to match the Jewish figures at the beginning of the infancy narrative (Simeon and Anna).

Jesus heals and forgives as he suffers and dies. This has been his ministry from start through to the very end. From the beginning of his life Jesus was set “for the rise of many in Israel” (2:34) even to the point of “my blood that is poured out for you” (22:20). What Jesus has done is to give us the gift of redemption so that we would be people who heal and forgive.


Notes

23:47 This man was innocent:  The word dikaios means “righteous, by implication innocent.” The deeper religious significance is righteous.

23:49 all his acquaintances: Literally, “those known to him.” Luke does have the earlier scene where the disciples abandon Jesus during his arrest.  Instead he has Peter following Jesus from afar (22:54) as well as his disciples watching from afar here.

the women: Luke points out the woman who had followed Jesus from Galilee and who are part of the first Church in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14) – they are eye witnesses to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

23:50-51 Joseph… Arimathea: A town north of Jerusalem. Joseph is described in the same terms as Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:6) and Simeon (2:25). Like Simeon and Anna (2:38), he is awaiting the reign of God.

Sources:

  • Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1994) 2 Volumes
  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995)
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997)
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
  • Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus Christ, an unpublished booklet
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible

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