“No Grounds for the Death Penalty”
Palm Sunday Year C
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Luke 23: 1 — 25
(Selected passage from Lectionary Reading Luke 22: 14 to Luke 23: 56)
Our reading for meditation this week is part of the long Gospel reading for Palm Sunday. For those Christians accustomed to the three year international scheme of Sunday Gospel readings, this proclamation of the Lord’s Passion will be very significant and moving. For those Christians who do not formally celebrate Holy Week and Easter, do feel welcome to participate by reading and reflecting on our Lord’s Passion (i.e. His great suffering). All the saints over the ages attest to the power of meditation on Christ’s sufferings and death in the pursuit of true holiness. One of these, a very great teacher of prayer and spirituality for the “ordinary” Christian — St. Paul of the Cross wrote this for those seeking to grow spiritually:
Prayer for the most part should be concerned with the
Divine Mysteries of the Most Holy Life, Passion and
Death of Jesus Christ, because that is where one learns
holiness. The soul that is faithful in corresponding with
the graces of God will become all afire with holy love
in a short time.
In this set of Reflections, we take just one part of the solemn proclamation to sample the whole. Throughout the week before Easter Day you might read a portion of Luke 22: 14 to Luke 23: 56 each day.
The method we follow is really very old dating back to pre-Rabbinic times. It is a reflective, meditative way of feeding on the text. You will find, if you have not already done so, that when we express what is happening in our own language it is usually so surprisingly contemporary and therefore not so very distant in time and space.
Meditation has been described, in the Hebrew Catholic tradition, as the link between attentive listening and effective performance. Meditation, therefore, as the Scriptures so clearly proclaim, gives spiritual understanding. We have only to read Psalm 119 to know that.
In the case of this particular reading, we could go through it, noting our personal observations and focusing on the Lord Jesus as He quietly confronts each new situation. He might seem a powerless pawn thrust backwards and forwards. Prayerful insight shows us much, much more: this Jewish Messiah-King is indeed the One Who permits each move to occur.
Some Reflections on Our Text
Since His arrest the previous evening, Jesus had been kept up all night, slandered, mocked, and physically abused. Our text opens as the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Court) has just decided (after much dissension) on the guilt of Jesus.
Verses 1 and 2
Then the whole assembly of them arose and brought
him before Pilate.
They brought charges against him, saying, “We found
this man misleading our people; he opposes the
payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is
the Messiah, a king.”
In Pilate’s presence our Lord’s accusers recite a list of offences carefully crafted to rankle the Governor. They claim to have witnessed Jesus:
— subverting the nation;
— opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar;
— claiming to be the Messiah-King.
Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
He said to him in reply, “You say so.”
Pilate is immediately suspicious of their sudden and unprecedented flush of loyalty to Rome. This “sly old fox” is not easily fooled! He therefore asks Jesus a question, which is both polite and neutral.
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Our Lord does not answer with a direct “Yes” but “You (emphatic) say so; not me”. He thus implies that there are more important questions to be asked if He is on trial.
Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the
crowds, “I find this man not guilty.”
The highest Court in the land reaches one of its fastest ever verdicts!
“I find no basis for a (i.e. any) charge against this man.”
Pilate who is shrewd and cold-blooded, could execute Jesus with just one word, but he declares the prisoner, “Not Guilty”.
In actual fact, Pilate sees Jesus as some kind of small-time village preacher, harmless even if a little eccentric.
All Pilate wants to do is to get such trivial matters out of the way so that he can attend to the grand affairs of representing his divine Emperor and the almighty power of Imperial Rome!
But they were adamant and said, “He is inciting the
people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from
Galilee where he began even to here.”
The leaders however, are not prepared to take that sitting down. As St. Luke’s original text records, they “persisted strongly”.
“He incites disloyalty all over Judea with his teaching (implying it is a dangerous threat to good order). He started in Galilee — now he’s here!”
Verses 6 and 7
On hearing this Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean;
and upon learning that he was under Herod’s
jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod who was in
Jerusalem at that time.
Pilate’s ears prick up: “Did you say Galilee?” This was music to his ears. He is worried by the fanatical determination of the accusers of Jesus to get Him convicted. He jumps at the chance to off-load the problem on to Herod, a puppet King used by Pilate to keep the Jews suppressed. Herod is in Jerusalem at the time, and this is a chance to get rid of the tiresome, argumentative religious authorities who have become a pest (not for the first time!).
Herod was very glad to see Jesus; he had been
wanting to see him for a long time, for he had heard
about him and had been hoping to see him perform
Herod is delighted to have a chance to meet Jesus, having heard so much about Him back in Galilee. Although he feared Jesus to be John the Baptist returned, he could not resist a chance to see a miracle.
He questioned him at length, but he gave him no
As soon as Jesus is brought before him, Herod asks a sea of questions — silly, fickle questions.
But Jesus, with commanding dignity, gives no answer, and does not utter a word. This is the only time the Lord reacted in this way to any person.
The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile, stood by
accusing him harshly.
Meanwhile the same mob of leaders performing in front of Pilate, have arrived at Herod’s residence and turn on the same act, “accusing him harshly”.
(Even) Herod and his soldiers treated him
contemptuously and mocked him, and after clothing
him in resplendent garb, he sent him back to Pilate.
Herod and his armed guard appear to ignore the charges being made against Jesus. They are only interested in playing with Him and ridiculing Him. As soon as they become bored with their childish behaviour, they throw an elegant looking robe around Jesus to add further insult to injury, and march Him back to the Praetorium.
Herod and Pilate became friends that very day, even
though they had been enemies formerly.
Although this is bothersome to Pilate who thought he had got rid of Jesus, he takes pleasure in Herod’s act of politely deferring to the higher Court of the Governor. In fact, Pilate later reacted very warmly to this act of obeisance.
Verses 13 — 15
Pilate then summoned the chief priests, the rulers,
and the people
and said to them, “You brought this man to me and
accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have
conducted my investigation in your presence and
have not found this man guilty of the charges you
have brought against him,
nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no
capital crime has been committed by him.
This time Pilate takes the initiative and actually calls together the senior Jewish authorities. He is keen to terminate the ridiculous nonsense which is gathering momentum.
He addresses them very firmly:
— “You brought Him here to me.
— I listened to your charges.
— I have found no basis whatsoever for the charges you
are making against Him.
— Herod likewise can find no case against Him.
— I therefore declare Him totally innocent”.
Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
Jesus has been found innocent. It is therefore all the more horrifying for Pilate to order Jesus to be “chastised”. In Luke’s original Greek, this is a euphemism for a brutal scourging. Only slaves are normally subjected to this cruel beating with thongs of leather studded with sharp objects and barbs which bruise and tear away the flesh to expose the bone.
Pilate is a ruthless Governor, but in his own strange way expects the clamouring leaders to back off if Jesus, one of their own, is punished severely and then released so that they can see the flesh hanging off some of His bones.
Modern translations omit verse 17 as it was added to the text as an explanatory gloss, (i.e. a footnote written on the scroll and later absorbed into the original text). It reads: “He (Pilate) was under obligation to release one man for them every feast day (i.e. every major festival)”.
But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man!
Release Barabbas to us.”
The rabble step up their pressure as well as their odious remarks. “Take Him away — we want Barabbas!”
(Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that
had taken place in the city and for murder.)
Pilate is well aware that this pathetic mob (as he sees them) are one minute, up in arms that Jesus was supposed to have subverted Israel, yet now they want a convicted murderer and insurrectionist released in His place!
Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus,
Pilate despises them and, for his own reasons, does not want them to have their own way. He continues to try and do a deal with them to release Jesus, but they will not hear a word of it.
but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Instead the Jewish leaders and the riff-raff they have gathered, start shouting in a mob-chant: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Pilate addressed them a third time, “What evil has this man
done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore I shall
have him flogged and then release him.”
For the third time the ruling Roman Governor pronounces Jesus entirely innocent. Again he tries his stunt about having Jesus scourged in the hope that this will be enough to get them to back off. He is a military strategist and he can think on his feet.
With loud shouts, however, they persisted in calling for his
crucifixion, and their voices prevailed.
But even Pilate, with all his power and experience begins to become unnerved by their blood-curdling demands for nothing less than the crucifixion of Jesus. St. Luke records: “……and their shouts prevailed.” (There is something very contemporary about that!)
The verdict of Pilate was that their demand should be granted.
Suddenly Pilate gives in and agrees to do exactly what the mob demand.
In all of the annals of Rome, there is no other record of such a humiliating defeat of a presiding ruler.
So he released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion
and murder, for whom they asked, and he handed Jesus over
to them to deal with as they wished.
Pilate orders the immediate release of the violent convict they are calling for and surrenders Jesus, whom even he recognises as a gentle man of peaceful ways, into the hands of His rabid opponents.
Jesus is then led away to be crucified.
We Take Our Leave
The hideous drama continues, but we must take our leave here. As we approach Our Lord’s Passover, i.e. Easter, we would do well to reflect on this reading and its sequel, keeping our focus on Jesus and His extraordinary self-control. As we revisit these scenes we observe our Lord in full control at every moment as He allows events to unfold. We are left pondering: why on earth would He go through all of this for us?
Throughout this passage (and of course, beyond it) Jesus strives to demonstrate that He is totally obedient to the Father’s will. In this way He is one with the Father, fully united in mind and purpose.
Jesus is therefore the perfect model of one who listens and obeys. Those disciples who are willing to reflect this same listening and obedience in their lives are thereby brought into that intimacy between Father and Son who love to share it with them.
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(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in
No Grounds for the Death Penalty
Palm Sunday Year C St. Luke 23: 1 to 25
1. One of the most striking features of St. Luke’s narrative is the total lack of any negative criticism of anybody. He simply records the facts without any emotional judgment of any misdeed or injustice.
2. During His three years of ministry our Lord was never at loss for words. In this record of His trial before the Governor and one of the puppet Kings he had appointed , Jesus says very little, and, in fact, nothing towards His defence. Not for a moment does He lose His quiet and humble dignity which even impressed the notoriously ruthless Pontius Pilate.
3. One of the most surprising items of information about Christians today is how frequently (if at all) they spend a quiet time reading and reflecting on our Lord’s last night with His Apostles, the horrifying treatment following His trial and His execution as a common criminal. Many of our great Saints have urged us to do this regularly. It is an excellent way to prepare during Holy Week for Easter.
The Church in our times desperately needs its members to keep their focus on the Lord and His self-sacrifice for us and all humanity. Let us pray for one another that we will have a heart full of gratitude for the suffering experienced for us by Jesus, and gladly take up our Cross daily for the greater glory of God.
Luke 23: 1 — 25
Palm Sunday Year C
1 1 Then the whole assembly of them arose and brought
2 They brought charges against him, saying, “We found
3 Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
4 Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the
5 But they were adamant and said, “He is inciting the
6 2 On hearing this Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean;
7 and upon learning that he was under Herod’s
8 Herod was very glad to see Jesus; he had been
9 He questioned him at length, but he gave him no
10 The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile, stood by
11 (Even) Herod and his soldiers treated him
12 Herod and Pilate became friends that very day, even
13 Pilate then summoned the chief priests, the rulers,
14 and said to them, “You brought this man to me and
15 nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no
16 Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
18 But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man!
19 (Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that
20 Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus,
21 but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
22 Pilate addressed them a third time, “What evil has this man
23 With loud shouts, however, they persisted in calling for his
24 The verdict of Pilate was that their demand should be granted.
25 So he released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion
1 [1-5,13-25] Twice Jesus is brought before Pilate in Luke’s account, and each time Pilate explicitly declares Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing (⇒ Luke 23:4, ⇒ 14, ⇒ 22). This stress on the innocence of Jesus before the Roman authorities is also characteristic of John’s gospel (⇒ John 18:38; ⇒ 19:4, 6). Luke presents the Jerusalem Jewish leaders as the ones who force the hand of the Roman authorities (⇒ Luke 23:1-2, 5, ⇒ 10, ⇒ 13, ⇒ 18, ⇒ 21, ⇒ 23-25).
2 [6-12] The appearance of Jesus before Herod is found only in this gospel. Herod has been an important figure in Luke (⇒ Luke 9:7-9; ⇒ 13:31-33) and has been presented as someone who has been curious about Jesus for a long time. His curiosity goes unrewarded. It is faith in Jesus, not curiosity, that is rewarded (⇒ Luke 7:50; ⇒ 8:48, ⇒ 50; ⇒ 17:19).
3  This verse, “He was obliged to release one prisoner for them at the festival,” is not part of the original text of Luke. It is an explanatory gloss from ⇒ Mark 15:6 (also ⇒ Matthew 27:15) and is not found in many early and important Greek manuscripts. On its historical background, see the notes on ⇒ Matthew 27:15-26.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition (c)