PASSION (PALM) SUNDAY
Is 50:4-7 Phi 2:6-11 (both A, B and C) Lk 22:14-23:56… Being “Human” …
What Price Commitment?; Jesus the Martyr; The Suffering of the Innocent; Fidelity; Quality of Life.The Gospel of St Luke is good document from a fine human being on the human dimension of Jesus’ Passion. Luke presents many unique human viewpoints of great artist. At the Paschal Meal, for example, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus begins by telling his Apostles how eagerly he desired to eat this Passover with them before he suffered (v.15) – how wonderful human! And after Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he asked that all humankind continue to celebrate the Eucharist in memory of him (v. 19) because, sadly, he knew how easily people forget.
Shame overshadowed the scene even more when Jesus had to foretell St Peter’s threefold denials before the crowing of the roosters early the next morning (vv. 31-34). Peter was so overconfident that he told Jesus he was prepared to go to prison and die with him (v. 33). Throughout history, persons, cities, and whole nations have been conquered because of complacent overconfidence like that. Peter was well warned. Jesus had announced that he had prayed (v. 32) that Peter’s loving attachment to him might never fail. In turn, Jesus asked that Peter strengthen his brothers – the lovely thought that, because of his experience, Peter would be better able to help others. He would be able to win trust by confiding, “I’ve been there!”
From the upper room, Jesus went as was his custom (v. 39) to the Garden of Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Luke’s reflective account says that Jesus went to the garden at this time not simply to escape his enemies, but to think and pray and fight his lonely battle through. No one wants to die at the age thirty-three. Jesus’ fight was a turning –point. He could still have refused. The salvation of the world hung in the balance. His initial prayer was that the Father take away this fearful duty, but he concluded that he really wanted the Father’s will, no matter what (v. 42). So great was his fear, though, that his sweat became like drops of blood (v. 44) as his body prepared for flight or fight. Evil’s darkness gathered fast. Judas’ knowledge of Jesus’ habit of going to Gethsemane and of a time when no crowds would be present made it easy for him to have Jesus quietly arrested.
The primal act of betrayal has always been captivating. Dante reserved the Ninth Circle of Hell, its bottom, for betrayers – Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, and Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar. They were frozen in ice, because they were betrayers of friends; through their betrayal they had ceased to have the capacity for love and so for heaven. The betrayer doesn’t just commit a single treacherous act and run; his entire being – every smile, every word he exchanges – is an intimate violation of all those around him. With all modern traitors from Benedict Arnold through Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames, all their friendships and relationships become elaborate lies requiring unceasing vigilance to maintain, lies that only they can follow. Even in our jaded age, the crime of treason still has a primitive power to shock, treachery a still-compelling ability to mesmerize.
The Apostles, not fully comprehending what was going on, got excited to the point of one of them cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant (v. 50). Jesus’ response was the same frustrated sad sigh as when they hadn’t understood him at the table, “Stop! No more of this!” (v.51), and he healed the wounded man’s ear. As those who had come for him (v. 52) circled closer, Jesus observed that the darkness was deepening (v. 53).
The darkness closed in still more with the denials of Peter in the courtyard of the house of the high priest (vv. 54- 62). Although Peter had the courage to follow Jesus there, and certainly ran more risks doing that than the others who scampered for safety, he failed. Only Luke records that then the Lord turned and looked at Peter (v. 61). That look, that special look, the heartbreak in that loved one’s eyes, stabbed Peter like a sword. Peter could have stood it more easily if Jesus had gotten angry. It was more than Peter could bear, and this strong man went out and cried intensely (v. 62).
After the guards’ mockery of Jesus (vv. 63-65), he was ushered before the elders, chief priests, and scribes who, together with the presiding high priest, constituted the Sanhedrin, the High Court of the land. With an admixture of self-protective cunning, honest religious devotion, and fanaticism, the Sanhedrin’s charge against him was blasphemy. Considered an insult to God’s majesty, this was so serious as to be punishable by death. Jesus was asking people for simple love; the false charges insured that he wouldn’t receive even simple justice.
Because by the law of the Roman army of occupation the Jews didn’t have the right to put anyone to death, the entire High Court propelled Jesus to the local Roman official who had that right-Pontius Pilate. Before this outsider, the Sanhedrin’s duplicity came to the fore with their deliberate change of charge from blasphemy into three crimes against the State: subversion, opposing the payment of taxes, and setting himself up as a king to rival Caesar (v. 2). When Pilate questioned Jesus about his being king, Jesus – knowing that he was certainly not the kind of king that Pilate had in mind – answered, “You say so” (v. 3). Pilate reported to the Sanhedrin that he found no legal cause of action (v. 4), thus officially declaring the case ended for want of sufficient evidence.
Because the members of the Sanhedrin weren’t satisfied with this, Pilate settled for the ruse of sending Jesus to Herod (vv. 8-12). Herod, looking upon Jesus as a spectacle and considering him of no importance, was so immersed in self-centered pleasure that he was one of the few people whom Jesus found impossible to reach and to whom he had absolutely nothing to say. (v. 9).
So they took him back to Pilate. The upper classes – mostly the chief priests and the rulers (v. 13) – were afraid that through Jesus’ influence they might lose their wealth, their comfort, and their power. So they incited, the people, forming them into a mob. Pilate, a hard bitten Roman administrator, saw through them. Desperately trying to give a last chance to the imperial justice that he knew to be the glory of Rome, he proposed to appease the mob and save himself. This only resulted in the crowd crying out, “Away with this man!” (v. 18) – the only time in Luke’s entire Gospel that the crowd ever turned from Jesus.
For the third time Pilate made a half-hearted attempt to slave Jesus. He know that, under Roman law, any administrator of a province could be reported to Rome for mismanagement; it would be looked into and dealt with – because one thing the far-flung Roman Empire wouldn’t tolerate was civil disorder. And Pilate had made grave mistakes in his past. He was vulnerable. All of us are vulnerable, and all of our pasts can haunt us. The only way to deal with that is forthrightly and courageously. Pilate didn’t. In his willingness to sacrifice Jesus to his career, he acquiesced to the leaders. The irony is that his career didn’t last much beyond this.
When the time came, the leaders deliberately put him with criminals (v. 33), to humiliate him further before the people and to have them associate him with robbers. In the face of those insults, and the people watching, and the leaders sneering (v. 35), and the soldiers offering sour wine (v. 36), Jesus had things to say. He didn’t say them only once. Of his enemies, he repeated over and over again, “Father, forgive them.” In his last words to anyone on earth, Jesus Kept assuring the penitent thief that very day they would be together in paradise (v. 43).
As Jesus’ death approached, darkness came over the whole land (V. 44). The powers of darkness were now approaching their greatest moment of triumph. In a loud voice (v. 46) that was a shout of triumph, Jesus’ very last words were those which every Jewish mother taught her young children to say to God as their night prayer. They were the words of the Psalmist to God (31: 5): “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus made them a more lovely prayer by adding the word “Father”. He had been what God intended people to be. The crowd, seeing it, was softened (v. 48), and the women, even more touched, stood at a distance (v. 49) – powerless but for the power of prayer.
Into that scene came a final good human being – the tragic Joseph of Arimathea, of whom each Gospel paints a brief portrait. St Mark identifies him as distinguished and bold. St John tells us he was a secret disciple, out of prudent fear that the Sanhedrin, of which body Joseph was a member, could turn on him for being a follower of Jesus. St Mathew tells us that Christ’s grave, carved out of the hillside near Golgotha, had been bought by Joseph for his own burial. St Luke calls him an upright and holy man.
Though Joseph disagreed with the Sanhedrin’s judgement, there’s no record that he ever spoke up in court. How it would have helped the lonely Jesus if in that hate-filled assembly even one voice had been raised in his behalf! But, in the face of the usual custom to leave the body on its cross a few feet off the ground for wild dogs and vultures, at least he gave Jesus a grave. We often don’t speak up until it is too late. We mention in eulogies the words of tenderness that we should have said to our dead loved ones while they were still living.
May our reflections on Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection this week remind us that, unlike other dramas, we’re not mere spectators, but participants. We are invited to ask ourselves, “Am I Pilate? Judas? Peter?” Above all, “Am I Jesus?” Do I follow him in suffering – in my attitude toward the disappointments, pains, and anguishes of my life? Do I reflect the victor over suffering and death that he showed in his total composure through his passion? Though suffering may have no value in itself, what does have value is the attitude toward suffering which the sufferer has – or, more preciously, the attitude toward God which the sufferer achieves in Suffering. May our thoughts this day make us all-around better human beings!