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Friday, March 30, 2007

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (C): The Prophet Enters Jerusalem

Jesus crucified with criminals
(from the panel of the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica)
photo grab: stpetersbasilica.org
C'est bizarre
Since there is no developed idea of an afterlife punishment (or "hell") in the Old Testament, not to be remembered is one of the punishments of the wicked. It’s not surprising then that evil fears forgetfulness. We saw this in the recent news of the hostage taking of school children and teachers. The hostage-takers made sure they will be remembered. They got the media, local and international. They stamped their memory on the children with a kiss, just like Judas. It’s bizarre that media could call these hostage-takers who had with them two grenades, a fully loaded Uzi and a pistol and who used innocent children ages 5 to 8 –"mabait" ("kind"). Click on this.

In contrast, one unnamed criminal, one of the two who was crucified with Jesus, asked to be remembered – not by the crowd, not by the world – but by Jesus: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Lk 23:42).

"An Orderly Account"

We are in the story of the Passion of Jesus according to Luke. Let me first offer a short introduction of Luke’s understanding of who Jesus that will help us comprehend with more depth the mystery of the Lord’s Passion.

The evangelist Luke informs us at the beginning of his Gospel that "after investigating everything carefully from the very first" (1:3) he decides to write "an orderly account"(1:3) in order to "know the truth" (1:4). In a way, Luke may seem to be unsatisfied with the way others have written about Jesus, perhaps referring to the Gospel of Mark from which Luke borrows some of his materials.

The author of the Third Gospel then aims at presenting a more complete account of Jesus and his ministry. In fact, Luke does not end with his story of Jesus as the rest of the Gospels do, but goes on to narrate to us the life of the early Christians as they went about preaching the Good News. This is Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.

In that sense, Luke becomes a reliable source of the knowledge of the truth that is Jesus. Hearing and reading Luke’s story of Jesus’ Passion on this Palm Sunday (year C) allow us to have a closer look at who Jesus is as experienced by "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (1:2).
The Rejected Prophet

When Luke presents Jesus in his writing we get another angle, another portrait from those given to us by the three other Gospel writers. If Mark portrays Jesus to be the "crucified messiah", Matthew the "new Moses", and John the "divine logos" ("word"), for Luke Jesus is a rejected prophet.

Jesus is born like a prophet
. When Hannah who is barren learns that she is conceiving a son, she breaks forth into a song. Samuel, her son, would become the first major prophet of the Old Testament. Mary conceives Jesus and breaks forth into a song (the Magnificat) almost the same as that of Hannah. At the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple of Jerusalem (Lk 2:26-29), the Holy Family encounters two prophets, Simeon and Anna. Simeon prophesies the child’s future destiny: "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed" (v. 34).

Jesus teaches like a prophet
. Jesus begins his public ministry with the reading of the scroll of Isaiah and offers himself as the fulfillment of this prophetic ministry – "to bring good news to the poor. . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Lk 4:18-19).

Jesus describes his listeners' antagonistic reaction by saying, "No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown" (4:24). When he defends his interpretation of Isaiah by appealing to events in the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha, this antagonism becomes a rage 4:25-28). Jesus therefore aligns himself with the Old Testament prophets like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah whose teachings were rejected by the majority.

Jesus heals like a prophet
. One day, Jesus goes to a town called Nain, about 40 kms southwest of Capernaum. As he enters the gate, he meets a funeral procession. The only son of a widow is dead. Jesus comforts the widow and brings to life the dead young man (Lk 7:11-17). The reaction of the large crowd and the disciples is one of 'fear' leading to them to confess: "A great prophet has risen among us" (v. 16)! The incident is similar to the prophet Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17.

Although Luke affirms a number of times that Jesus is greater the prophets (7:24-28; 9:18-20, 28-36), he makes his readers understand that Jesus is a prophet who fulfills the work of the great prophets of Israel. As such, he will die in Jerusalem. When he is in Jerusalem, some concerned Pharisees come to him to warn him to get away from Jerusalem for Herod wants to kill him (Lk 13:31). In an unequivocal reply, Jesus says: "Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem" (v. 33).
Journey to Jerusalem

Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is so emphasized in Luke’s Gospel. While Mark devotes three chapters (8:27-10:52), Luke spends 9 chapters(!) to narrate the journey to Jerusalem. Luke begins his narrative with a strong determination on the part of Jesus: "he set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51).

The journey is concluded with a sort of an ancient royal entrance procession to Jerusalem (Lk 19:28-40, first Gospel reading of this year’s Palm Sunday). The elaborate preparation of securing a donkey to ride on indicates further the determination of the prophet to enter Jerusalem. It may also remind the readers of a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, who rides on a donkey to set off to curse Israel. Instead, he ends up blessing Israel (Numbers 22-24).

In any case, the entrance procession pauses for a prophetic lament over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41-44). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. This evokes an earlier lament (in Lk 13:34-45): "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!"

In the Old Testament, the one known for his laments over Jerusalem is Jeremiah, the weeping prophet (Jer 11:18-20:18). So when Jesus enters Jerusalem’s Temple and “cleanses” it, he cites the prophets, especially Jeremiah: "My house shall be a house of prayer" [Isa 56:7]; but you have made it a den of robbers" [Jer 7:11].

Prophet Crucified
When we reflect on the Passion of Jesus, we should try to avoid to conflate (to make 'halo-halo") the four Passion Narratives. Although the four narratives in the Gospels manifest a general similarity in narrative sequence, there is a considerable difference in content. Usually, it is in those differences that we discover the meaning that the Gospel writer wants to communicate to his readers.

In the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus’ passion is highlighted by the feeling of human divine abandonment. This reaches its peak in Jesus only words on the cross: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mk 15:24)? But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does not manifest such sentiment and anguish. The Lucan Jesus is brave and resolute. In the via crucis, when Jesus saw women "beating their breasts and wailing for him" he turns to them and says: "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children" (Lk 23:28).

Jesus on the Cross is a picture of a prophet, one who knows fully his destiny as fulfillment of the will of God. So his first words are one of forgiveness: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:24). Forgiveness is put into practice when one of the criminals who was crucified with him prays to Jesus to be remembered (Lk 23:42).

In the Old Testament, divine forgiveness is expressed in God remembering his people. In the Magnificat, Mary sings that God’s "mercy is on those who fear him" (Lk 1:50) and that God has helped his servant Israel "in remembrance of his mercy" (Lk 1:54)
In this light, we understand the instant fortune of the crucified criminal who reminds his partner to "fear God" (Lk 23:40) and makes a brief but effective prayer for remembrance. That prayer is interpreted by Jesus as a prayer for forgiveness. He can then promise to that criminal: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with in Paradise" (Lk 23:42).

Here is the fulfillment of the prophetic mission of Jesus which he reads earlier from the scroll of Isaiah: "to bring freedom to prisoners" (Lk 4:18). Jesus exercises his prophetic ministry even at the point of death. Thus, with both courage and serenity, the crucified prophet finally calls out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 44:46).

REFERENCES:
R. Brown, Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (NY: Doubleday, 1994).
R. Alan Culpepper, "The Gospel of Luke" in The New Interpreter's Bible vol. 9, pp. 3-490.
J. J. Kilgallen, A Brief Commentary of Luke (NY/Mahwah: Paulist, 1988).
D. Senior, The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier,1989).
K. Stock, "Il racconto della Passione nei Vangeli sinottici" (Unpublished notes; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1995).
B. E. Ehrman, The Great Courses: The New Testament (DVD Video; University of Carolina, 2001).

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