Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Luke 22-23

Luke 22:1-6: There has been a conspiracy brewing against Jesus, but the leaders had not been able to gain an appropriate foothold as they feared popular reaction. Things change when Judas Iscariot makes a deal to betray Jesus. Remember that in Luke 4:13 it said that the devil departed until an opportune time. In Luke’s telling of the Jesus story, the devil thinks an opportune time has come. The decision to betray Jesus is Judas’ responsibility, but Luke asserts that an evil force is also at work. Judas agrees on a price for the betrayal, and agrees to find a time when no one else is around. One can only wonder what was going on in Judas. And when and where do we find ourselves “betraying” Jesus and our faith? What might that mean for us?

Luke 22:7-13: The final meal Jesus will share with his disciples is a Passover meal, a meal commemorating God’s liberation of the Israelite people from slavery. In this, Luke follows the chronology of Matthew and Mark. John will have Jesus die on the day of the Passover celebration.

Luke 22:14-23: As in both Matthew and Mark, this Passover meal is given a new significance. Jesus will be a part of a new liberation of God’s people, even as he gives up his life. There are some subtle changes in language here as against the accounts in Matthew and Mark. Luke adds the familiar phrase, “do this in remembrance.” The cup poured out is the new covenant. The language of “blood” is removed just a little from the contents of the cup. We are obviously dealing in the language of symbolism and poetry here. Jesus will give up his life, but God will give it back and in that there is a liberation for all creation. When we share this similar “meal” in church, we take in this story and the power of God it communicates. But this final meal is also the beginning act of Jesus betrayal by Judas.

Luke 22:24-30: A moment ago, the disciples are asking who might be the betrayer of Jesus, now they ask who is the greatest. Matthew and Mark have located this saying in different contexts, right after a prediction about the death of Jesus. Luke locates it in the shadow of death as well, but right after the supper – a supper in which Jesus announces that one among them will betray him, and at which he serves bread and wine to others. But to be a little fairer, in stories of the time, teacher aware of their pending death often summarized their teaching and appointed new leadership. Perhaps the disciples were simply wondering, if Jesus was going to die, who would lead. Jesus takes the opportunity of the question to redefine leadership as service, a distinct form of leadership from the surrounding Roman culture. Those who model this form of leadership stand by Jesus and are a part of his kingdom. What does it mean in our day and time for the church to be a community of servants led by servant leaders?

Luke 22:31-34:
Jesus has just commended the disciples for standing by him, but now he announces that all will be tested, that evil will try their souls. He prays that their faith will not fail, but then predicts that it will at lease waver. He prays that after the wavering, they will strengthen each other. Peter objects strenuously, telling Jesus that he is ready to die. Jesus tells him, to the contrary, that he will deny Jesus. Even when we have lost our own battles with the struggles of faith, there is a time for returning together to be a part of the community of faith.

Luke 22:35-38: These are cryptic and difficult sayings. What Luke may be trying to say by putting these particular sayings of Jesus in this context is that the conditions of living out the faith, of living out God’s dream for the world may require some new things. The previous missionary endeavor was met with great success, but it will not always be so. It is as if Luke’s Jesus is preparing his followers for the long haul where they will need purse and bag. The sword here may be literal or metaphorical. If literal, it needs to be understood that the sword functioned as a means for self-protection for travelers. If metaphorical, it could mean that the disciples are to prepare for hostility to their work. I prefer to think Jesus is speaking metaphorically. It better explains the ending where the disciples bring him two swords and he says, “this is enough,” ending the conversation – as if to say, you just don’t get it yet! Jesus himself is to be counted among the lawless, yet will not retaliate violently. What do we need to be about the work of God’s dream for the world, especially when that work may encounter hostility?

Luke 22:39-46: That conversation ended, Jesus goes out to pray, and encourages the others to pray. He hopes that the fate that seems to await him might be otherwise, but he will remain faithful to God and God’s Spirit at work in him no matter what. Verses 43-44 are not found in the oldest manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel. They add some drama to the scene, anguish and yet comfort from God. Getting up from prayer he finds the disciples asleep “from grief.” This is a different picture from Matthew and Mark. Jesus encourages prayer, but his tone is less harsh here.

Luke 22:47-53:
“Suddenly,” language not often found in Luke introduces us to the betrayal scene. The disciples begin to offer violent resistance, but Jesus stops them and even in the midst of his arrest offers healing to one who came to arrest him. It is the time for the power of darkness, but Luke knows that this will be short-lived.

Luke 22:54-62: Before things get better, however, they get worse. Peter denies Jesus three times. In Matthew and Mark, Peter remembers Jesus’ words when the cock crows weeps bitterly. Here Luke adds another dimension, Jesus looks at Peter when the cock crows. How painful, and how powerful an image. I picture the look Jesus gives to be one of disappointment, yes, but even more of compassion.

Luke 22:63-65: Jesus is mocked, beaten and insulted. The power of darkness seems to be winning this battle. Consider how so many other authorities over the years in human history have mistreated those they have arrested. With this story as a part of our story of faith, we should not take such mistreatment lightly.

Luke 22:66-71: Morning comes and Jesus is brought to the Jewish authorities. A cryptic exchange takes place where Jesus identity is made clear by Luke, and for that claim, Jesus’ case will be forwarded to the Roman authorities.

Luke 23:1-5: The authorities bring Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, accusing Jesus of “perverting our nation,” forbidding the payment of taxes to the emperor, and making imperial claims himself. In no other gospel are the charges spelled out like this, and the charges are distinctly political. Pilate questions Jesus, seems to feel that perhaps the Jewish authorities are overreacting, but hears from them that Jesus has been stirring up the people from Galilee to Judea.

Luke 23:6-12: Only Luke included this scenario of Pilate sending Jesus to Herod. Herod had been interested in Jesus, and was hoping that Jesus would perform some sign for him. But that does not happen and the derision of Jesus continues. He is sent back to Pilate, and Luke comments that this cements a relationship between Herod and Pilate. Whatever the historical validity of this line, it points out Luke’s sense that all the authorities collaborated against Jesus.

Luke 23:13-25: From Luke’s perspective, the Roman authorities want to find Jesus innocent, but many of the Jewish authorities (though not Herod) press his guilt. This may reflect Luke’s Gentile context. The reality is that Jesus was executed under the legal authority of Rome for reasons of political subversion. Pilate has Jesus flogged, it seems in hopes that this will suffice for a penalty, but the crowds demand more and Pilate gives in (at least in Luke’s telling).

Luke 23:26-43: The journey to the place of crucifixion is given additional detail by Luke. A man named Simon is recruited to carry the cross (as in Matthew and Mark, but not in John). Jesus addresses some of those following along. He offers words that portend judgment. Yes, his death is a tragedy, but more tragedy will follow. Remember, Luke is writing after Jerusalem has fallen to the Romans. The place where Jesus is crucified dies its own death of sorts. For Luke, the two seem connected. Two criminals are executed alongside Jesus. From the cross, Jesus pronounces forgiveness for those who are executing him. Yet many continue to mock him. Many others simply observe. One of those being crucified asks to be remembered, and Jesus offers his assurance. Luke is proclaiming that even in death, God will redeem God’s people.

Luke 23:44-49: The crucifixion scene continues, with a darkening over the whole land. The temple curtain is torn in two. This is a symbol of a new relationship being established between human persons and God. Jesus commends himself to God and breathes his last. A nearby centurion proclaims Jesus’ innocence. The crowds, too, are filled with sorrow. In Luke, the crowds continue to believe in Jesus and are not as much a part of the authorities plot to have Jesus executed. In Luke, some who followed him from Galilee continue to watch, even if at a distance.

Luke 23:50-56: A good and righteous man named Joseph (not all the Jewish leaders conspired against Jesus) made sure Jesus had a place of burial. The women who had come with him from Galilee saw where he was buried and prepared , prepared the appropriate spices and ointments for his burial, and observed the Sabbath. Important rituals help people through difficult times.

Note on the Significance of the Death of Jesus (repeated): All of the gospels report that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. “There is no more certain fact in history that the execution of Jesus by the Roman occupational forces in Jerusalem at a Passover festival ca. 30 CE” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). It seems almost as sure that certain of the Jewish leaders at the time collaborated in his execution. There had been an uneasy peace established between Rome and Jerusalem, and some had a stake in maintaining that peace. If Jesus was seen as a threat to that, and he certainly seems to have been, then that threat needed to be taken care of. Historically, then, this is why Jesus died. But the Christian church and Christian faith has been almost unanimous in saying that the death of Jesus had a deeper meaning, a theological and religious significance. We will encounter this again and again as we read through the New Testament. What is this theological/religious significance?

“For all his followers, Jesus’ death was a terrible, unexpected surprise that shattered their hopes” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). But the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. They later experienced Jesus as alive and vindicated by God. Their later experience forced them to reevaluate and reinterpret Jesus’ death. Somehow even his death must be significant. Even here God must have been at work in some way. A variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus death are offered in the New Testament and in the history of Christian theology (theologically these are referred to as “atonement theories”). “The meaning of Jesus’ death was understood in a variety of ways: as an expression of Jesus’/God’s love, as the means of God’s forgiveness, as an atoning sacrifice, as an act of sealing or eschatologically renewing God’s covenant with his people, as redemptive liberation from slavery or ransom from captivity, and in numerous other concepts and images that express the saving act of God in the death of Jesus” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). There are those in the Christian community of faith who argue that there is only one appropriate way to understand the theological/religious significance of the death of Jesus. It is probably fair to say that substitutionary atonement is the only way that many or even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus…. It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 101). Crossan and Borg wonder if there are better metaphors for understanding God and thus for understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Jesus may be said to have sacrificed his life “for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God” (The Last Week, 154), but this is a different kind of sacrifice than one required by God so that God might forgive. Walter Wink, in his brilliant book on “the son of man” traditions in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament (The Human Being) writes perceptively about the significance of the death of Jesus and about the theories of his death in the history of Christian theology. Of most views of the significance of Jesus’ death, Wink writes, “All these views share the presupposition that God had Jesus killed in order to redeem the world. None of them makes realistic sense of the fact that Jesus was executed by the religious and political establishment.” (105) Wink then rehearses many of the traditional theories and ends up with the following: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness. Each response if divinely tailored to meet our situations…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (110-111)

All of this is to say that the bottom line New Testament affirmation is that the death of Jesus, a brutal execution at the hands of legitimate authorities, has significance for our lives and our relationship to God. Just what that significance is is open to a rich variety of interpretations, and that is perhaps as it should be. Rather than argue that there is only one true way to understand the meaning of Jesus death for our lives we would do well to listen to others as they share their understandings. Such conversations have the potential to contribute a great deal to our own formation as disciples of Jesus – this Jesus who trusted God even when he felt God’s absence.

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