Commentary on the Gospel readings for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion Years A, B, and C
Note: the traditional liturgy for Palm Sunday/the Sunday of the Passion includes two gospel readings: the reading at the beginning of the liturgy in the rite for the blessing and procession with palms and the reading of the entire Passion Narrative as the gospel in place in the liturgy of word and meal. This is the historic practice of the Church. Historically the Passion according to St. Matthew was read on Palm Sunday, with the passions according to St. Mark on Monday, according to St. Luke on Tuesday, and according to St. John on Good Friday. In years A, B, and C of the Roman and Revised Common lectionaries, the processional gospels and passion narratives are from the synoptic gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, respectively. The Passion according to St. John is always read on Good Friday. This commentary reviews the details of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The Passion according to St. John is not included here because its details differ significantly from the synoptic texts, which also differ among themselves. Precisely because each evangelist presents his own story of Jesus with its own emphasis, the four gospels should not be blended together. In this commentary with reflections on the synoptic texts I will be careful to note their differences as well as their similarities.
Entry into Jerusalem: Matthew 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–1; Luke 19:20–44
Passion: Matthew 26:14–27:61 ; Mark 14:10 –15:47; Luke 22:3–23:56
This is the age of the investigative reporter. Our news programs don’t just report what happened, they assign an investigative reporter to dig into the story and report on what really happened. Each evangelist was a kind of investigative reporter. Here the commentator investigates three witnesses.
When we think about what happened to Jesus in the last week of his earthly life, it seems like there are a lot of unanswered questions that call for further investigation. We say in the Apostles’ Creed, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Those are the facts. But what was really going on? What more is there to discover.
Over three years we hear all three synoptic gospel accounts of the passion of the Christ on Palm/Passion Sunday. We will hear the Passion according to St. John on Good Friday. Sometimes, unconsciously, we blend the details together in our minds. My point in offering this reflection is to note differences as well as similarities.
All four gospels have Jesus making his way to Jerusalem. They agree that the Mount of Olives was the staging area for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Is there any significance to the Mount of Olives other than the fact that it was the hill across the Kidron Valley from Mount Zion on which Jerusalem was built? John differs from the synoptic gospels in NOT locating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week we call “Holy.”
The prophet Zechariah had prophesied that the Lord would come to his people on a day when they were surrounded by enemy nations. “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4). Why would the Lord come in a demonstration of power against the nations? Because, said the prophet, “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9).
We need to keep this in mind as we hear about Jesus sending two disciples to fetch a colt. Apparently, arrangements had already been made to procure this animal. Jesus must have had other people in his circles besides the twelve who had made the arrangements. And it was a colt they were to bring; Matthew quotes the prophet Zechariah, who references the king riding on both an ass and a colt and has Jesus riding on both to fulfill prophecy. The point is that the evangelist saw Jesus’ entry as the fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus was not riding on two animals.
So mounted on a colt Jesus leads his disciples into Jerusalem as well as a multitude into Jerusalem. As Jesus rode along they spread garments on his royal highway. Luke doesn’t say anything about palms, although the other evangelists do. Palms probably wouldn’t have meant as much to Luke’s gentile readers as making a carpeted pathway for a king. Matthew reports that Jesus’ followers explicitly call him “son of David” (Matthew 21:9). Using the words of Psalm 118, the crowds bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Luke specifies “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38). They were also proclaiming “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” These words sound like the song of the angels at the announcement of the birth of Jesus, which are recorded in Luke’s Gospel—except there’s no mention here of “peace on earth.”
And that’s because there wasn’t any. In Luke, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says, “If you, even you, had recognized on this day the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42) He prophesies the destruction of the city “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:44). The Jerusalemites did not recognize the divine visitation. Then Jesus enters the Temple and creates a riot by throwing out the merchants and cashiers, causing the leaders of the people to look for a way to kill him. But they could not do anything because “all the people were spellbound by what they heard” (19:48).
Having cleansed the Temple, Jesus takes over the place and uses it as the venue for his teaching. Day by day he takes on the various Jewish parties in debates about Jesus’s authority, his telling of the parable about the wicked tenants that the scribes and chief priests perceived had been told against them, paying taxes to Caesar, the resurrection, and who is David’s son. Jesus denounces the scribes, prophesies the destruction of the Temple, and proclaims the coming of the Son of Man in judgment. These teachings and confrontations are a lead-up to the passion narrative which begins with Judas’s participation in the plot to kill Jesus.
When the day of the Passover arrives some of Jesus’s operatives have made arrangements for him to celebrate the Passover with his disciples in an upper room. Luke reports a real Passover Seder, beginning with the blessing of the cup. There’s ambiguity in the text about whether there was a final cup—the one for the messiah. If there was, did Jesus drink from it or did he wait until everything was fulfilled in the kingdom of God? In Matthew and Mark says says after the supper that he would no longer drink the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new with them in the kingdom of God.
After supper there’s a dispute among the disciples about who among them is the greatest. We’ve heard this debate before. Jesus tells them once again that those who follow him must be slaves of all. But Luke says that Jesus ended the argument by conferring on them a kingdom, “so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and…sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28). Jesus is clearly imagining a coming kingdom.
Then Jesus said, enigmatically, that the disciples should have purse and bag and procure a sword. I suggest that Jesus was speaking ironically to disciples who still misconstrued what his kingdom was about and that the fact that the disciples were armed served to fulfill prophecy about being counted among the lawless.
They go out armed with two swords into the garden so Jesus can pray. Mark and Matthew say that the disciples fell asleep and had to be awakened three times. When the traitor Judas arrives with a crowd of people—the temple police, priests and elders—a skirmish takes place and Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Luke, who was interested in Jesus’ healing ministry, says Jesus healed it. Jesus notes that they could have seized him when he spoke openly in the temple. Instead, they waited for the cover of night because they knew that arresting Jesus in the temple would have caused a protest. Jesus also says that they are in league with the power of darkness.
Only Mark adds the detail that a young man who had come out to see what was going on fled lost his linen cloth when they tried to lay hands on him and fled naked into the night (Mark 14:51–52). (This may represent a cameo appearance of the evangelist himself , who is also the young man greeting the women at the empty tomb on the third day.)
Jesus is arrested and taken away to the high priest’s house, where he is kept in custody. Simon Peter follows, and joined others around a fire. All three gospels agree that Jesus was slapped around and mocked by the Temple police. They all testify to Peter’s apostasy. When questioned Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, as Jesus had predicted.
At morning the members of the Sanhedrin gather for a hearing, including chief priests, scribes, and elders. According to Mark (but not Matthew or Luke) Jesus admitted to the high priest that he was both “Christ” and “Son of God” and was convicted of “blasphemy” (Mark 14:43–64). Luke’s version of the trial before the Sanhedrin shows a more reticent Jesus who refuses to self-incriminate himself (Luke 23:66-71).
Unlike the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Luke presents no succession of false witnesses, no rending of garments by the chief priests, no cry of blasphemy or statement that Jesus deserves death. Luke also has the whole Sanhedrin involved in the questioning. Thus the rejection of Jesus is not from the chief priest alone, but from the whole religious leadership.
In Luke, while Jesus is unwilling to identify himself as the kind of Messiah popularly expected, he speaks of himself as the Son of Man who comes as judge (Daniel 7:13–14). The council interprets this answer (correctly) as an affirmation of a special divine status—the Son of God. The reader of this gospel knows from the opening scenes of the nativity narrative that Jesus is the “Messiah” and the “Son of God”. But the opponents are closed to this truth. An admission by Jesus that he is the “Son of God” will not help their unbelief. Jesus won’t incriminate himself. He answers, “You have said so.” In other words, I am what you say. But that was enough for them to hear. They haul him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
It is helpful to understand the arrangement of Rome’s rule over Palestine and Pilate’s obligations to the Roman government. Rome allowed local rule in its provinces as much as possible. The governor’s job was to keep the peace and see that taxes were collected. For several centuries, since the Maccabees, Judea had been ruled by the high priest. That ceased during the reign of Herod the Great. But after Herod’s death Rome restored the priestly privileges. Before Pilate the high priest and Sanhedrin charged Jesus with perverting the nation, telling people not to pay taxes to the emperor, and proclaiming himself a king. These charges would have undermined Pilate’s most important responsibilities. Pilate found no basis for the accusations when he examined Jesus, but when he heard that Jesus was a Galilean, he decided to turn him over to Herod Antipas, who was in Jerusalem for the Passover—a detail only Luke reports.
Jesus before Herod Antipas by Albrecht Durer, 1509
Herod, who had acquiesced to the beheading of Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, was pleased to see Jesus. He had heard of Jesus’s miracles and hoped Jesus might perform one for Herod and his guests. But since Jesus wouldn’t speak, Herod allowed his guests to mock him. They put a royal robe on him and Herod sent him back to Pilate without a recommendation. Luke notes that from that day on Herod and Pilate became friends. In a perverted way Jesus brought together two competitors for power in the region. Herod’s refusal to deal with Jesus also underscores Jesus’s innocence, as Pilate noted.
So again Pilate examined him but still found no bases for the Sanhedrin’s charges and certainly nothing that deserved death. He tried to placate them by offering to have Jesus flogged and then released. In this proposal the flogging itself would have been the punishment — and brutal enough. But that wasn’t enough for the Sanhedrin. They wanted Jesus executed.
Instead they asked for Barabbas to be released. In Matthew’s Gospel Pilate was the one who presented the bandit and insurrectionist Barabbas to be released, according to his custom at Passovertime. Luke’s Gospel has the crowd asking for the release of Barabbas. Presumably that would allow no alternative to crucifying Jesus. (The name of this bandit is Bar Abbas, which means “son of the father.” Is this reprieved criminal a stand-in for us?)
Pilate kept offering to have Jesus flogged and released, and the Sanhedrin kept calling for his crucifixion. Finally, Pilate relented and signed the death sentence. Jesus is handed over to the execution squad
Luke doesn’t mention the flogging, which would have been viewed as especially degrading. But it was a legal requirement of Roman executions from which only women and senators were exempt. The victim was stripped naked so that every part of his body was subject to lashing. The intensity of the flogging varied according to how long they wanted the condemned man to linger in crucifixion.
The flogging in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” with Jim Caviezel playing Jesus was prolonged and especially graphic. But we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that “He suffered under Pontius Pilate,” which makes the flogging or scourging of Jesus an article of faith for Christians. It is a punishment that continues to be inflicted in many countries even in today’s world (see “Frank Answers About Violence and Scapegoating”)
Contrary to our popular portrayals, victims did not carry or drag the entire cross. The upright post was left in place and the victim only carried the crossbeam. The fact that Jesus was not able to carry the crossbeam, requiring the soldiers to press the bystander Simon of Cyrene into service, suggests that Jesus was in a very weakened condition from the flogging.
But he was not so weak that he couldn’t respond to the women mourners, telling them to weep for themselves because of the coming disaster when the city is besieged. The enigmatic statement about green wood and dry wood in Luke 23:31 may be a comparison between the current prosperity of the city and the desolation following the Roman siege and destruction
In spite of the prevalence of crucifixions in the Roman world, detailed descriptions of it are few; contemporary writers seem to have avoided the subject. Luke is no exception. He covers the event in one line: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one of his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33).
We have some descriptions of crucifixions from the Jewish historian Josephus, including an historical corroboration of the crucifixion of Jesus. And recent archaeological discoveries, including skeletal remains of a crucified man in first century Jerusalem, have added to our knowledge of the act. The victim was stripped and whatever clothes he had were divided among the squad of soldiers. Since the victim’s arms were usually tied with ropes to the crossbeam he was carrying, nailing the hands (or more likely the wrists) served only to inflict pain by damaging nerves. If Jesus was not carrying his crossbeam his arms wouldn’t have been tied to it. This would have required nailing. The victim, fastened to the cross beam, was hoisted into place on the upright post. The feet straddled the upright post and the skeletal remains of the crucified man shows that his feet were nailed through his heels to the post. To prevent the body from slipping forward, the upright post often had a small pole or seat on which the victim uncomfortably sat— not a foot rest, as artists’ portrayals often show. This made the cross Jesus’ throne and being hoisted up onto it his enthronement.
The crowd of onlookers, the people egged on by their leaders and the soldiers, taunted him: “If you are the messiah of God, if you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” But this king is God visiting his people with his own saving purpose, a salvation only God could accomplish.
From the throne of the cross Mark and Matthew have Jesus pray the words of Psalm 22, beginning “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” He said these words in Aramaic, in the loud voice. “Loud voice” could suggest chanting the psalm, which would have been customary.
Luke reports three “words” from King Jesus. First, Jesus grants a royal pardon to his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they are doing”. Second, Jesus grants the petition of the thief crucified next to him, who admits his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him when he come into his kingdom. “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus promises. Third, Jesus utters the words from Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I commend I spirit,” and breathes his last. His death comes surprisingly quick. Luke mentions no spear thrust into Jesus’ side.
Mark and Matthew reports that at the moment of Jesus’ death the veil of the temple was torn in two. Matthew adds that there was an earthquake, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints came out of the tombs.
This is a pretty big story. Jesus was clearly intending to bring about the kingdom of God and his passion was the way in which he would do it. You could easily develop theocratic ideas from this, and Christians have sometimes done that. But such notions must always be tempered with the reality that this king reigns from a cross—and that’s why the image of the crucified king must always be before us.
Was this a political killing? The centurion must have thought so. Mark and Matthew have the attending centurion exclaim, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” In Luke’s version he says, “Surely this man was innocent.” Pilate knew he had condemned an innocent man. Perhaps that’s why he graciously granted permission for a man named Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin, to take down the body of Jesus and get it buried before the sundown that would begin the Sabbath.
What all the gospel passion narratives have in common is bringing together Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom of God. Mark and Matthew present Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant. But the king as the servant of the Lord can also suffering on behalf of the people. Luke especially presents a royal Jesus who is enthroned on the cross as king of the world, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah that the Lord will come to Zion and become “king over all the earth.”
But he does reign! And the Sanhedrins and Caesars of the world are forewarned. They will always be defeated with a strategy of non-violent redemptive suffering which they cannot counter. This is not just an otherworldly hope. It’s happened several times in recent history—in India, in the American south, in South Africa.
And because the strategy of the suffering king has worked in world history, we know that the benefits this king dispenses can also be real for us: among them, the gift of forgiveness, the promise of new and eternal life, and the care of our heavenly Father when our last hour comes.
For this reason the crucifix is always before our eyes — above the altar where we commemorate the Lord’s death until he comes, next to the pulpit where Christ crucified is proclaimed, in rooms where we live our daily lives as disciples of Christ.
Pastor Frank Senn
Image above this post: Jesus Entering Jerusalem by Giotto, ca. 1305.