Gospel for Palm Sunday (14 April 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The Passion Narrative for today is taken from Luke 22:14-23:56
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” ..... (Luke 22:14-16)
It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. (23:53-56 – NRSV)
It is argued by some scholars that Luke sees nothing salvific about the Cross: “C. H. Dodd, J. M. Creed, E. Käsemann, G. Voss; to which one could further add Conzelmann (Theology, 201: ‘there is no trace of any Passion mysticism, nor is any direct soteriological significance drawn from Jesus’ suffering or death’), H. J. Cadbury (Making of Luke-Acts, 280–282), C. H. Talbert (Luke and the Gnostics, 71–82), etc. Has Luke really downplayed ‘the Cross’, or ascribed the death of Jesus to Jewish misunderstanding and ignorance (of the Scriptures) so that the resurrection turns out to be God’s corrective of that event? Is there no ‘saving significance’ to the death of Jesus in the Lucan writings? This is the problem much discussed today” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 218)
Joseph Fitzmyer disagrees. What follows are some of the essential pieces of his argument.
“Only in the Lucan Gospel does the already crucified Jesus say to the thief beside him: ‘Today you shall be with me in Paradise’ (23:43). No matter how one may explain the meaning of the phrase ‘in Paradise’, one cannot help but realize that the crucified Jesus is assuring the repentant thief that that very day he would be with him. That scene certainly conveys to the reader of the Lucan Gospel in a highly literary way something about the salvific character of Jesus’ death” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 23).
(T)he real question that has to be asked is whether in the Lucan story God is so depicted as bringing his salvific plan into realization despite the suffering and death of Jesus or through it (see G. Baumbach, BLit 45  242). Even if one recognizes that in the Lucan account place is made for the misunderstanding of certain Jewish leaders involved in the death of Jesus (Luke 23:34; Acts 3:14–17; 13:27), that does not deprive his view of the death of all saving significance.
In this regard one has to recall that it is solely Luke who depicts Jesus as a suffering Messiah, as the Messiah who ‘must suffer’ (see pp. 200, 212 above). No less than the other Synoptists he portrays Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives, ‘Yet not my will but yours be done’ (22:42). He further depicts him as the prophet aware that he has to perish in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33), and Acts 13:28–30 clearly explains that what happened to him was divinely related to God’s salvific plan. ‘But first he [the Son of Man] must suffer many things and be repudiated by this generation’ (Luke 17:25). In other words, the Lucan ‘necessity’ involved in the plan of salvation-history has a bearing on the death of Jesus (see pp. 179–180 above).
Though Luke has for some inscrutable reason omitted the Marcan saying about the Son of Man who had to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), he is the only Synoptist who has preserved the words pronounced over the bread at the Last Supper as, ‘This is my body which is given for you’ (22:19). The sacrificial nuance of this phrase has been stressed by A. George, W. G. Kümmel, and others. It is clearly akin to 1 Cor 11:24, but it has long been neglected in this regard because of the short reading that many interpreters have preferred. That neglect, however, can no longer be sustained .... Similarly, a sacrificial nuance of the death of Jesus must be recognized in the covenant-blood spoken of in 22:20.
Again, no matter how one resolves the textual difficulties of Acts 20:28 (‘the church of God/the Lord, which he acquired through his own blood/through the blood of his Own’ [see B. M. Metzger, TCGNT, 480–482]), the acquisition of a people—an OT allusion (Isa 43:21; Mal 3:17)—by God through blood/death certainly alludes to the saving significance of Jesus’ death.
Hence one has to admit with H. Flender (St Luke, 159) that ‘Luke regards the cross as an eschatological event’—even though ‘the cross’ is a more Pauline turn of phrase. The death of Jesus is one of the events that has come to fulfillment among us (1:1), and in that sense is eschatological. ‘Its saving significance can only be comprehended in the context of the whole drama of salvation’ (ibid.), or better, in the whole drama of the salvific plan being realized. The Lucan way of putting it: ‘This is what stands written: the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day; in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all the nations’ (24:46–47). That certainly implies that forgiveness of sins comes only in the name of him who is the suffering Messiah. Luke may in the long run attach more saving significance to the resurrection of Jesus, but that is not because he regards it as a corrective of the misunderstanding of some Jewish leaders. Rather, through it Jesus became the ‘leader of life’ (archēgos tēs zōēs, Acts 3:15; see p. 217 above).
Finally, one should recall what was said above (p. 23) about the episode of Jesus and the penitent thief, which is a Lucan symbolic way of highlighting the effect of the crucified Jesus on human beings.
A. George (RB 80  186–217) has amassed all the references to the death of Jesus in the Lucan writings, and the sum total of them makes a striking impression. It may be that they do not all underline the saving significance of it in a Pauline or Marcan way, but in the whole picture of the suffering Messiah it is difficult not to see Luke’s way of presenting that significance. George speaks of the Lucan presentation of Jesus’ death as ‘original’, and in a sense he is right, even though one has to recognize that some of the data Luke uses are traditional. But he rightly concludes: ‘In fact, Luke does not suppress the cross, nor its tragedy, nor its mystery, nor even at times its salvific role, nor the necessity for the disciple of Jesus to deny himself, to take up the cross, and follow the Master (pp. 216–217)” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 220-221).
There are two very common errors made when speaking of the Cross. According to the first of these errors, Jesus’ death on the Cross was simply a consequence of being a human being who got off side with those in charge. For example: “Jesus' crucifixion, is seen as the consequence of his confrontation with falsified religion at the right hand of oppressive political power” (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, Boston: Beacon Press, 1983, 27). This “consequential” view completely ignores the testimony of the Christian Scriptures. For example, in the First Letter of Peter we read: “because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1Peter 3:18).
The second error is to believe that Jesus is simply an exemplar. This error is indicated in the following statement: “We revere the cross, not in itself, but as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means (Donald Smythe, "If You Come Upon the True Cross, Burn It," National Catholic Reporter, 28 March 1986). That Jesus’ death on the Cross is simply an example of fidelity and courage arises from and feeds back into the erroneous view that Christianity – indeed Jesus Christ – is first and foremost about morality. This view has had a disastrous effect on the life of Christians, especially since the Enlightenment. The Mel Gibson view of the Cross – see his 2004 film, The Passion of Christ – with its vivid depiction of the suffering wrought by such a way of death, expresses and feeds the same moralistic view. Hans Kung rightly contradicts this erroneous view: “The cross is not only example and model, but ground, power and norm of the Christian faith” (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1976, 410).
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes: “The Cross is not an episode at the end of the life of Jesus but the coming to fulfilment of what that life has been about” (Rowan Williams, God with us: The Meaning of the Cross and resurrection then and now, SPCK, 2017, 45). The Cross is the ultimate expression of the Incarnation. The Incarnation would have been incomplete without Jesus experiencing the outer boundaries, as it were, of what it means to be human. In Jesus’ time, the outer boundaries were epitomized in an ignominious and cruel “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). The full power of the Incarnation is summed up in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. .... fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:14-17).