Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Passion Sunday - Liturgy of the Passion - March 20, 2016

Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

Comments have been prepared by Chris Haslam using reputable commentaries, and checked for accuracy by the Venerable Alan T Perry, of the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. While not intended to be exhaustive, they are an aid to reading the Scriptures with greater understanding.

Comments are best read with the lessons.

Feedback to is always welcome.

Lessons for this week from the Vanderbilt University web site

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This book can be divided into two (and possibly three) parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah: a disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah saw the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Some scholars consider that Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The part of Isaiah written in exile (Chapters 40–55) contains four servant songs, sections that interrupt the flow of the book but have a unity within themselves. The first ( 42:1-7) begins “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen ...”; in the second ( 49:1-7) the servant, abused and humiliated, is commissioned anew; in the third (our passage) he is disciplined and strengthened by suffering; and in the fourth ( 52:17-53:12) even the Gentiles are in awesome contemplation before the suffering and rejected servant. In late Judaism, he was seen as the perfect Israelite, one of supreme holiness, a messiah. In the gospels, Jesus identifies himself as the servant (or slave), the one who frees all people.

In vv. 4-6, God has “opened my ear”; he has commissioned the servant as one who is taught, i.e. like a disciple. God has made him a “teacher” (a prophet) of the “word” of God, to bring God’s comfort to “the weary”, his fellow Israelites – who reject God. He has accepted this command: he is not “rebellious”. They have tortured him (v. 6), as they did prophets before him, but he has accepted their “insult and spitting”.

In vv. 7-9a, in courtroom language, the servant says that, because God helps him, he is not disgraced; he confidently accepts the suffering (“set my face like flint”), and will not be put to shame. God will prove him right (“vindicates”, v. 8). He is willing to face his “adversaries”, his accusers – for the godly to “stand up together” with him against the ungodly. He is confident that, with God’s help, none will declare him guilty.


Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.

Psalm 31:9-16

The psalmist seeks deliverance from personal enemies. He is “in distress”: his troubles have led to ill health; his strength fails him (v. 10); perhaps he is terminally ill. He is “scorned by all ... [his] enemies” (v. 11a, Revised English Bible) and even by his neighbours; his friends avoid him. People forget about him, as though he is already dead (v. 12); he feels as useless as “something thrown away” (New English Bible). People are conducting a whispering campaign against him and they scheme to take his life (v. 13); but he accepts God personally; he has confidence in God (v. 14). His destiny (“times”, v. 15) is safe in God’s hands; he trusts that God will deliver him from his adversaries and persecutors. Seeing himself as a “servant” (v. 16), he cries let me experience you, O God! May God, in his compassion, save him from all that besets him. In vv. 21-24 (perhaps written later), he gives thanks to God for hearing his call for help. God’s unfailing love for him in his distress was wonderful. May his experience be an example for others.


Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, a prosperous Roman colony in northern Greece, from prison. We do not know whether this imprisonment was in Ephesus or in Rome. It appears that he was held under house arrest. It is possible that the epistle is actually made up of three letters. It contains many personal references, exhorts members of the Philippian church to live the Christian life and to good ethical conduct, introduces Timothy and Epaphroditus as his representatives, and warns against legalists and libertines. Lastly, he thanks the Philippian community for their material support.

Philippians 2:5-11

In vv. 1-4, Paul has urged the Christians at Philippi, through “encouragement in Christ”, and moved by God’s love for them, to “be of the same mind[set], having the same love, being in full accord ...”. They are to “regard others as better than ... [themselves]”, freely adopting a lowly, unassertive stance before others, replacing self-interest with concern for others.

Vv. 5-11 are an early Christian hymn to which Paul has added v. 8b. He exhorts his readers to be of the same mindset as Jesus – one that is appropriate for them, given their existence “in Christ” (v. 5). Christ was “in the form of God” (v. 6): he was already like God; he had a God-like way of being, e.g. he was not subject to death. He shared in God’s very nature. Even so, he did not “regard” being like God “as something to be exploited”, i.e. to be grasped and held on to for his own purposes. Rather, he “emptied himself” (v. 7), made himself powerless and ineffective – as a slave is powerless, without rights. He took on the likeness of a human being, with all which that entails (except sin), including “death” (v. 8). As a man, he lowered (“humbled”) himself, and throughout his life in the world, was fully human and totally obedient to God, even to dying. (Paul now adds: even to the most debasing way of dying, crucifixion – reserved for slaves and the worst criminals.)

God actively responded to this total denial of self, his complete living and dying for others, by placing him above all other godly people (“highly exalted him”, v. 9), and bestowing on him the name, title and authority of “Lord” (v. 11) over the whole universe (“heaven”, v. 10, “earth”, “under the earth”). God has given him authority which, in the Old Testament, he reserved for himself. (Isaiah 45:22-25, in the Revised English Bible, says: “From every corner of the earth turn to me and be saved; for I am God ... to me every knee shall bow ... to me every tongue shall swear, saying ‘In the Lord alone are victory and might ... all Israel’s descendants will be victorious and will glory in the Lord’”); everyone shall worship him; confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (v. 11) is equivalent to proclaiming the victory and might of God. The ultimate goal is the “glory of God the Father”, the reclamation of God’s sovereignty, his power over, and presence in, the universe.

Symbol of St Luke


Three gospels in the New Testament offer similar portraits of the life of Jesus; Luke is the third of them. Its author, traditionally Luke the physician who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys, draws on three sources: Mark (via Matthew), a collection of sayings (known as Q for Quelle, German for source) and his own source. It is a gospel that emphasizes God's love for the poor, the disadvantaged, minorities, outcasts, sinners and lepers. Women play a more prominent part than in the other gospels. Luke never uses Semitic words; this is one argument for thinking that he wrote primarily for Gentiles.

Note: Either Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49 may be read.
Luke 22:14-23:56

Jesus and his “apostles” are gathered in a room on the second floor of a house in Jerusalem. It would be a guest room, furnished with rugs, cushions and perhaps a low table. 22:13 says “... they went and found everything as he had told them ...”, so they are confident that what he now promises will really happen. The “hour” ( 22:14) is both the time of the meal – after sundown – and the time of completion of his rescue mission. Jesus begins his farewell speech to his followers with the Last Supper. (The name comes from 1 Corinthians 11:20, “the Lord’s supper”.) He thinks of this meal as pointing forward to the banquet in the kingdom of God ( 22:17-18). The traditional prayer of thanks over the cup is Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the world, who has created the fruit of the vine. Throughout the speech, Jesus continues to teach, to prepare his followers for their mission in the world. Some Jewish meals began with sharing a common cup of wine, and drinking another after the meal ( 22:20). Jesus again gives “thanks” ( 22:19): the Greek word, eucharistesas, gives us the word Eucharist . The “loaf of bread” was likely a flat cake of leavened bread. Jews to this day bless the bread and break it, but Jesus says something special: “This is my body” God gives to free us from sin.

That his body is to be broken may indicate that he expects to be stoned, (crucifixion did not necessarily involve breaking bones.) He commands the disciples to “do this”. Again, “poured” ( 22:20) points to death by stoning: such deaths were bloody while crucifixion was not. He inaugurates a “new covenant”, a new bond between God and humankind. (In Exodus 24:3-8, Moses binds the people to the old covenant by dashing blood on them.) Jesus gives his followers the Eucharist as a continuing remembrance of his sacrifice for humankind. In 22:21-22, Jesus foretells that one of the twelve will betray him. This is part of God’s plan; even though God has “determined” it, Judas’ fate will be horrible!

In 22:24-27, Jesus talks about what it is to be a leader in the Church. Hellenistic kings were called “benefactors” ( 22:25) while in fact they lorded it over the people, but leadership in the Christian community is different: leaders are to adopt Jesus’ style of leadership, to recognize that their talents as leaders are gifts from God, and that they are to serve all in need. Jesus bequeaths (“confer”, 22:29) to those who have shared in his “trials” ( 22:28) membership in the Kingdom of God. They will join with him in showing to the new Israel, the Church (“the twelve tribes of Israel”, 22:30) that God is right, and share in proclaiming the fulfilment of God’s promises to humankind.

In 22:31, Jesus calls Peter “Simon”, the name he had before becoming a disciple. This verse may look odd, but God placed Job in the hands of the devil, to determine his worth: see Job 1:12; 2:6. Jesus has prayed for Peter’s constancy but he predicts, in spite of Peter’s statement ( 22:33), that Peter will deny knowing Jesus. After his denial, when he returns to Christ, leader that he is, Peter is to use his experience to deepen the faith of the others ( 22:32)

In 10:4, Jesus has sent out the seventy to do his mission “without a purse, bag or sandals” ( 22:35), but times have changed: his followers must now be prepared for suffering, and even for death (“sword”, 22:36), in carrying out his commission. In 22:37, Jesus foretells that he will fulfil Isaiah 53:12 (part of a Servant Song): he will be considered a criminal – and so will his followers, but they take him literally (“two swords”, 22:38).

Jesus now leaves the house and walks to the garden on the “Mount of Olives” ( 22:39), across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. ( 21:37 tells us of previous visits.) The twelve, and probably other followers, go with him. There he prays for those with him, that they may not be faced with the struggle between God and the devil ( 22:40) expected to precede the coming of the Kingdom. Usually people stood to pray, but Jesus kneels in humility ( 22:41).

In the Old Testament, a “cup” ( 22:42) refers to an action in God’s plan, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Here Jesus asks to be absolved of the need to be crucified to save humankind, but he decides to be obedient to the Father’s will. Perhaps the “angel” ( 22:43) strengthens Jesus by reminding him of God’s purpose. ( 22:43-44 are not in the earliest manuscripts, so may have been added.)

“Sleeping because of grief” ( 22:45) looks odd, but extreme grief can lead to emotional exhaustion. Even so, this is a time for prayer, not sleep. Jesus rises (“got up”) as he will at the resurrection: only through its power will followers avoid falling into temptation.

Judas’ action is especially treacherous because he is in a privileged position: he is “one of the twelve” ( 22:47). A kiss was normally a sign of intimacy; it was given to a respected teacher. Even on this occasion, Jesus remains non-violent. Perhaps mention of a “sword” ( 22:49) harks back to 22:38: perhaps “one of them” ( 22:50) still misunderstands. Jesus performs a miracle: in touching the slave’s ear, he heals an enemy! Those who have to come to arrest Jesus are the Jewish religious and political leaders ( 22:52). Jesus points out to them that he is not a “bandit”: he is not a threat to law and order, to Roman rule.

Now they bring him to the “high priest’s [Caiaphas’] house” ( 22:54), which is round a “courtyard” ( 22:55). To guard against the cold of the night, a “fire” burns in a charcoal brazier. What Jesus foretold in 22:31-34 now happens: Peter, trying to shrink into the crowd, is noticed; he denies knowing Jesus ( 22:57). Perhaps those who identify him in 22:58-59 are men: per Deuteronomy 19:15, two male witnesses were required in law. Peter’s accent shows him to be Galilean ( 22:59). Peter does recall Jesus’ words ( 22:61), and he repents (“wept bitterly”, 22:62) – unlike Judas; he will be saved.

Luke’s placement of the trial before the Sanhedrin (the supreme court) in the morning (rather than beginning at night and continuing in the early morning, as Mark has it) is legally correct. “Elders ... , both chief priests, and scribes” ( 22:66) constituted the “council”, which regulated religious (and minor political) matters.

Jesus does not answer them when they ask whether he is the Messiah, because they would misunderstand his answer. Apparently powerless, he foretells that God will prove right both him and his ministry: he “will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” ( 22:69). He does not deny that he is the “Son of God” ( 22:70). The Sanhedrin considers that they have sufficient evidence to bring him before the Roman authorities.

Jesus is now brought before “Pilate” ( 23:1) on charges that he has violated Roman law: the charges are made to sound like treason, but neither did he forbid payment of taxes (see 20:20-25) nor is his kingship political ( 23:2). Pilate, Prefect of Judea 26-36 AD, has the authority to impose a sentence of death by crucifixion. Refusing to take religious ideas in a political way, Pilate announces Jesus’ acquittal ( 23:4), but then he yields to popular opinion in sending him to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of a territory which includes Galilee, Jesus’ home district ( 23:6-7).

Herod is curious to “see” ( 23:8) Jesus: he hopes for a miracle – but his kind of seeing is not that required for faith. Jesus remains silent: he is the innocently suffering righteous one. Again he is mocked ( 23:11). Herod passes the buck back to Pilate. Even when seemingly powerless, Jesus is able to bring about reconciliation: between Herod and Pilate ( 23:12).

In 23:13-25, Jesus is tried in full compliance with Roman law: he has been arrested ( 23:14a); he is charged (“perverting ...”); he is examined; Herod’s verdict supports Pilate’s findings ( 23:15a); Jesus is acquitted; he receives a judicial warning ( 23:16). Three times the authorities and the people demand Jesus’ death ( 23:18, 21, 23); however in 23:35, 48 the people (but not their leaders) repent.

Ironically, “Barabbas” ( 23:18) means son of the father, but they reject the one who is God’s Son! 23:19 & 25 tell us that Barabbas is a nefarious character. Jesus will die for even such as him. Pilate gives in to the mob, who have been whipped up by the religious authorities ( 23:25). (Matthew and Mark tell us of the custom of pardoning a criminal at Passover; v. 17 mentions this custom, but scholars say that this verse is probably not in the original.)

The custom was for a criminal to carry the crossbar, the rest of the cross being permanently installed on a hill outside the city. The religious authorities and the mob cause “Simon of Cyrene” ( 23:26) to help Jesus by carrying the crossbar. (The Greek translated as “made him carry”, laid on him, elsewhere clearly means laid friendly hands on him – for healing. “Cyrene” was in North Africa, near Bengazi. From Mark, we learn that he was known to the Church, so he may have been a Christian.) The procession includes two other prisoners ( 23:32) and a few soldiers.

There are others in the crowd who are for Jesus, and repent (“beating their breasts ...”, 23:27), but in 23:28-31, Jesus warns the residents of the city to repent of their rejection of him, God’s prophet, otherwise God will punish them. People considered child-bearing a special blessing, and barrenness a particular curse, so 23:29 would hit home. 23:31 is a proverbial saying, probably meaning here: if the innocent Jesus (who is life-giving, “green”) meets such a fate as crucifixion, what will the fate of the guilty city dwellers (who are dead, “dry”) be?

“The place that is called The Skull” ( 23:33) is called Golgotha in the other gospels. Golgotha is a Greek transliteration for an Aramaic word meaning skull. Crucifixion was a very cruel form of execution; death from suffocation came slowly, often after several days, and resulted from the trauma caused by flogging, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and exposure. The victims’ arms being stretched back, breathing was difficult. While he had the strength, he periodically lifted himself with his legs to take a breath.

Jesus continues his ministry of giving forgiveness to those who have not heard the Good News ( 23:34). The division of his clothing fulfills Psalm 22:18; to be deprived of one’s clothing was to lose one’s identity. (Biblical examples are prisoners, slaves, prostitutes and damned people.) The mob contemplates what is happening, but the “leaders” ( 23:35) taunt Jesus: they blaspheme against God.

In accord with Psalm 69:21, a psalm of the innocently suffering godly one, Jesus is offered “sour wine” ( 23:36) – to revive him, and to prolong his ordeal. Ironically, “Messiah of God” ( 23:35), “his chosen one” and “King of the Jews” ( 23:37) are all true. Jesus refuses to subvert God’s plan by saving himself from a horrible death. A placard was placed around the criminal’s neck, bearing an “inscription” ( 23:38), stating his crime.

One criminal joins with the mob ( 23:39) but the other responds positively to Jesus ( 23:43). Despite his criminal past, for the latter there is salvation; Jesus pronounces him free of sin. Only a king can give pardon. (“Paradise” was the Jewish name for the temporary resting place of the godly dead.) The earth (God’s creation) and the Temple also respond positively to Jesus death: the “darkness” ( 23:44) may have been a solar eclipse; the torn “curtain” ( 23:45) symbolizes the end of the separation between the priests and the people: open access of humankind to God has arrived. (The curtain was that before the Holy of Holies, through which only the high priest passed.)

Jesus’ words in 23:46 are based on Psalm 31:5, another psalm of the innocently suffering righteous one; he shows his profound trust in the Father. Jesus concludes his life of obedience to God’s will. With God’s free gift of faith, a Gentile (“centurion”, 23:47) sees, understands, the deep significance of Jesus’ forgiveness of the criminal: Jesus’ death has meaning way beyond Israel. The mob repents (“beating their breasts”, 23:48). Jesus’ “acquaintances” ( 23:49) – apostles and other followers, both men and women – see (or at least, seek) the meaning of what has happened: they are “watching these things”.

23:50-56 tell us about Jesus’ kingly burial, a great contrast to the way he has been treated at the end of his life. The decision of the “council” ( 23:50 and 22:70-23:1) may not have been unanimous, for “Joseph” ( 23:50) of “Arimathea” ( 23:51) now asks the Roman authorities for Jesus’ body ( 23:52). Joseph “was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” ( 23:51), so he is either a God-fearing Jew or a Christian.

Tombs were cut into the face of an outcrop of soft rock, a geological feature rare in the area, so they were reused (after a year or so), the bones being moved to an ossuary or bone-box. This tomb is special, fit for royalty, for it has never been used (“where no one had ever been laid”, 23:53). Joseph takes Jesus’ body down from the cross and wraps it in a “linen cloth”. Linen was a symbol of immortality, so he shows hope of the resurrection.

Jesus is given a burial fit for one who is God’s Messiah (Greek: Christos ), the Chosen One. Deuteronomy 21:22 stipulates that the corpse of one convicted of a capital crime must be buried on the day of his death, so it is important that Jesus be buried before sundown. Sundown is also the start of the Sabbath (when almost all activity ceased). It is already afternoon; time is short. As Luke often tells us, women have an important role: they see inside the tomb, and “how his body was laid.” ( 23:55) and prepare “spices and ointments” ( 23:56) for anointing Jesus’ body later, there being no time now for doing it properly.

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