Sunday, March 20, 2016 is Passion (Palm) Sunday (Year C). Procession Readings: Gospel: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 24; Psalm 47. Mass Readings: Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or 23:1-49
In the Passion reading today, St. Luke emphasizes the innocence of Jesus. He includes several details that we only hear in his account, and, together, they send the message: Jesus was innocent. We’re not.
Every other Gospel tells us that Peter cut off a slave’s ear in the Garden; only Luke tells us that Jesus then healed the ear.
Pilate is pushed into crucifying Jesus in all of the Gospel accounts; only in Luke does Pilate repeatedly pronounce Jesus “not guilty,” and Luke gets Herod to tacitly agree, too.
So, if Jesus is innocent, then why doesn’t Jesus say so?
In Luke’s account, when the Jewish authorities ask him, “If you are the Christ, tell us,” he replies: “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I question, you will not respond. But from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”
They answer: “Are you then the Son of God?” And he replies. “You say that I am.”
Later, Pilate will ask him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and he will say in reply: “You say so.”
He answers each time in an odd way, essentially admitting the fundamental truth of what they are saying but refusing to connect the dots. He never says he is innocent of any crime deserving death. Why not?
Because he isn’t innocent. He has made himself guilty of our sins. He has made himself sin to save us from sin — he has made himself a symbol and receptacle of our sins, volunteering to be destroyed in our place.
In the rest of the reading, Luke includes some touches that drive this point home.
Matthew and Mark share the detail about Simon helping carry the cross, but only Luke tells us about the women of Jerusalem he meets, who are weeping for him. Jesus reminds them that they should be weeping for themselves and their children — not him. It is their sins he carries.
Luke includes several “words from the cross,” absent in the other Gospels, which make the same point.
Only Luke reports that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” And only in Luke do we see Jesus speak to the “Good Thief,” who reminds us that Jesus is innocent, but we are not.
“We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal,” the thief says. Jesus rewards his repentance by telling him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The theme continues after Jesus’ death. Other Gospels tell us about the centurion, who saw that Jesus was special — but only in Luke do we hear that he proclaimed Jesus’ innocence, saying, “This man was innocent beyond doubt.” And only in Luke do we learn that the crowds left the scene of the Crucifixion beating their breasts in guilty sorrow.
The message Luke is sending is clear: Jesus was clearly innocent. But we’re clearly not. This Holy Week, we should all be asking the Innocent One for forgiveness.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.