Scripture notes – Palm or Passion Sunday, C – 10th April 2022

There is an emotional dissonance in today’s liturgy, as we begin with a joyful celebration of Jesus’ entry procession into Jerusalem, then the main gospel of the day is the long passion account of St Luke as we begin the ‘Holy Week’ focus on the death and resurrection of Lord Christ.

The readings are available online here.

Blessing of the Psalms, Luke 19:28-40
All four gospels have the account of Jesus being acclaimed, but each has its own emphasis. Luke, probably written for a Gentile audience, leaves out details that are more understandable to those with Jewish background, including no mention of palms or leafy branches, despite our calling this ‘Palm’ Sunday. The story of the colt seems the first of several instances of Jesus’ fore-knowledge of what will happen during this decisive period of his life. ‘Master’ translates the Greek word for ‘Lord’ (kyrios) which is used in some translations; ‘Master’ to some extent weakens the mystery of this event. We are not told anything about the owner of the colt who is shown so ready to respond to God’s call. ‘Kyrie’ – the one who needs the colt – could mean ‘God’ as it often is in the Greek text. Or does the owner respond to what he already knows of Jesus who is often called ‘the Lord’ in Luke?

The first words of the crowd, ‘Blessed is the one coming….’ are from Psalm 118/119:25-26. The following words differ in the four gospels; Luke, like John, has him proclaimed ‘King’ and leaves out the ‘son of David’ which is in Matthew and Mark, perhaps again Luke thinks of a Gentile audience. The same reason goes with omitting ‘Hosanna’. Luke instead echoes the song of the angels in his Nativity story. Only Luke adds the objections of the Pharisees and Jesus saying at such a moment even the stones would acclaim him.

Our readings omit verses 41-44, where Jesus weeps over the city he is entering, knowing it will be destroyed and not have the glorious role in God’s realm. Perhaps this omission is to focus on the moments when Jesus is recognised as the true king coming to his capital city, so important to Luke that Jesus says the natural world would speak if the people didn’t.

Isaiah 50:4-7
This is one of the four sections of this book often called the ‘Servant Songs’ of Second Isaiah, which Christian see as foretelling the role of Christ. The Servant, like Jesus, was proclaiming God’s word, but was persecuted. He does not fight back, but has serene confidence in God coming to his aid, as Jesus will confidently hand over his spirit to the Father in Luke’s account. The fourth and longest of these is a good reflection for Passiontide, Isaiah 52:13-53-12.

Psalm 21 [22] 8-9, 17-20, 23-24
In the whole psalm, Christians also see a prophecy of Jesus’ death with the poetic description of an innocent one put to torture.

Philippians 2:6-11
This may be a hymn that St Paul incorporated into his Letter. It has a poetic downward movement from heaven to the depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, and then upward to his final reign when all creation will worship him. Thus it is a concise summary of our faith: Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and eternal reign.

Gospel Luke 22:14 to 23:53
This long selection is usually read at mass by several lectors with the congregation reciting the lines that in the gospel are spoken by more than one person. This means that we are putting ourselves among the accusers. This may feel painful, but has the effect of reminding us that ‘all have sinned and fallen short’ and that Christ’s death was for all of us.

All the gospels tell the passion in similar narratives, starting from the ‘Last Supper’ through the entombment, but with individual variations. Some characteristics of Luke: Jesus is shown in command even while arrested and executed. He is, as in his whole Gospel, gentle with the disciples for their failures. There are echoes of the Older Testament and of what Jesus has done in his ministry, but writing for a largely gentile audience, Luke leaves out some details that would be less well known outside Judaism. Writing to those living under Roman rule, he perhaps does not want to write anything that might lead to their persecution and rather plays down the role of Roman officials in the crucifixion.

As Jesus sits down with his Apostles the night before he dies, he emphasises the Passover nature of the meal, but also predicting his suffering and death. He holds out the promise that all will be ‘fulfilled’ or ‘accomplished’ – meaning it will find its true meaning – in the final Dominion or Kingdom of God. There are three cups of wine at a Jewish Passover meal and the breaking and sharing of the unleavened bread was part of the ritual, linked specifically to the Exodus redemption. After the meal, a last cup was drunk and Jesus gives that a new meaning of sealing a new covenant, replacing the old covenant made with Moses. This has a reference to Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant written in the heart (Jeremiah 31:31). The covenant will be settled with Jesus’ blood and not an animal sacrifice as was the old Law.
All the first gospels present the Eucharist in the simplest of words with no discussion of the meaning of the mystery.

The Passover was a joyful feast, but Jesus’ words have a suggestion of meaning something serious. At the end Jesus takes this to a deeper sorrow – the betrayal by one of the apostles. Luke had earlier said that Satan had entered into the heart of Judas to sell his master to the enemy. Luke does not include the anxious questions about who was the betrayer. Instead, the Apostles betray their own lack of understanding by entering into a dispute over who is the greatest. Jesus explains the new authority of his Kingdom as one of service. Rather than berating them for their pride, Jesus goes on to promise them where they will share equally in the Dominion he creates.

Simon gets a special treatment in Luke: as Satan has succeeded with Judas, he will now try to corrupt Peter. The image of ‘sifting’ is elsewhere used for purifying, as in shaking out the chaff to leave the grain. Here it is reversed: Satan will try to winnow out the good, and capture Peter through his weakness. Jesus, however, predicts that despite his denials to come, Peter will be strengthened afterwards and have the responsibility of strengthening the others. He next warns them that while in the golden period of their ministry with him when they were fully provided for, in the future they will have to take some responsibility for necessities. He probably meant the ‘sword’ as a metaphor for he will not allow it to be used later. Thus there may be irony in his final words – ‘It is enough.’ Or as some suggest, it means, ‘Enough of that!’

Luke has a shorter account of the Agony in Gethsemane than Matthew or Mark, and is always gentle with the disciples’ failures. The words about the ‘sweat like drops of blood’ are missing in many manuscripts, and are not in the other gospels. If they are an authentic remembrance, they stress the depth of the physical and emotional suffering of the Lord. Jesus does not blame the Apostles for their sleeping but tells them to pray that they will not be tested – perhaps thinking of the agony he has been through over accepting his ‘cup’ of suffering. Prayer is especially emphasized throughout Luke’s gospel.

Judas, knowing where Jesus stays outside Jerusalem, brings the arresting party which the armed Apostles try to resist. Jesus, having accepted his death, halts their action and heals the wounded man, another example of his mercy and coming to serve. While not allowing violence, Jesus does insist on his innocence and the cowardice of coming to him by stealth. ‘The reign of darkness’ seems another indication of the ‘cosmic battle’ as Luke sees going along with the actions of men – satanic powers of evil were striving to prevent the saving work of the Father through Jesus.

Luke does not describe the scattering of the apostles as do the other writers. Peter’s denials are portrayed all in one scene with Jesus catching his eye on the last. As he weeps at the end Luke leaves him with the pain of his remorse and only later will we see him ‘strengthened’ as predicted, and ready to lead the others. (Luke gives many examples of his leadership in Acts of the Apostles.)

In the questioning by the council of Jewish leaders, Jesus again takes the lead of pointing out where the accusers are going wrong. He does not confirm or deny that he is the Messiah/Christ, but uses the name he prefers for himself, ‘the Son of Man’. Only in Luke does the council press forward the identity ‘Son of God’. Jesus gives the enigmatic answer, ‘You are the one saying this,’ but Luke has used this title from early in the Gospel so here it does not mean a denial of that title. He points out that they are the ones speaking those words, a kind of irony. The council find this answer enough to convict him of blasphemy without trying to find the two witnesses the Law required.

But a different charge must be laid before the civil authority, so they accuse him of activities that the readers of the gospel know to be lies. Pilate seems unimpressed and declares him guiltless, but takes the chance to pass the responsibility over to Herod once he learns Jesus comes from the territory under Herod’s authority. This incident is only in Luke. He said earlier that one of the women disciples, Joanna, was married to Herod’s steward and she may have been the source of this information. Jesus seems to show utter contempt for Herod, the one who had put John the Baptist to death. Herod seems only to want a miracle to entertain him, not to understand who Jesus is or want to know what he teaches. But Jesus heals out of compassion, rather than display some amazing spectacle. Herod reacts to Jesus’ silence with mockery, dressing him in the white that should indicate kingship, but contemptuously sends him back like a criminal. Perhaps it was this grim humour that brought friendship between the two sceptical rulers.

Pilate persists in finding no case against Jesus, but is not willing to risk a riot and therefore condemns a man he knows is innocent to a painful death. Others have more pity. Although Simon from Cyrene was compelled into the service of carrying the cross, the remembrance of his name suggests he learned something from this. (Mark names his sons, suggesting they were disciples he knew.) Jesus, who had earlier wept over Jerusalem, meets some women weeping to see him, but instead of comfort, he repeats his warning of coming disaster for the Jewish nation.

None of the evangelists wants to linger over the horrors of death by crucifixion, well known at that time. There is more focus on the mockery and reactions of the crowd. The four gospels give differing words for Jesus on the cross; Luke stresses Jesus’ forgiveness. As he healed an enemy at the arrest, Jesus in Luke asks forgiveness for the executors, perhaps seeing them as soldiers carrying out their duty without any knowledge of the man they kill. He has a special encounter with one of those who are crucified at the same time. The unnamed man acknowledges his own sin, and calls on the other to recognise that while they are executed for crimes, Jesus is innocent. Then he goes further, speaking directly to Jesus, and he has somehow heard of God’s ‘kingdom’ or rule that Christ came to bring. In sharp contrast to the disciples who earlier had disputed over the ‘best’ place, he humbly does not even ask for a place, but hopes that Jesus will ‘remember’ him when that time comes. Jesus responds with a promise that the criminal will be with him ‘this day’ as he goes beyond death to the presence of his Father. His last sentence is one of absolute trust, quoting Psalm 31/32.

After Jesus dies, Mark and Matthew have the centurion call him ‘truly the Son of God’, but Luke has already shown that in his gospel, and here the Roman finds him ‘just’ – a word Luke has used for the pious Jews like Zachary and Elizabeth, and which has Old Testament associations. It may have been important to stress to Luke’s largely Gentile readers that Christ was recognized by a Roman official as one not deserving of death, but worthy of praise.

The burial of Jesus is in a new empty tomb, rather than thrown into a pit with other criminals. This makes it clear that there could be no mistake when the tomb is found empty on Easter morning. The faithful women use this interval prepare spices to anoint him later – that activity was not permitted on the Sabbath. The liturgy leaves Jesus in the tomb, an invitation for us to find time for deeper reflection on the Passion.

With the Easter Triduum commemorations beginning on Holy Thursday, the liturgy will return to the Last Supper, and go through the passion again on Good Friday and then be ready on Saturday night prepared to acclaim his resurrection. For those who cannot attend the whole, meditating on the readings and prayers of each day is one way to take part. Notes will be posted for the Triduum next week.

Joan Griffith