Luke's Interpretation of Jesus' Death

ITALY - DECEMBER 24: The Crucifixion (16th century), fresco by a master of the Lombard school, Church of St Sebastian (16th c
ITALY - DECEMBER 24: The Crucifixion (16th century), fresco by a master of the Lombard school, Church of St Sebastian (16th century), Biella, Piedmont, Italy. Detail. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Many churches follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year schedule of Scripture readings for the church year. Each year features one of the Gospels. The Gospel for this year, Year C, is the Gospel of Luke. (The Lectionary does not devote a year to John but scatters readings from John across all three years.) Luke presents a distinctive understanding of Jesus' death.

This Holy Week, we may ponder that Luke interprets Jesus' death as a continuation of his ministry. Quite early in the story, Jesus identifies himself as bringing the reign of God through his acts of healing and liberation, his teaching ministry, and the community that forms around him. He shares that these activities will eventually lead to the cross. In his last hours Jesus continues this ministry by seeking blessing for other people rather than calling attention to himself.

For Luke, Jesus' death carries no saving power on its own. It provides no atonement for sins, whatever we may mean by atonement. Instead, Jesus dies as a consequence of his commitment to bless all people, especially the poor and sinners. He continues these activities even on the cross. And his resurrection vindicates him as the world's savior who brings God's presence to humankind. Because of the resurrection, Jesus' ministry continues through the church - despite its imperfections.

Luke communicates this distinctive message in several ways. All of the features I will mention here apply only to Luke and do not appear in the other Gospels. For example, Luke locates Jesus' appearance in his hometown synagogue at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry (4:16-30). This scene occurs pretty much in the middle of Matthew and Mark, where we do not learn the nature of Jesus' teaching. According to Luke, however, Jesus announces that he brings good news to the poor and the downtrodden, and he shows how God's blessings extend even beyond the boundaries of Israel to embrace the Gentiles. This scene sets the tone for Jesus' ministry.

Twice Jesus ponders what will happen to him when he reaches Jerusalem. While he is on the way to the Holy City, some Pharisees warn Jesus that King Herod is out to kill him. Jesus responds that he will continue his ministry just as he has been doing. Then he laments over Jerusalem: "it is not possible," he says, "for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem" (13:31-35). As he approaches Jerusalem, Jesus weeps because the city has not recognized "the things that bring peace near" (19:41-44). Unfortunately, these passages have provided fuel for anti-Jewish rhetoric, but for Luke they indicate that Jesus anticipates how the course of his ministry will lead to a violent end.

Space won't allow for a detailed treatment of how Luke interprets Jesus' final hours, but we can call attention to several points. Again, these are features of Luke that do not occur - or they play out very differently - in the other Gospels. We know that Luke used a copy of Mark's Gospel as the framework for its own story. Therefore, the places where Luke's account diverges from Mark's are all the more important.

  • During his final meal, Jesus reaches out to express his prayers for Simon Peter, who is in for a very rough night (22:31-34).
  • When Jesus enters Gethsemane he does not throw himself upon the ground in agony, as he does in Mark, nor does he ask his disciples to stay awake while he prays; instead, he encourages the disciples to pray for themselves while he kneels to pray (22:40-46).
  • During Jesus' arrest a disciple cuts off the ear of one of the high priest's slaves. Only in Luke does Jesus heal the slave (22:50-51).
  • On Jesus' way to the cross, a large group of women wail and lament concerning his fate. But Jesus tells them they should grieve for themselves and their children instead (23:27-31).
  • On the cross Jesus asks God to forgive his tormentors (23:34).
  • While on the cross, Jesus assures one of the criminals beside him, "Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43). Luke's Gospel shows more interest in Jesus' companionship with sinners than do the other Gospels, and here Luke makes clear that the men crucified with Jesus are actual criminals, something that isn't clear in Mark.
  • Mark and Matthew relate Jesus' agonizing final words: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mark 14:34; Matthew 27:46). Luke omits this cry. Instead, Jesus' last words attest to his faith: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (23:46).

All of these examples show that Jesus faces his death not only with remarkable calm but with a focus upon blessing other people rather than focusing upon his own suffering. This is how Luke interprets Jesus' death. Jesus dies just as he lived, seeking the blessing of others, especially sinners and the disadvantaged.

In my experience, many people struggle with the idea of Jesus' death as a sacrifice or atonement for sins. (Sacrifice and atonement are not necessarily the same thing.) So do I - and apparently, so did the author of Luke. Whoever wrote Luke also wrote the Book of Acts. (Compare the first few verses of each.) Whenever Jesus' disciples preach the good news, they discuss Jesus' execution as a horrible crime - and then they announce the good news of Jesus' resurrection. (There's one exception. Stephen's speech in chapter 7 never proclaims the good news.) Peter's first great sermon at Pentecost delivers precisely this message: "This Jesus God raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Being exalted to God's right hand, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured of this very thing which you see and hear" (2:32-33).

I know many people for whom Luke's interpretation of Jesus' death is good news indeed. Although almost all scholars are aware of this feature, it's a message we rarely hear in church. For Luke, Jesus' life and death alike show his devotion to a God who seeks wholeness for all people.

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