Good Friday – March 29 2013
Gospel: Luke 22:39 – 23:49
There are four differing accounts of Jesus arrest and death. Each has its own emphasis. Since it is the Year of Luke, I have decided to leave the John reading set in the Lectionary and read Luke for Good Friday. What was Luke saying? As always, I found I have a composite gospel in my mind; whole sections of it do not exist in Luke. And Luke has his own details I have never really noticed.
I began reading at Jesus arrival in the garden, in Luke 22:39.
Why does Luke have Rome insist that Jesus was innocent? His innocence is affirmed five times, (23:4,15, 23, 41, 47) and four times this is placed on the lips of Roman officials. In addition, we are told that Herod, the Roman puppet King, (23:15) found Jesus had done no wrong!
This is not an attempt by Luke to appease the Romans in his audience. Pilate is presented as weak and vacillating. Even one of his own Roman soldiers says Jesus was innocent. There is no appeasement here; if anything, Pilate is ridiculed by the story.
Instead, Luke's Roman insistence on Jesus' innocence is an attack on the religious establishment in Israel; an attack on the ones who should have known better. They are all there.
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. (22:66)
As the day proceeds, he is taunted by those who arrested him, (22.63) by Herod and his soldiers, (23:11) and by the leaders of the people and the Roman soldiers.
In contrast, the people stood by watching; witnessing.
And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him...(23:35-36)
One of the criminals taunted him, (23:39) but "the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place," and mourned. (22:48)
The people are the ones who witness and who mourn. Only in Chapter 23:13, 18, and 23, gathered with their leaders, misled by their leaders, do the people shout for his crucifixion.
Their inclusion is down played in comparison to the role of the leadership.
The leadership, who accuse Jesus of "perverting the people," are themselves the ones who pervert the people.
Jesus is innocent not of insurrection and murder (that is Bar-Abbas' crime) but "guilty" of being the Messiah and the Son of God. This is why he is killed. (22:67-70) The leadership tries to embellish the charge by saying he is "perverting the nation," and forbidding the paying of taxes to the emperor. This is an attempt to provide evidence that Jesus is inciting insurrection, but Pilate dismisses the embellishments, and at the same time dismisses the main charge! "Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, 'I find no basis for an accusation against this man.'" (23:4)
Much less than appeasing the Romans, Luke is saying they were irrelevant. They were mere pawns, used by those with pretentions to being the People of God, to reject God's Messiah, King and Saviour. The Romans, of all people, see that Jesus is not perverting the nation!
[There is a certain irony here, for from the Romans on, any empire that has not been able to subvert the church of Jesus to its own ends has persecuted it ceaselessly!]
The Son of the Father
The chief priests and the others lead the people to cry out for the release of the "son of the father," Bar-Abbas, who is guilty of murder and insurrection (23:19 and 25); the fact of his guilt is repeated. They seek the death of the true son of the father, who has been pronounced not guilty of insurrection. (Bar-Abbas means son of the father.)
Being a Disciple
When the Romans decide to execute Jesus out of political convenience, they "seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus." (23:26)
Simon "carries it as a disciple would be expected to do." He is compelled. The quotation is from Fitzmyer (pp1495) who reminds us Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it." (Luke 9:23)
Indeed, "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27) Through Simon, we are clearly invited to the imperative of following behind the Messiah, carrying a cross, all the way to Golgotha.
If this invitation seems grim, then hear the alternative: Jesus said to those who were watching
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed. Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” (23:29-30)
This event of crucifixion is turning everything upside down. In the biblical tradition, barrenness is usually the curse of a woman's being.
"The coming fate of Jerusalem will be so terrible that people will consider a childless woman 'blessed,' and the horrors of it so great that people will seek for catastrophic relief from it." (Fitzmyer pp 1496) Hosea 10:8, part of a chapter of judgement, says
They shall say to the mountains, Cover us,
and to the hills, Fall on us.
As the crucifixion proceeds the land is darkened, which is the cosmic sign of the Day of the Lord. (eg Zeph 1:15) Luke is writing perhaps only a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem; the image was no exaggeration in the eye his readers.
One of the criminals appeals to Jesus on the cross. There is a pun here. The first criminal has said in derision, "Save yourself, and us." The second said, ..."this man has done nothing wrong." He sets himself apart from those who are rejecting Jesus.
"Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'" There are few places in the Gospels where people address him simply as Jesus. Indeed, a number of Lukan manuscripts change the words here, to avoid this happening!
Jesus means Saviour. This man is a disciple. When all others are silent, or deriding, he states his faith in the Saviour King.
The root word for paradise is garden. Jesus reply to the disciple on the cross harks back to the Garden of Eden; a time when we were not separated from God. From inter-testamental times paradise was seen as the place of the righteous after death.
There are many witnesses in the drama; all the people, Jesus' followers—both men and women, the Roman centurion who praises God, and all those who deride him and wish him dead.
The only one in the drama who we are told is going with Jesus to paradise, the place of the righteous dead, is the one who was hanged with him, and still trusted him as saviour.
The story is full of injustice. The "man who has done nothing wrong," who is "certainly... innocent" is set up, lied about, vilified and, at the end stripped and crucified naked of clothes and dignity. All his humanity is removed.
His followers are powerless, watching at a distance (23:49) or crumble under pressure. (22:54-62)
And Simon of Cyrene, not Simon Peter, stands there, exhausted from dragging his cross, and asks, "You want me to follow you to this!? This is salvation!?"
Jesus is dead. He is not preaching to the lost souls in hell, much less playing a round or two on the golf course in heaven. He is dead. He died in agony. His body is rotting in the grave.
He asks us to follow him to this, to carry our cross. There is no other way! "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (14:27)
What grim gospel is this?
I will go further: if we do not see this challenge in the gospels and if we do not embrace it, but have in mind some kind of slipping quickly past death into heaven, then we are in denial of death. Good Friday is properly miserable. We should come away silent and cowed, and not only for what we have remembered was done to Jesus.
For our future is death. We will rot and stink and slough off the bones. No matter how far back we are sitting in the dark of the theatre, pretending that we are only watching, we will at some time find the lights on all around us, and that we are on the centre stage, as part of the show.
And we will find that this drama of life is like Hamlet; everyone dies at the end.
We can choose only who we will be in our dying.
Will we align ourselves with the powerful and mighty, seeking the false immortality of power, only to find that for all our power, even if we are Prime Minister herself, that we have been a pawn in power plays far greater than we ever imagined? Rome was, says Luke.
Or will we be among those who should have known better, who insisted that God fit into their theology; the ones who end up saying that the Saviour is perverting the nation, and who cause its destruction?
There is no neutral. Even the onlookers die: "daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.... then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.'"
Or will we trust the improbable promise of the one who hangs beside us, who says that because we have entrusted our whole self to his Father, we we will be with him in the place of the righteous dead.
On Good Friday he hangs dead before us, and is buried. We will all follow him. The question is, how will we die?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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