By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Palm Sunday of The Lord’s Passion, Year C
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7; Response: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11; Gospel: Luke 26:14-27:66
The first reading is the third song or poem found in the second part of the Book of Isaiah. Their location: Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12. Much of the material in these poems describes the activities, sufferings, death and exaltation of an unnamed Servant of the Lord. The identity of the Servant is debated. Sometimes, the Servant is Israel as a nation – though more often, an individual. Is he one of the prophets, perhaps Jeremiah, who suffered so much and was threatened with death during his prophetic ministry? A more likely candidate is the otherwise unknown prophet called Second Isaiah in biblical studies. Our concern is the Christian interpretation of these poems, sometimes called “The Servant Songs.” New Testament writers and Church Fathers interpreted them as predictive of the birth, life, mission, suffering, death and vindication of Jesus through his resurrection.
Some details of these poems are close to the descriptions of Jesus in the four Passion Narratives of our four gospels. These poems and other passages in the Book of Isaiah led to Isaiah being called a fifth gospel or the “Fifth Evangelist.” Whether they are predictive of Jesus is debated, but this fact is not debatable – St. Paul, the authors of our four canonical gospels, and other authors of our New Testament knew these poems, and formed their theology and preaching about Jesus under their influence and vocabulary. None of the gospels as we now have them were composed by eyewitnesses. Their authors used previous documents, oral tradition and, especially, the Old Testament to form the four Passion Narratives as we have them today. For example, in today’s first reading, we can hear the Passion Narratives. “I made no resistance. Neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard. I did not cover my face against insult and spitting.” These words are echoed in the tortures to which Jesus was subjected according to New Testament descriptions.
Psalm 22 is a fitting response to Isaiah’s poem. The opening verse is well known because Mark and Matthew posit this verse as Jesus’ last words on the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?” The people’s response repeats this depressing cry. In this psalm, the gospel authors found the words to describe the ridicule of Jesus. Here, they found how to describe the piercing of hands and feet; the dividing of Jesus’ clothing; and the casting of lots for his seamless robe. Even though we can admit that the composer of Psalm 22 knew nothing about Jesus, in God’s providence and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this Psalm was given new and more profound meaning by our New Testament authors.
In the second reading, Paul quoted an early Christian hymn called “The Christ Hymn.” It describes the debasing of Jesus through suffering and death, and his vindication. Paul adapted this hymn to a situation in the Christian community at Philippi. He had founded this church on his second missionary journey in the early 50s of the first century. A description is given by Luke in Acts 16. The problem – certain members of the church were vying with each other for prestige, or “Who is No. 1?” Even the apostles had that argument (See Mark 9:33-35; 10:35-40). Just as Jesus gave a lesson in humility to his apostles, Paul does the same to his Philippians. He cites the humility of Jesus. Although he was in the form of God, he did not make a big deal out of it. Instead, he humbled himself, becoming obedient all the way to death by crucifixion. Therefore, God exalted him above all creation. Lesson – humility worked out well for Jesus. It will do the same for you.
In Colossians 4:14, among mention of other companions of Paul, we read, “Luke the beloved physician…greets you.” Tradition has correctly or incorrectly identified this Luke with the author of our third gospel. That tradition may indeed be correct, since the Gospel of Luke shows a number of healing incidents in the Passion Narrative that do not occur in the other three Passion Narratives. Let’s take a look. At the Last Supper, Jesus offers pre-reconciliation to Simon Peter when he says to him, “Simon, Simon! Satan demanded to have you … but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Only in Luke does an angel comfort Jesus during the agony in the garden. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not allow the betrayer to kiss Jesus. Only Luke depicts Jesus healing the ear of the servant of the high priest, thus becoming a role model for surgeons who, in our time, restore or transplant body parts. We are not accustomed, in recent times, to seeing reconciliation between politicians; but Luke alone tells us that through Jesus’ presence, Pilate, the Roman governor, and Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, became friends.
Other examples of healing found only in Luke – en route to Calvary, Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem grieving over him. While Jesus was nailed to the cross, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In all the Passion Narratives, two criminals are crucified next to Jesus; but only in Luke does one of them repent, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds with a mild oath, “Amen! Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Unlike the last words of Jesus in Mark and Matthew, “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me, (the first verse of Psalm 22), the Lucan Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” Psalm 31:5. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus in the Passion Narrative is that of healer, reconciler, forgiver and consoler. The same holds true of Luke – even apart from the Passion Narrative. Consider the following, not found in the other gospels: the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. All of these are additions to Luke’s proclamation. He also omits from his gospel incidents insensitive to people involved in them. Luke demonstrates not only how a Christian must live, but also how a Christian must die – forgiving all and united with the will of God.