“Certainly This Man Was Innocent”

Every year on Palm Sunday we hear the story of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. And every year we hear the story from a different gospel writer’s perspective. Last year we heard the story according to Mark. Next year we’ll hear from Matthew. But this year, we read Luke’s version of the story.

The interesting thing about this routine is that we get to hear slightly different versions of the story every year. I mean, yes, each of the gospels tells basically the same story. But when we look a little closer we start to notice minor differences. And those differences are important. They cause us to wonder, Why? Why does Luke say it this way, when other gospel writers say it that way?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Toward the end of Luke’s passion story, just after Jesus has cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last, a centurion—a Roman soldier—praises God and says, “Certainly this man was innocent.” Now Matthew and Mark narrate this same scene in their own gospels. But in their versions of the story, the centurion who witnesses Jesus’ death praises God and says, “Truly this man was God’s son.” Interesting. Luke’s centurion declares Jesus “innocent”; the centurion in Matthew and Mark calls Jesus the son of God.

Here’s another example. In Matthew and Mark’s version of the story, the trial before Pilate happens fairly quickly. Jesus is brought before Pilate, who examines Jesus briefly before setting the criminal Barabbas free and sending Jesus to be crucified. But Luke’s version is much longer. Pilate examines Jesus and says he finds no reason for punishment. But the people become insistent, saying, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” Pilate responds, “I’ve already said, I find no crime in this man. I’ll flog him and have him released.” Again, the people are enraged: “Kill him! Give us Barabbas! Crucify him!” For a third time, Pilate tells the people, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” Ultimately, the people prevail and Jesus is crucified. But do you see what’s happening here? No less than three times in Luke’s gospel, we hear Pilate declaring that Jesus is innocent. Three times! Not so in Matthew and Mark’s version of the story.

And then there’s that little exchange between Jesus and the other two criminals crucified alongside Jesus. In the other gospels, the two criminals mock Jesus together and suggest he save himself if he’s so powerful. But in Luke’s gospel, we get something else. Here, only one of the crucified criminals mocks Jesus. The other one protests: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” This criminal recognizes that Jesus is innocent. And that’s a portion of the story that is only given to us in Luke’s passion narrative.

Are you beginning to see a theme? Luke tells the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion a little differently than Matthew and Mark. Luke seems determined to show that Jesus is innocent, that he’s done nothing wrong. Matthew and Mark spend more time trying to show that Jesus is the son of God. They want to show that Jesus is sent from God, that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Luke isn’t so concerned with any of that. For Luke, what’s most important is showing that Jesus didn’t do anything to deserve crucifixion.

But why? Why is Luke so hung up on proving Jesus’ innocence. Here’s my proposal: Luke spends all this time demonstrating Jesus’s innocence because the Jesus of Luke’s gospel is a radical figure. He comes into the world proclaiming salvation for all people, not just the Israelites. At every step of the way, Jesus is reaching out to sinners, Samaritans, tax collectors, women, and other social outcasts. Perhaps more than any other gospel, Luke’s gospel paints Jesus as one who is constantly challenging the social prejudices of the day. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is always calling into question relationships built on social structures that separate insiders from outsiders, that uphold patterns of dominance and dependence. Luke’s Jesus wants to upset the systems of power and control that define traditional relationships. Remember the song that Mary sings when she finds out she’s going to give birth to Jesus? The magnificat? In the magnificat, Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, who has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The magnificat, it should be no surprise, is found only in Luke’s gospel. It should be no surprise because it is Luke’s Jesus who is always trying to bring about this great reversal. The proud will be humbled, Jesus says again and again, and the poor will be lifted up.

Needless to say, this wasn’t a very popular message. The Jesus we meet in Luke’s gospel is a Jesus that is working hard to upset the status quo. Near the beginning of Luke’s gospel there’s a story about the beginnings of Jesus’s ministry. Standing before a crowd in his hometown, he preached to the people of Nazareth that God loves the outsider, and his neighbors tried to hurl him off a cliff. From the very beginning of his ministry, Luke’s Jesus faced opposition to his preaching. The people opposed him because he came proclaiming a message that wasn’t popular. It was a message that was disturbing to those who were defenders of the status quo.

Here’s the point: When we get to the end of Luke’s gospel, to the passion story that we read on Palm Sunday, it’s not surprising that the author spends so much time declaring Jesus’s innocence. Throughout Luke’s gospel we’ve seen that Jesus wasn’t popular. And Luke’s message is this: He may not have been popular, but he was right. Jesus was not crucified because he was wrong, but because he made people uncomfortable. No; Jesus was innocent.

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel is a Jesus who is always challenging systems of domination and oppression. It’s a Jesus who demands that we too confront the realities of a society that rewards those who are already on top and takes advantage of those at the bottom. It’s a Jesus who is constantly disrupting the status quo.

If the tumultuous political climate in our country recently has taught us anything, it’s that messing with the status quo makes people really uncomfortable. In a fantastic op-ed piece in today’s New York Times Frank Rich argues that all the hysteria about the recently-signed health care reform legislation isn’t really about health care at all. The reform that was just signed into law may be a big deal, he says, but it’s not nearly as groundbreaking as Social Security was when it was passed in 1935, or as Medicare was when it was passed in 1965; and yet both Social Security and Medicare made it through Congress with significant bipartisan support. So why is this health care reform legislation causing such outrage? Rich suggests that it has less to do with the health care legislation itself as it has to do with the fact that it was ushered through Congress by a female Speaker of the House and signed into law by a black President. On top of that, we have a newly-installed “wise Latina” on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay man at the helm of an important Congressional committee–not to mention a Muslim congressman who took the oath of office with his hand on a Qur’an. The status quo has been disrupted. No longer are straight, white, Christian men running our country alone. For a lot of people, apparently, that’s a scary thing. It means our world is changing. The status quo is crumbling.

When the status quo is crumbling, those who stand to lose power and control stop at nothing to silence those responsible for change. Like the mobs at Jesus’ trial who have been threatened by his radical teachings, they let loose with shouts of “Traitor!” and “Off with his head!” They demand crucifixion.

In those moments, we need more than ever to hear the centurion’s voice: “Certainly this man was innocent.”

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