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Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday), Cycle C


When Lent 6 is designated “Palm Sunday” rather than “Passion Sunday,” members of a congregation can more readily identify with the experiences of Jesus during Holy Week as those experiences are depicted within the Four Gospels. Ideally, members of a congregation should come together in a variety of worship and study settings each day from Palm Sunday through Easter Day. Consecutive readings of the passion account in a particular Gospel each day during Holy Week in individual homes and in congregational corporate worship and study sessions help us to “relive” Jesus’ passion experiences. In terms of timing, the best time for this is each day or evening during Holy Week rather than at mid-week services throughout the Lenten season or in an extremely long reading on Lent 6.

Most of the texts selected for the Palm Sunday occasion within our Christian tradition emphasize acclamation of the Lord or of Jesus as the Lord. For Israelites and continuing for Jews the Lord (Adonai) is acclaimed through use of Psalm 118 and many other texts and songs. Within our Newer Testament texts there is considerable ambiguity, perhaps deliberate ambiguity, as Jesus as the Risen Christ is called the Lord, and by inference “the King who comes in the name of the Lord” in Luke 19:28-40. In Matthew 26:14-27, 66, as the Lord-who-will-be-crucified, Jesus is betrayed by Judas Iscariot and condemned to death by political and “religious” leaders. Just as it is said in Isaiah 45:23 that to the Lord (Adonai) every knee shall bend and every tongue shall give acclamation, in the “Christ-hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11 Paul wrote that God has exalted Jesus the Risen Christ so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, in many ways Jesus as the Christ raised from the dead is “the Lord” to us as Christians what Adonai is to Jews, i.e., Lord God, immanent, personal, self-giving, exalted, eminently divine. These similarities as well as differences between Jewish and Christian perceptions of Lord are especially significant during our Palm Sunday worship experiences.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

This beautiful Hallel Psalm was apparently used by many Israelites during entrance processions associated with one or more of the great festivals. Jews continue to read all or portions of Psalms 113-114 prior to their Seder meal and Psalms 115-118 following the meal. Psalm 118 is significant for us as Christians as well, especially on our Palm Sunday.

When we use this Psalm, we should notice the portions of the psalm that are spoken or sung by various individuals and groups. Verse 19 should be spoken, or preferably sung, by someone “outside the gates” (perhaps in the narthex), verse 20 by a choir, another group, or the entire worshiping congregation, verses 21-22 by the person who had read verse 19 as this person now is entering into the sanctuary, verses 23-27 again by a choir or the entire congregation as the person entering the sanctuary approaches the altar, verse 28 by that person at the altar, and verse 29 by everyone.

“The stone that the builders rejected” in verse 22 is widely used in our Newer Testament as a reference to Jesus. Within the context of Psalm 118 it is an expression of the grace of God with many possible applications.

Luke 19:28-40

Comparison of the entry into Jerusalem accounts in the Four Gospels indicates that only in the latter two (Luke and John) is Jesus acclaimed as the King of Israel. Apparently the oppressive Roman military forces who occupied and controlled the region during the first century perceived Jesus to be a political leader who, with the support of crowds of his fellow oppressed Jews, was a serious potential threat to their own security. They did, therefore, what they always did in such situations. They seized the leader of the oppressed, tortured him privately, and then publicly crucified him to show what they would do to anyone who would be acclaimed as “King of the Jews.”

Given the political situation in Galilee and Judea at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, if some of the Pharisees in the crowd urged Jesus to restrain the members of the crowd from shouting political slogans, they were doing so in order to try to protect Jesus himself and the other Jewish people from Roman retaliation. Jesus, however, is depicted as refusing to restrain the crowd.

Among the most significant redactions of the Markan account by the Lukan writer in this instance is the addition of the Lukan motif of “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest places.” Also this Lukan motif should ultimately be our focus as we proclaim this text and our faith. The Jesus of history lived this motif. Jesus as the Christ of faith expresses this motif. The Church of Jesus Christ is called to do everything that it can so that there will be peace on earth as there is peace in heaven, to the glory of God. Since only the Lukan entry account expresses this motif, it is especially important for us to focus on this motif during the years that we use Luke’s entry into Jerusalem account.

For those who wrote the Four Gospels, Jesus as the Risen Christ was indeed “Lord.” In the words of Zechariah 9:9 that they applied to Jesus, he was in every way triumphant and victorious, subduing and riding a young, unbroken colt, and at the same time humble, riding on a lowly beast of burden. He was their Lord, coming in the name of the Lord.

From the standpoint of the inspired writers of the Newer Testament documents, what Jesus’ followers did proleptically as he entered with other pilgrims into Jerusalem to observe the Passover, God did actually a few days later by raising Jesus from the dead, highly exalting him, and giving him the name that is above every other name. God did this, Paul wrote, so that eventually every knee (including the knee of Caesar) will bend at the name of Jesus, and every tongue (including the tongue of Caesar) will confess that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


Human suffering is obviously the red thread that runs through all of these texts selected for Lent 6 when next Sunday is observed as Passion Sunday. The extensive selections from the Lukan passion account, the influential “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11, and the end-of-Lent setting in the Church Year focus attention on the human suffering of Jesus for his people, suffering that he did not avoid. Within a Christian worship service near the end of the season of Lent, the suffering of the Servant of Adonai (Isaiah 50:4-9a), and of the psalmist (Psalm 31:1-5, 9-16) are appropriately placed into juxtaposition with the suffering of Jesus.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Most people who participate in Christian worship services and hear this text on the Sunday prior to Good Friday probably associate the claims of daily direct inspiration, of suffering at the hands of ruthless tormenters, and of confident trust in the Lord God in this portion of the third Servant Song of the Isaiah tradition with Jesus as they perceive him. As Christians, we can certainly interpret the Older Testament as we choose, and we can certainly picture Jesus as we read and hear about the Suffering Servant of the Lord in this text. Nevertheless, it would be appropriate for us to share in some way with the congregation a recognition that the Suffering Servant Songs have a meaning and a context of their own as a composite expression of the Israelite-Jewish prophetic tradition at its best.

Psalm 31:9-16

Our use of this Israelite individual lament within our Christian worship services indicates that for us also deliverance from human suffering is still futuristic — at the Easter appearance of Jesus and at our own “Easter” appearance. Together with the psalmist we also cry to the Lord (Adonai for the psalmist, Jesus for us) for deliverance here and now.

Philippians 2:5-11

Perhaps no other text in the entire Bible is used as frequently and in as many different situations of the Church Year as is this text. It can be an Advent text, a Christmas text, an Epiphany text, a Lenten text, and a text for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. In each different situation we should place the emphasis on the appropriate aspect of the text. For Lent 6 observed as Passion Sunday, we should focus on the suffering of the Jesus of history and on his willingness to go to Jerusalem where it was likely that the oppressive Roman occupation forces would seize, torture, and crucify him because they were afraid that oppressed Jews who were being given hope for freedom and liberation by Jesus would rebel against them.

Luke 22:14–23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

Because of the great length of this reading, comments here will be limited to four segments of the text that depict various aspects of the suffering of the Jesus of history.

Luke 23:1-5, 13-25 (The Trial before Pilate). The specific accusations of the entire multitude of elders of the people, chief priests and scribes added by the Lukan writer to the Markan account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate are strikingly anti-Jewish because they are presented as obviously false and pernicious charges. According to this Lukan account, the purpose of Jesus had always been to bring peace to Jerusalem and to the nations of the world. It had never been to pervert the Jewish nation, as the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people are depicted in this trial scene as accusing Jesus of doing. According to the Synoptic tradition accounts, Jesus had advocated the paying of tribute to Caesar and had not called himself a king or a Jewish Messiah. Among the Synoptic accounts, only Luke presents the accusations recorded in Luke 23:2. According to the Luke 23:4, 14-16 account, the Roman official (Pilate) declared Jesus to be innocent of the charges brought against him, but the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people charged repeatedly that Jesus had been agitating the people throughout the land. Only Luke specified that the voice of the Jewish religious leaders prevailed and that Pilate delivered Jesus over to their will (Luke 23:23-25).

The impression is thereby given that not the Romans but the chief priests and the rulers and the Jewish people took Jesus away and crucified him. Since no new subject of the verb is introduced in Luke 23:26, the antecedent of the unexpressed subject of the verb in Luke 23:26 and elsewhere in this section appears to be the Jewish authorities and the Jewish people listed in Luke 23:13. By omitting all of the Markan and Matthean references to Jesus being mocked by the Roman military personnel (Mark 15:16-20a; Matthew 27:27-31a) grammatically the antecedent of the unexpressed subject of the verb in Luke 23:25 and in other verbs that follow is not the Roman soldiers, whom the Lukan writer does not introduce until 23:36, but the Jews. In this manner, the Lukan writer achieved a consistency with the charges made by the same Lukan writer in Acts 2:22-23 and 7:52-58 that the Jews betrayed and murdered Jesus, the Righteous One. The impression is given, therefore, that anti-Jewish invective was more important for the Lukan writer in some instances than was historical clarity.

In the interests of historical accuracy and (belatedly) of justice, we should also specify the subject in Luke 23:26 as “the Roman soldiers” from Mark 15:16 and Matthew 27:27 and from what is known from other sources about execution practices of the Roman occupation forces, so that the subsequent unexpressed subjects of verbs in the crucifixion proceedings in Luke will refer back to Roman military officials rather than to Jews.

Although the Lukan writer’s earliest readers were well aware that crucifixion was a Roman prerogative used effectively to discourage opposition and revolt in the various provinces of the Roman Empire, most Christians who read Luke today do not know the extent to which the Roman military used crucifixion in executing leaders of oppressed people whom they perceived to be threats to their security. Most Christians today focus only on the crucifixion of Jesus. They do not realize that the title that the Romans placed over Jesus on the cross, “the King of the Jews,” had probably been used many times by the Romans before the day when they used it to apply to Jesus in order to transmit clearly to the Jewish people that “This is what we do to your leaders! This is what we will do to any of you who will try to lead your oppressed people and gain popular support that may be used against us!”

This type of careful attention to context in translation will partially counteract the popular supposition among many Christians even in our time that “the Jews” killed Jesus. Actually, most of the Jews who were aware of Jesus and knew what the Roman occupation forces were doing to Jesus on the day of his crucifixion grieved bitterly that another of their leaders in whom they had hope was being shamefully tortured and executed by the hated Romans and that there was nothing short of suicidal action that they could do about it.

This kind of sensitive translation is essential in our time. Since we have ample evidence of these serious instances of anti-Jewish biases in Luke-Acts, it is our responsibility as spiritual descendants of the Lukan writer to counter these biases by sensitive translation and usage. As Paul M. van Buren put it in his Discerning the Way: A Theology of the Jewish Christian Reality (New York: Seabury, 1980, pp. 47-48), “John Chrysostom in the fourth century, for example, or Martin Luther in the sixteenth, never conceived that their vile words on the subject of the Jews would help significantly to produce a climate which a later pagan ruler would take advantage of in order to destroy six million of God’s people,” and “If? we leave unchallenged and do not wipe out the tradition of anti-Judaism which we have inherited, we shall have failed those who follow after us. Whatever we may say about the roots and rise of that tradition, we today — after 1945 — can no longer continue it.” The extent to which we as Christians today shall be willing to counter the anti-Jewish biases that we see in the Newer Testament within the passion accounts and elsewhere will be determined during the coming decades and centuries in our preaching and teaching as, led by the Spirit of God, we interact with the living, dynamic Word of God and pass it on to our children and to their children.

Luke 23:6-12 (The religious leaders accuse Jesus during his ordeal in Herod’s court). Only in Luke’s Gospel is there a story about a trial of Jesus in Herod’s court. As in every instance of Lukan composition, this account is carefully constructed. At its beginning (v. 6) and at its end (v. 12) Pilate is significant. As we move into the pericope from both its beginning and its ending, we see Jesus presented as in the custody of the soldiers of Pilate and of Herod, subjected to their cruelty. Next the Herod figure is introduced and shown to be curious to see what Jesus would do, and then later depicted as frustrated and treating Jesus with scorn and contempt. At the center of the account (v. 10) the chief priests and the scribes are shown to be accusing Jesus vehemently. Jesus in his innocence will answer to no one.

This literary drama composed by the Lukan writer gives the reader the impression that the attitude and actions of the Jewish religious leaders encouraged Herod and the Roman soldiers to treat Jesus horribly and to mock him. Although it is likely that a very small percentage of the heavily oppressed Jews of Galilee and Judea at the time of Jesus’ death cooperated fully with the Roman occupational forces for personal advantage, there can be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Jews of that time who knew anything about the Jesus of history were supportive of him, given hope by what Jesus was saying about God and the kingdom of God, and were saddened and grieved when they heard that the Romans with the complicity of the Herodians had seized Jesus and were torturing him. Jesus was one of them, a leader and a hero among his fellow oppressed people. The Jews in Galilee and Judea knew from past experience that once the Romans seized a leader among the oppressed Jews, the people would soon see their leader die on a Roman cross, and as oppressed people they were unable to do anything to prevent this.

Luke 23:27-31 (Prophecy against the “daughters of Jerusalem”). The women who were beating their breasts in mourning and lamentation while Jesus was being led to his crucifixion appear to be presented in Luke as sympathizers with Jesus rather than as his mockers. Nevertheless, the Lukan writer has Jesus utter an oracle of prophetic judgment against them in words that are similar to those of the “Q” material saying of Luke 13:34-35 and the weeping over Jerusalem account of Luke 19:41-44. Therefore, the Lukan writer condemned all of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, especially the women who were alive at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and their children, to a fate worse than death. With devastating effectiveness, the Lukan writer linked the siege and fall of Jerusalem — an event that had occurred after the crucifixion of Jesus but prior to the composition of Luke’s Gospel — to the crucifixion of Jesus in skillfully portrayed anti-Jewish polemic. If we are interested in proclaiming what actually happened during the final hours of Jesus’ life, we will read only Luke 23:27 and not 28-31.

Luke 23:32-49 (the crucifixion). A comparison of the words of Jesus while on the cross in the Markan, Matthean, and Lukan accounts reveals that the Lukan writer did not use the cry of despair, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” of Mark and of Matthew and inserted instead, “Father! Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” “Truly, I say to you. Today you will be with me in paradise,” and “Father! Into your hands I put my spirit.” This contrast is clearly indicative of the differences with which the Lukan writer portrays Jesus compared to the Markan and Matthean accounts. In Mark and in Matthew Jesus is a desolate figure as he dies; in Luke Jesus is in control of the situation even while he is dying. The Lukan Jesus forgives those who are crucifying him. He declares that the man on the cross next to him who recognizes the innocence of Jesus will be in paradise with Jesus on that same day, and he puts his spirit into the hands of the Father. (The Johannine writers use neither the Markan and Matthean words of Jesus on the cross nor the Lukan words. Instead, they develop three new sayings for their Johannine Jesus.)

As we speak about the human suffering of Jesus on this Passion Sunday occasion within the context of all human suffering, it will be appropriate for us to relate it in significant ways to the suffering and death of millions of oppressed people during the twentieth century, particularly to leaders of oppressed people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Romero who spoke out publicly against the oppressors and were killed as Jesus was, each as a leader of the oppressed. As we read the Lukan passion account with its skillfully constructed anti-Jewish polemic, we have a moral obligation to note how the anti-Jewish polemic in it contributed to an environment in which most Christians in Germany raised no effective opposition to what the leaders of their nation did to the Jews of Europe from 1933-45.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen