Commentary on the Readings
Palm Sunday – Year C
Why must he die to save us?
For those who have internalized a devotional image of Jesus it is hard to understand why he was killed. How can people become enemies of the man who cares for the sick, embraces and caresses his children, loves the poor, defends the weak? In this light his death is an inexplicable fact, to be attributed to a mysterious will of the Father who, to forgive the sin of people, he needed to see the blood of the righteous flow. This interpretation is really hard to accept.
With deep sorrow we recall the absurd attribution of this death to the Jewish people and the inflicted beatings with the cross to the Jews during the processions of Good Friday.
So why did Jesus die? In what sense has he sacrificed his life for us? From what slavery has he freed us surrendering himself to those who nailed him on the cross?
The reason for the hostility that is being waged against him is that he appeared as light of the world (Jn 9:5). “The light shines in darkness, light that darkness could not overcome” (Jn 1:4-5). “He was the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), “and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19).
Some rays of this light that pierced the darkness of the world have been particularly intense. These are rays penetrating the heart of the simple people showering them with joy and hope, but they are blinded, annoyed and become unbearable to the troubled eyes of others (and this dramatic story can be repeated today). In particular:
– He has proposed a new face of God. No longer an executing God, but a God who saves every person;
– He has proposed a new face of man. He overturned the values of this world: great for him is not who wins and dominates, but who serves the brothers and sisters;
– He has proposed a new religion. No longer the one of rites, but that “in spirit and in truth”;
– He proposed a new society in which the “first” is the poor, the weak, the marginalized.
Jesus has not sought the death on the cross, but to avoid it he would have to renounce all these proposals, to join the rank, to shut up, to adapt to the current mentality, to resign himself to the triumph of evil, to abandon forever people in the hands of the “prince of this world”. He would have to return to Nazareth to build tables and plows. They would have left him alone. He would not have been crucified, but would have been filled with honors. He would have made a career in official religious institution… getting those “kingdoms of this world” that Satan had promised from the beginning. But this would be the failure of his mission.
During this week we are not invited to grieve and to mourn the death of Jesus, but to rejoice in the freedom that he has realized by giving his life. We also try to question ourselves: indeed have we really entered the new reality born of his sacrifice? Let us ask ourselves if we have accepted his kingdom, assimilating the new face of God, the new religion, the new face of a man and the new society proposed by him.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Like what every apostle did at the Last Supper, during this week I also ask myself: ‘Is it I, Lord, the one who opposes your kingdom?”
Explaining the first reading of the Feast of Baptism of the Lord, we talked about the mysterious character who comes into the scene in the second part of the book of Isaiah. He is the “Servant of the Lord.” In today’s reading this “Servant” reappears and speaks.
It initially describes the mission given to him. He is sent to proclaim a message of consolation to the downtrodden and without hope (v. 4). From his lips only and always come out words of comfort for those lost on evil ways and not able to find back the right way, for those wrapped up and grope in darkness.
He then clarifies the way with which he will fulfill his mission (vv. 4-5). The Lord gave him an ear to listen and a mouth able to communicate. Since what this Servant heard was not pleasant, his first reaction was to withdraw, to renounce, to find a justification to disappear (v. 5). He did not do it. He knew how to resist.
Finally he recounts what happened to him and what were the consequences of his coherence. He faithfully communicated the message he heard. He was beaten, insulted, slapped, spat in the face but did not react. He continued to trust in the Lord (v. 7).
Listening particularly to the last part of the reading, one is spontaneously induced to take this Servant as Jesus (Christians have made this link immediately after Easter). As “Servant of the Lord” Jesus kept listening to the Father and spoke only words of consolation and hope. He gave comfort to the disheartened and marginalized. He ended like the Servant spoken of in the book of Isaiah (cf. Mt 27:27-31).
The risk is to pause to contemplate and admire the faithfulness of Jesus, to be moved in the face of what he has suffered, to feel outrage at the injustice he went through and to conclude that, even today, some hero faithful to God can repeat the same dramatic experience of the Servant of the Lord.
Not any hero, but every believer is called to carry out the mission of the “Servant” of Christ: to keep listening to the Word of God, to translate into action what was heard and be willing to bear the consequences.
The community of Philippi was very good and Paul was proud of it. However, as it often happens, there was even a bit of envy among Christians. Someone was trying to attract attention to oneself and impose one’s will on others. This situation caused Paul to make a heartfelt recommendation in the first part of the letter: “Make me very happy; have one love, one spirit, one feeling; do nothing through rivalry or vain conceit. Do not seek your own interest but rather that of others” (Phil 2:2-4).
To better impart this teaching in the minds and hearts of the Philippians, Paul presents the example of Christ. He does this by quoting a beautiful hymn, known in many Christian communities of the first century. The hymn tells the story of Jesus in two stanzas.
He already existed before becoming man. Becoming incarnate “he emptied himself” of his divine greatness. He accepted to take on the nature of a slave of death. He was not clothed in our humanity as an outer garment which he could get rid of. He assumed forever our human likeness: weakness, ignorance, fragility, passions, feelings and mortal condition. He appeared to our eyes in the humility of the most despised of men, a slave, one to whom the Romans reserved the ignominious punishment of the cross (vv. 6-8).
But the path he has traveled has not ended with the humiliation and death on the cross.
The second part of the hymn (vv. 9- 11) sings the glory to which he is raised: the Father raised and appointed him model for every person. He gave him the power and dominion over all creation. The entire humanity will end up to be united with him and then the plan of God will be accomplished.
All the evangelists devote so much space to the passion and death of Jesus. The following outline and the facts are basically the same, though narrated in different ways and with diverse perspectives. Each evangelist then puts in episodes, details, underscores that are his own. These show the care and interest for some themes of catechesis, considered significant and urgent for their communities. Today’s version of the story of the passion being proposed to us is that of Luke. In our commentary we will only highlight the specific aspects.
In his Gospel Luke never lets the opportunity to emphasize the goodness and mercy of Jesus slip. He does so even during the passion.
Self defense is the instinctive reaction in the face of an attacker who wants to kill. When given the news that, during a scuffle, a mobster had the worse and was injured, many rejoice and some people become sad if someone rescued him.
The reaction against the aggressor is spontaneous, understandable and, from the human point of view, also justified. In the Garden of Olives, the apostles did not hesitate to implement it. To prevent the abuse of power, violence, injustice, the first thing they think to do is put the sword up. The phrase: Lord, shall we strike with the sword?, in the original text is not presented as a question, but as a decision: “Lord, we now have recourse to the sword.” And indeed, before waiting for the opinion of the Master, one of them goes to blows and falls off the right ear of the high priest’s servant (Lk 22:49-51).
Jesus intervenes and severely rebukes Peter for the rash action done. Then—and this is the detail that only Luke mentions—he takes care of the wounded and healed him (Lk 22:51). The message that the evangelist wants to give is clear: the disciple not only cannot attack anyone, but is always ready to remedy the troubles caused by others. He also takes care of those who did and still continues to want to hurt him.
The Christian has opponents; he cannot not have because, like the Master, he has to deal—even the hard way—with those who make choices of death, deform the face of God, pursue an unacceptable project of man and of society. But the Christian has no enemies. The enemy is one who must be annihilated, crushed, humiliated, eliminated. The opponent is not destroyed, but faced to help him grow, break free from his bondage. The weapon is used by those who have enemies to defeat, not by those who, as the only mission, has to transform adversaries into brothers.
A little further on we find another touching particular.
As Mark and Matthew, Luke also says that, after denying the Master in the house of the high priest, Peter went out and wept. He alone notes that the Lord turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61-62) and he uses the Greek word emblepo (look inside) and not blepo (see).
Jesus’ gaze is moving: it is not a reproach, but a gesture of sympathy for the weakness of his disciple. We consider the outward action, the cowardly gesture, vile words of Peter. Jesus, as he usually does, looks inside, sees the heart of his disciple and discovers that he does, yes, a cowardly act, but deep down he loves him and remains faithful. Stressing this look, Luke indicates to Christians of all times how they should consider their own and their brothers’ fragility: they are looked at with Jesus’ eyes; eyes that instill confidence and hope, eyes that discover, even in the biggest sinner, a spark of love and help him to restart.
During the passion, the disciples do not make a good impression: Judas betrays, Peter denies, all others flee (Mk 14:50). The Evangelists points this vile behavior. Only Luke seeks to attenuate the responsibility of the apostles. He does not mention their flight, in fact, he says that, on Calvary, “all his acquaintances stood at a distance” (Lk 23:49). He does not relate the reproach of Jesus to Peter: “Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you stay awake for one hour?” (Mk 14:37). He also finds an excuse to explain their sleep: “They were worn out of grief” (Lk 22:45).
Luke is the example of the shepherd of souls who, while not justifying sin, he understands it, attributes it to ignorance, human misery that unites us all. He does not emphasize the mistake done, does not accuse because he knows that who is humiliated and ashamed, who does not feel welcomed and respected despite his weaknesses, ends up dangerously withdrawing in himself and makes any way to recovery impossible.
There were martyrs who died despising those who killed them and threatening on them the vengeance of heaven: “do not think that you are going to remain unpunished!”—says one of the Maccabees to his executioner (2 Mac 7:19).
The disciple of Christ does not know this language, no swearing, no cursing, no invoking of punishments against those who do evil (Lk 6:27-36). Even in the most dramatic moments he just says words of love.
This attitude is the only one compatible with that of the Master. “He—says Peter in his letter to the persecuted Christians of his community—did not return insult for insult and, when suffering, he did not curse” (1 Pet 2:23).
In the passion narrative, Luke relates a phrase that every disciple has to keep in mind when he is called to bear injustice, oppression, harassment. Only Luke records that, moments before his death on the cross, Jesus still has the strength to say: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). He was not referring to the soldiers, intent on dividing his garments, but the real culprits for his death: the religious authorities of his people. Jesus did not limit himself to ordering his people to always forgive and without conditions, but he gave the example. It will be imitated by Stephen, the first martyr who, with bended knees under the blows of stones hurled at him, will cry out loud: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
We all know by heart the story of the institution of the Eucharist: we hear it repeated at every Mass. Perhaps not all of us know that only Luke refers to the Lord’s order: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19).
Undoubtedly Jesus wanted that the rite of the breaking of bread and sharing the cup repeated over the centuries by the Christian communities, but his words are not only an invitation to repeat his act liturgically. The “breaking of bread” for Jesus has an extraordinary symbolic value. In it he wanted his entire life, broken and given to people summarized and represented.
“Do this in memory of me” is an invitation to assume his own choice. Only one who enters into this logic of the Master, only one who, like him, breaks his own life for others can “break the bread of the Eucharist” with purity of heart. Otherwise repeating, the liturgical gesture is reduced to an empty ritual and, sometimes, even hypocritical.
What is the disease, the cancer that destroys our communities? It is the frenzy to occupy the first places to be superior, to dominate, to impose upon another, to get privileges and honorary titles. It is this passion that provokes envy, criticism, gossip petty, divisions, discords among Christians.
This disease is not of today. The Gospels report several unpleasant incidents, frequent and petty arguments between the apostles eager to define the priorities, to determine who among them was the greatest. They did not in any way accept the proposal of the Master to be small, to come down to last place, to be at the service of the poorest of the poor, to become slaves of others.
How to make Christians understand that this teaching of Jesus is the fundamental law upon which the community is based? Luke has an idea: to present this theme at the Last Supper (Lk 22:24-27). Placed in this context, the Master’s words take on a maximum value: they become his testament, his final request. Therefore, they should be regarded as sacred and inviolable. Who of us would dare to not do what the father asks before he dies?
After the institution of the Eucharist—Luke says—the apostles began to scramble because each of them wanted to be first. Jesus then took the floor and explained that, in the new community, the authority was not to be understood according to the criteria of this world. What do the leaders of nations do? They have the power, they command over others, accumulate money, demand greater respect, claim privileges, personal aircraft. This should not be so in the church! In her, the authority is only service. Mind you: to serve does not mean to decide on behalf of others, to impose one’s way of thinking, to force others to do what one believes is right. This is still to dominate. To serve means to occupy really the last place, to respect, to dialogue, to understand, to find for each a ministry to be carried out with joy for the brothers and sisters.
The term agony for us shows the last moments before death. Its etymological meaning however is different. It indicates the fight, the competition of athletes and it is used in the Gospel story in this sense.
From the beginning of his public life, Jesus was confronted in combat with the forces of evil—with Satan—and won. But the fight did not end after the first clash. Luke notes that “when the devil had exhausted every way of tempting Jesus, he left him, to return another time” (Lk 4:13).
Here, in fact, at the beginning of the story of the passion the enemy returns for the final assault: “the feast of unleavened bread was drawing near… Then Satan entered into Judas.” The forces of evil are embodied in one of the twelve apostles and unleash the offensive.
Jesus, as every athlete before the competition, must prepare himself and Luke—more than the other evangelists—emphasizes how he prepares himself: with prayer. The story of the agony begins with the recommendation of Jesus to the disciples: “Pray that you may not be put to the test,” then he continues: “he went away a little further and kneeling down, he prayed… Having entered in agony he prayed more earnestly… Then he rose from prayer… And he said to the disciples: Get up and pray” (Lk 22:39-46). An insistence on prayer which aims to indicate to all Christians how to obtain victory.
In this context Luke introduces some significant details. He first says that “an angel from heaven appeared to give him strength” (v. 43). It is the effect of prayer. When the Bible speaks of angels one must not immediately think of spiritual beings who take human form. They often indicate a revelation of God that took place in the person. In Gethsemane, Jesus was tempted to escape and to choose different paths from those tracked by the Father. Prayer, dialogue with the Father, has made him understand the meaning, the value of his death. He asked the Father to take the cup from him and his prayer was answered: he was not spared of suffering, not taken away from death, but was enlightened and, supported by the Spirit. He gave his unconditional adherence Father.
Luke wants to tell every disciple who, so as not to be overwhelmed by the temptation, to overcome human weakness and fragility, need to pray “intensely,” as the Master. In the same context of Jesus’ preparation for upcoming tests, Luke, the physician, notes another detail: “As he was in agony, he prayed even more earnestly, and great drops of blood formed like sweat and fell to the ground” (v. 44). The traditional interpretation explained this as an effect of Jesus’ discouragement. But this does not make sense after the consolation given to him by the angel. The phenomenon (hematohydrosis)—known in antiquity—for the evangelist assumes a significance tied to competitive sports: It indicates the tension of the athlete in the vicinity of the race. He wants to tell us that Jesus is very concentrated, sweats, is seized with trembling. He knows that he is going to deal with “a strong man, well armed,” but he also knows to be infinitely stronger (Lk 11:21-22).
There is another episode that only Luke relates: Jesus’ encounter with Herod. He was the son of the famous Herod, who, for fear of losing power, had ordered the killing of the children of Bethlehem (Mt 2:16). He was neither a shrewd politician nor a maniac like his father. He was only weak, corrupt, a man with no personality. Several times he had heard of Jesus and the miracles he performed. He imagined that he was a sorcerer, a soothsayer, an expert in the occult arts. When, during the passion, Pilate sends for him to hear his opinion about the accusations against him, he rejoices immensely. He hopes to see some miracle. To him, however, Jesus does not answer, not even a single word. Why? The emphases on Herod’s moods are significant: first he feels a “great joy” (v. 8), then, after the disappointment at not getting what he expected (v. 9), he goes to insult and finally to mockery (v. 11). The Greek word translated as to insult really means: to destroy. For Herod, who was only interested in miracles (Lk 9:9), Jesus does not count anymore.
Luke wants to warn those who seek Jesus only as a doer of wonders: they will not receive any response. They will not find what they are looking for because he does not lend himself to this game. Christianity is the place of listening to the Word, is the religion of love and the gift of life for the brothers and sisters, not the market where you can buy prodigies. Jesus calls those who think this way: “Evil and unbelieving people” (Mt 16:4).
Luke is the one who, more than any other, speaks of women who, during the public life, accompanied the Master (Lk 8:1-3). He is also the only one who says that, along the way to Calvary, Jesus meets a group of women who weep and beat their breasts (Lk 23:27-31). They are not responsible for what is happening, they weep for the sins of others. Stressing this particular, Luke wants to, once again, take up the defense of the weak, of those who pay the consequences of the sins of others. They are the men who, many times, create disasters, unleash wars, provoke violence and the women bear the consequences and cry.
All the evangelists say that Jesus was crucified along with two bandits. They were not petty thieves, but criminals who had killed people. Matthew and Mark report that both insulted Jesus. Luke instead tells the fact differently. He says one outraged him, but the other did not, indeed, he reproached his companion and, calling Jesus by name, asked him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The dying Lord answered him: “Truly you will be with me today in paradise.”
At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus manifests himself to the shepherds: the last, despised people, the unclean of Israel.
Then he spent his public life among tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes.
At the end with those who die: not with the saints. Also at the end—it was to be expected—he is among those he most loved: the sinners. On the cross he has beside him two unfortunate poor ones who have it all wrong in life. He came from God, completed his pilgrimage on this earth and now he returns to the Father. He returns with one who represents all people: a sinner regained by his love.