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Sunday, October 30, 2011

This Man was Innocent Beyond Doubt: Distinctive Features of Luke’s Passion Narrative

Luke’s passion narrative contains several distinctive features not found in the other Gospel accounts. Three of these features in particular are the direct confrontation with evil, the need to follow Jesus, and the salvation that comes from the cross.

Luke begins his account by stating that “Satan entered into Judas[1].” This identification of Satan as the agent acting through Judas has two effects on the narrative. It establishes that it was not a mere human being, and a friend at that, that turned Jesus over to the authorities, but rather evil personified. Unlike the accounts of Mark and John, where Jesus is pitted purely against the religious and political forces of this world, in Luke, Jesus is pitted against evil itself. Therefore, the events that follow are not a matter of God versus man, but God versus evil. In a battle of God against man, there is no hope for man, but in a battle between God and evil, man has hope indeed in the eventual vanquishing of evil. Standing in counterpoint to the introduction of evil personified is Luke’s establishment of the setting of Passover, “the day for sacrificing the Passover lamb.[2]” With this detail, Luke presents Satan on the one hand and the slaughter of the innocent lambs on the other. This is the context into which Luke places the Passion: pure evil versus unblemished innocence. This scenario takes the events to an unexpected level, one of cosmic forces engaged in a spiritual battle. Jesus does not only overcome the forces of this world, as significant as that is; he conquers the very forces of hell itself.

Another distinct feature of Luke’s account is found in the actions of Simon of Cyrene. While the synoptic Gospels all state that Simon carried the cross for Jesus, only Luke adds the seemingly minor detail[3] that while Simon carries the cross for Jesus, he does so by “taking up the cross and following Jesus” (Senior and Collins 2006). While taking up one’s cross and following Jesus is a common Christian theme, what seems to be rarely considered is where that journey leads: to Golgotha, to death. If we pick up our own cross and carry it, if we persist in carrying that cross, sooner or later we will get nailed to it. Yes, we all have our crosses to bear, but who bears a cross but one who is about to be crucified? Our martyr’s death may be a physical one or a spiritual one, but in either case, we die with Christ.

Of course, if that’s where it ended, what would be the point? Why would anyone do this of their own volition, pick up this cross of death? The answer comes from the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise[4].” In Luke’s Gospel alone does Jesus offer these words of salvation to the man hanging next to him. Hanging next to “the outcasts that were central to his ministry” (Hill 2004), Jesus promises heaven, salvation, from the cross. Thus, Jesus reveals the power of the cross in that moment, by demonstrating “how salvation is available to the community through the crucified and risen Lord” (Hill 2004). By taking up our cross and following Jesus, we too participate in the saving act. This gives meaning to the cross we bear.

The forces of evil turn Jesus over to the powers of this world. The powers of this world send him to death. But evil, human power, and death have no hold on him. The battle against evil leads to taking up the cross – the powers of this world will lay the cross upon you or you can take it up yourself. What the powers of evil, and of this world, never see coming is the victory that comes from that very same cross.

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.

Senior, Donald, and John J Collins. New American Bible Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[1] Luke 22:3 New American Bible
[2] Luke 22:7 New American Bible
[3] Luke 23:26 New American Bible
[4] Luke 23:43 New American Bible

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