The Gospel of Luke – The Death of A Savior

jesus_crucifiedIt is a sometimes very difficult pastoral situation, when a person has been truly wronged by the events that have unfolded with in a marriage, and I know that ultimately – in one form or another – I will let the person know that there are no innocent parties.  Indeed some are infinitely more innocent, but in the end there is rarely complete innocence.

Indeed we stand rightly condemned. But this gospel reveals that in the simple act of trust, there is salvation, beyond merit or worth, beyond categories of innocence or guilt. There are no scales. There is only the promise that our Savior remembers those who trust. We stand before complete innocence.

The Death of a Savior

Luke 23: 32 Now two others, both criminals, were led away with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. 34 (Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”) They divided his garments by casting lots. 35 The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Messiah of God.” 36 Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine 37 they called out, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

44 It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon 45 because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. 46 Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last.

Commentary

Luke adds a poignant detail to his description of Jesus’ journey to the cross; with him march two criminals. The Jesus who had been described by his opponents as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34) would not only live with such friends but die with them (see 22:37; Isa 53:12).

Luke fills the crucifixion scene with details typical of his portrayal of Jesus. He is crucified with the two criminals surrounding him, fulfilling Jesus’ own prediction at the supper table: “For I tell you that the scripture must be fulfilled in me, namely, ‘He was counted among the wicked”‘ (22:37). Just as Jesus had repeatedly taught his disciples not to respond to violence with more violence and to be forgiving (6:27-36), so he forgives the very men who had condemned him and who drive the stakes into his body (23:34) – words echoed by Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7:60). The dividing of the garments reflects the words of Ps 22:19. Though Luke does not exonerate the Jewish people completely from complicity in the death of Jesus, he continues to show that it was caused mainly by the hostility and jealousy of their leaders (v. 35). Luke has the scoffers refer to Jesus as the “chosen one” (as at the transfiguration: 9:35) rather than as the “king of Israel” (Mark 15:32; Matt 27:42), a title less striking to non-Jewish readers. The soldiers offer him their own cheap drink, which might be considered an act of kindness, but it is mockery to offer such a drink to a king.

The incident of the good thief is unique to Luke. When one of the crucified criminals joins in the chorus of derision that accompanies Jesus to his death, the other confesses his sin and asks for mercy (23:39-43). It is Luke’s prescription for authentic conversion as exemplified in the story of publican and the sinner (18:9-14).  One criminal mocks Jesus; the other criminal asks Jesus to remember him when he begins his reign. He means the definitive messianic kingdom that Jews expected at the end of the present age, but in Luke’s theology it also refers to the time of Jesus’ exaltation through resurrection and ascension. Jesus promises him a place in “Paradise” today, because the death of Jesus is beginning the exodus (9:31) that will open a new way to salvation.

The moment of Jesus’ death is charged with drama. As a sign of the terrible power of death, the sun’s light is eclipsed and darkness grips “the whole land” (23:44). The triumph of darkness (22:53) now seems complete as Jesus nears death. Luke does not speak technically of an eclipse of the sun but of the failure of its light as if to say that even God’s presence leaves the people. This is, indeed, the “hour of darkness”.

The Temple veil covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies is torn in two.  There are three possible explanation given for the meaning of this sign: (a) punishment to come against Temple because of the rejection of the prophet; (b) a new dispensation of covenant away from the atoning sacrifice of animal blood to the “pouring out” of Jesus’ blood, once for all; and (c) the end of the division of Jew and Gentile, giving all equal access to God.

From the midst of these terrible omens comes Jesus’ piercing voice, his life breath poured out in a final prayer: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (23:46). The words are from Psalm 31 (v. 6) and express the core of Jesus’ being: his unshakable trust in God, a trust that death itself could not destroy.

Notes

23:32 criminals: Luke uses a generic term where Mark/Matthew describe the other two men as bandits or revolutionaries (lestai) – a term forsworn by Jesus in 22:52

23:33 Skull: Luke does not use the Aramaic name “Golgotha” as the other evangelists do, but simply refers to the place of execution as “The Skull,” a name that described the rock formation at Calvary.

they crucified him: Luke omits the giving of wine mixed with myrrh.

23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do: this portion of Luke 23:34 does not occur in the oldest papyrus manuscript of Luke and in other early Greek manuscripts and ancient versions of wide geographical distribution. However, thematically it (a) matches the Lucan version of the Lord’s Prayer (11:4) and it (b) established in practice the very proclamation of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins.

divided his garments by casting lots: an allusion to Ps 22:19 extensively used by the gospel writers in their interpretation of the death of the Messiah.  The psalm describes a righteous person unjustly afflicted by enemies who in the end is vindicated by God.

22:35 the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him: The people have come for the spectacle (23:48) but they stand in silence. Not so the rulers who continue their derision and mocking.  Again Luke distinguishes the people from the rulers.

He saved others, let him save himself:  This is the first of three slurs regarding “saving” (vv. 36, 39). The irony is that the reader knows that not saving himself is the very means by which others are in fact saved.

the chosen one: Luke continues the irony. This phrase echoes the words spoken about Jesus at the Transfiguration. Thus the ruler are, in their derision, proclaiming truth.

22:38 This is the King of the Jews: All the gospels have this as the formal charge levied by the Romans (with some variations).  Pilate has declared Jesus innocent of this charge, but now directs (presumably) the charge to by publicly displayed.  There are several reasons suggested: (a) to protect himself against a later charge he had simply given in to the mob demands, (b) to mock the Jewish religious leaders, and (c) to give warning to other would be revolutionaries against the empire.

23:39-43 “The Repentant Thief” : This episode is recounted only in this gospel. The penitent sinner receives salvation through the crucified Jesus. Jesus’ words to the penitent thief reveal Luke’s understanding that the destiny of the Christian is “to be with Jesus.”

22:40 Have you no fear of God: an appropriate exhortation for those facing death and judgment.  The exhortation is a call for decision to choose the redemption offered in the crucifixion of Christ.

22:41 this man has done nothing criminal: the fourth declaration of innocence, now made by one who had committed crimes for which death is mandated.

23:43 Paradise: “Paradise” can be traced back to the Persian term for an enclosed park and was used in the Greek Old Testament for the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Late Hebrew writings considered paradise an intermediate state of happiness of the righteous before the final judgment (4 Ezra 4:7; 2 Enoch 42:3). This intermediate state seems to have been the meaning of paradise here.

23:44 noon . . . three in the afternoon: literally, the sixth and ninth hours.

23:45 eclipse of the sun: It should be noted that Luke has placed this event and the splitting of the Temple veil before the death of Jesus, concentrating the wrath of God before the moment  when Jesus would entrust his spirit into his father’s hands.  The Greek simply says “given out was the sun” or “darkened was the sun.”  Such a translation avoids the astronomical problem that no eclipse was recorded and that the maximum eclipse length is some seven minutes, 40 seconds and not the three hours indicated by the gospels.  Other phenomena are possible: sunspots, solar storms, sirocco dust storms, thunderstorms, etc.

The darkness that came over the whole land echoes OT texts that describe the same cosmic phenomenon in connection with the coming of the day of the Lord (cf. Joel 2:10, 30–31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15). Whether taken as a reference to a literal event or as a symbolic comment on Jesus’ death, this OT background underscores the significance of Jesus’ death, both in terms of the cosmic stage on which the final hours of Jesus’ life are played out and in terms of the arrival of the “last days” for which God’s presence and judgment were prophesied.

23:46 Father, into your hands I commend my spirit: In Luke there is no cry of desolation “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1), rather Jesus’ final words are from Ps 30:6.  This psalm also portrays a righteous man rejected by his enemies, but expresses a quiet confidence in the saving power of God.  The psalm concludes: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.”  In later rabbinic tradition Ps. 30:6 was used as part of the evening prayer: pious Jews ask God to care for them and protect them during sleep in the descending night . As this prayer fits the evening before sleep, it fits the evening of life before death, as sleep was regarded as the threshold of death

22:46 : The Greek verb is ekpneō , lit. “to breath out, “ but also euphemistically “to breath one’s last”, or to die.  The Markan expression is “he gave up the spirit.”  In John it is “handed over the spirit.”

Sources:

  • Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1994) 2 Volumes
  • R. 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 by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

Over the years I have compiled notes, documents, and items of interest about Scripture. Mostly for my own use and in teaching Bible studies in Catholic parishes.  The idea was possible to make something that is approachable, more than “Bible 101″ yet not too overwhelming, yet with notes for people that want more – and hopefully even if a person feels “stretched” by the content, it is not too much.  I have come to realize I have developed a little library – and so I thought I would share some.

When I began to compile I made no attempt to be careful about sourcing, copying entire passages, footnoting, or the even the modicum of appropriate credit – and so there is likely a lot of content that is not my own. My apologies to all.

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