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The Passion of Jesus

by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.

Holy Week culminates the liturgical year. The Gospel stories of Jesus' passion and death bracket the week: on Passion/Palm Sunday, one of the three stories of Jesus' passion from the Synoptic Gospels; on Good Friday, the passion story of John's Gospel.

As often as we have heard these Gospels proclaimed, they still hold a power all their own. Their drama invites participation and theatrical production. Their message invites pathos and prayer. Their annual proclamation also invites deep theological reflection on the question of the suffering of Jesus and its significance.

Influences on the Passion Narratives

Three factors affect the way we should view the passion narratives. The first is the historical background. Clearly the four evangelists knew the major details of the passion and death of Jesus as they compiled their Gospel stories.

Early Christians recalled that Jesus had been arrested, tortured and crucified by the Romans during the time that Pontius Pilate was Roman prefect of Judea. They also recalled that certain Jewish leaders were involved in a plot to harm Jesus, probably because of some of his teachings about the Temple. Likewise the early Christians remembered—with embarrassment—that one of Jesus' own inner circle had betrayed him, another had denied him, and the majority of disciples fled in Jesus' most critical hour of suffering.

A second factor that shaped the passion narratives was the Hebrew Scriptures. When early Christians, many of whom were Jews, remembered the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, they did so in the context of their sacred scriptures. They remembered Jesus' death not simply as a historical event but a divine sacrifice. They interpreted the passion of Jesus through various Old Testament passages, especially the song of the suffering servant (Is 52:13- 53:12), certain psalms of lament (Ps 22, 69), the wisdom image of the suffering righteous man (Wis 2, 4 and 5), and prophetic passages (Zech 9-14). These scriptures colored the passion narrative with divine purpose and interpretive details. Jesus' fate was the fulfillment of God's will revealed through the ages in the sacred writings of Israel.

The third factor is the historical development of the passion narratives in the early Christian decades. As one traces the earliest to the latest editions of the passion story—from Mark, through Matthew and Luke, to John—one sees a twofold growth in the tradition. On the one side is the lessening of Pilate's culpable role in the crucifixion. Historically, Pilate was a notorious Roman governor who was cruel and ineffectual. He eventually had to be removed from office. Yet the passion narratives increasingly portray him as weak, vacillating and finally overwhelmed by the Jewish leadership and crowds. The comparable side of this development is the increasingly hostile portrayal of the Jewish leadership. Matthew and John, in particular, reflect harsh attitudes toward certain Jews with regard to their role in Jesus' death. Scholars are agreed that this portrait reflects the historical development of Jewish-Christian hostilities in the early decades of the Church's history. It is not an accurate historical record of Jesus' own day but a retrojection of this later animosity into the narrative. The contemporary challenge is how to read the passion narratives without succumbing to possible anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic attitudes that have periodically developed in Christian history.

These three factors together strongly influenced the shape of the passion narratives, yet each version retains a uniqueness worth exploring.

Spartan Mark

Mark's narrative is rather terse and concise, but within it is a rich theological perspective of its own.

Mark does not shy away from the cruelty of the passion. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus confronts his fate in intense prayer that the cup of suffering would pass him by (14:35-36). Jesus quietly submits to the cruelty of arrest, torture, humiliation and crucifixion because it conforms to God's will and was foretold in Jesus' ministry (14:49; cf. 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). As Jesus goes toward Golgotha, so great is his burden that a foreigner, Simon of Cyrene, is enlisted to carry the cross (15:21). From the cross itself, Jesus' prayer is the intense cry of abandonment from a psalm of lament: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34; Ps 22:2) Mark does not wince at the suffering Jesus underwent, for it achieves salvation for humanity (14:24).

A second element in the Markan narrative is irony. All through Mark's Gospel, only God and demons have acknowledged Jesus' identity as the messiah, Son of God (1:11, 24; 9:7). But the other characters in the story wonder in amazement at his deeds without knowing his true identity. Only at the time of the crucifixion does a human character, a Roman centurion, acknow-ledge Jesus' identity: "Truly, this man was the Son of God" (15:39). It is ironic that a gentile achieves the insight no Jew in the story achieves. Even Jesus' disciples are portrayed in Mark as rather thick-headed, slow to catch on to Jesus' true identity (e.g., 8:17-18, 33).

Mark also emphasizes the theme of kingship. Throughout Mark the characters are filled with expectation of a royal messiah, but they do not understand the nature of that identity. In the passion narrative, the notion of the kingship comes to the fore to clarify Jesus' identity by means of his mission (cf. the sixfold mention of the title of "king"; 15:2,9,12,18,26,32). Unlike earthly kings, this anointed king comes as a suffering servant. Paradoxically, only when one sees Jesus on the cross does one understand that his mission as a royal messiah is one of service and sacrifice (10:45; 14:24).

Eloquent Matthew

Matthew's passion narrative follows Mark's closely in structure. Yet Matthew expands and edits certain parts of the story to create his own eloquent emphases.

From the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is called Emmanuel, God-with-us (1:23; cf. 18:20; 28:20). Most likely, this title serves Matthew's mixed Jewish and gentile community well. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, a frequently asked question was where God could be found. Matthew responds, in Jesus! The passion brings out the theme of God-with-us in a subtle way at a crucial moment. In Gethsemane, Jesus asks his disciples to be "with" him (26:38,40) in his hour of need. Unfortunately, the disciples abandoned Jesus at the time of his arrest (26:56). Jesus had promised to be with them in times of similar trial (10:16-20,26-33) and even to the end of the ages (28:20), but they do not have sufficient faith to stay with him in his time of trial.

Although all the passion accounts note the importance of prophecy and fulfillment in Jesus' death, only Matthew heightens it to a major motif. A series of fulfillment citations punctuates both the infancy and passion narratives (1:22-23; 2:5-6,15,17,23; 26:31; 27:9-10). Moreover, during the passion Jesus himself twice observes that the scriptures are being fulfilled (26:54,56). For Matthew the passion is not simply a miscarriage of justice but the divinely ordained route for Jesus to fulfill his salvific ministry (1:21). Further confirmation of the divine purpose is found in the apocalyptic cosmic events that occur both at the beginning and end of Jesus' life. A heavenly star announced his arrival (2:2); an earthquake and the resurrection of the saints accompany his death (27:51-53).

Only Matthew records the fate of the betrayer Judas (27:3-10). Judas finally recognizes his terrible deed and tries to reclaim his innocence by returning the 30 pieces of silver he had taken for the betrayal. Neither he nor the Jewish leaders who plotted against Jesus can reclaim lost innocence, however, for they have shed "innocent blood." Ironically, Judas' suicide heightens Jesus' innocence which is also confirmed by the pronouncement of Pilate's wife (27:19).

Passionate Luke

Luke's narration is filled with poignant and passionate moments. Luke intensifies the emotional impact of the passion in a few short scenes.

One is in Gethsemane while Jesus is at prayer. So intense is the moment that an angel comes to Jesus' aid, and Luke records that Jesus' sweat became "like drops of blood" (22:44). Only Luke speaks of this moment as an "agony" (from Greek agonia, meaning the intensity of an athletic contest). Another scene occurs during Peter's denials. Only Luke positions the scene in such a way that Peter and Jesus can be in the same line of vision: "...and the Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord..." (22:61). Such scenes create enormous pathos.

Luke's portrait of Jesus as the one who seeks out the lost to save them is well known. In the passion narrative, he notes that Jesus continued his healing ministry even in the midst of his own suffering. On the way of the cross, Jesus sees the women of Jerusalem who weep for him, but he selflessly directs their sorrow to themselves for their loss (23:27-29). Only Luke records the famous words of Jesus from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (23:34). Jesus also reaches out to the one repentant thief crucified with him. Jesus says to him, "Amen I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (23:43). Paradoxically, even Jesus' persecutors are reconciled; Jesus' passion brings peace and friendship between Herod and Pilate (23:12).

Finally, Luke emphasizes that Jesus dies the death of an innocent martyr. Pilate declares him innocent three successive times (23:4,14,22), as does Herod (23:15), one of the thieves crucified with him (23:41), and the centurion standing guard (23:47). Jesus' martyrdom prepares for the future martyrs of the Church who will be called to follow Jesus' example.

Majestic John

John is always the "different" Gospel, and he goes his own way in the passion narrative as well. His is the most dramatic and majestic portrayal.

Most important for John is to understand that Jesus is not a victim. Rather he voluntarily lays down his life, just as a "good shepherd" does for his sheep (10:17-18). Nothing happens to Jesus in the passion that he is not aware of ahead of time. No one, not even Pilate, holds power over him (19:8-11). He is in charge of his own destiny because he is the Word made flesh, God come to dwell in our midst (1:14). Jesus gives his betrayer permission to go about his dastardly deed (13:27-30). He even carries his own cross without assistance. Such is his willful obedience unto death (19:30).

A second aspect of John's version of the passion is that he sees it as part of a cosmic conflict between the power of darkness and the power of light. Jesus was light that came into the darkened world (1:1-9; 3:19-21). Jesus is the world's light (8:12), but the sad reality is that many people prefer to walk in darkness rather than in the light. Judas accomplishes his betrayal by cover of night (13:30), and when Jesus' enemies come to arrest him in the garden, it is at night. Though they are in the presence of the "light of the world," they rely on torches and involuntarily bend down for a moment in his presence (18:3-6). In short, the passion brings to a climax the cosmic drama between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood, between life and death.

John also emphasizes, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, that Jesus was not entirely abandoned at this death. He sees sacramental significance in it. Only John records the act of the soldier who lanced Jesus' side (19:34). Out of Jesus' breast comes blood and water, two symbols of the sacramental life of the Church (eucharist and baptism). At the foot of the cross in John are two figures from Jesus' inner circle, his mother (never named in John!) and the unnamed beloved disciple (19:25-27). Though these are two historical figures, for John their "unnamed" significance is beyond history. They are representative of a new community. Mary, the new Eve, is mother of the Church; the beloved disciple is the icon of the ideal disciple whose primary virtue is love. In them, at the foot of the cross, an entirely new community of faith is born, nourished by the sacramental life flowing from Jesus' side.

Response to the Passion

In Jesus' passion we have one story in four versions. Seeing the four accounts of Jesus' passion in the context of their respective Gospels helps us appreciate both their unity and diversity. All four are faithful in recording the story of Jesus' final days. Yet each evangelist does it with an eye toward what speaks most powerfully to his individual community. Whether spartan, eloquent, poignant or majestic, they all seek to present faithfully the tradition they have inherited.

When we hear the passion story told again and again, we should avoid the tendency to blend them into one seamless story and ask, rather, what we learn anew from each retelling and from each individual evangelist. Like a common picture painted by four different artists, we have been given a multifaceted account of Jesus' suffering and death. This fourfold model gives us multiple ways to reflect on how Jesus' suffering brought new life into the world, and how we ourselves can face suffering that comes our way.

Sulpician Father Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., currently the provincial of the U.S. Province of Sulpicians, holds a doctorate in biblical studies from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. The author of numerous books and articles, his latest publication is a spiritual commentary on Matthew's Gospel, Matthew: God With Us (New City Press, 2001).

Next: Jesus, Bread of Life (by Virginia Smith)


Talking About Scripture 

  • Read Luke 22:54-65, the account of Peter's denial of the Lord. In what ways can you identify with Peter? Have you ever been tempted to "deny" someone? Have you ever been the victim in such a circumstance? Describe possible responses to such a situation.
  • Read Matthew 27:50-53. Why do you think Matthew interjects a resurrection story into the midst of the passion story, specifically at the scene of Jesus' death?



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