44 It was now about noon, and darkness covered the whole Land until three o’clock in the afternoon; 45 the sun did not shine. Also the curtain in the Temple was split down the middle. 46 Crying out with a loud voice, Yeshua said, “Father! Into your hands I commit my spirit.” With these words he gave up his spirit.
47 When the Roman officer saw what had happened, he began to praise God and said, “Surely this man was innocent!” 48 And when all the crowds that had gathered to watch the spectacle saw the things that had occurred, they returned home beating their breasts. 49 All his friends, including the women who had accompanied him from the Galil, had been standing at a distance; they saw it all.
In my last blog I urged readers to compare Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution with his main source of information, the Gospel of Mark ( chapter 15), which presents a picture of an apocalyptic event, where Jesus cries out to God whom he feels has abandoned him, using the opening words of Psalm 22. By apocalyptic I mean an event in which the division of earth and heaven is broken and the truth of God revealed to human beings. All the gospels make the execution of Jesus an event of this sort. The darkness over the land is a common element, signifying the withdrawal of light, a moment when the powers of darkness hold sway. This element is balanced in the first three gospels by the tearing apart of the temple curtain, which is both a sign of the end of temple worship and of the unveiling of God; and by the centurion who,is another common element, a gentile witness to Jesus’ divine sonship (in Matthew and Mark) and to his innocence in Luke.
This last difference, in which Luke edits what he found in Mark, reducing the centurion’s declaration from “son of God” to “innocent man” is typical of what he does with the whole of the story of the execution. Although he keeps the references to darkness and the temple curtain, he deliberately keeps his description brief. Crucially he changes Jesus’ anguished cry of abandonment into a calm surrender of his spirit into God’s hands. ( using words from Pslam 31) . Perhaps Luke meant his readers to think of this as the return to God of the spirit which came upon Jesus in his baptism with the assurance that he was God’s dear son. If so, although Luke does not give the words “son of God” to the centurion he is nevertheless intending they should be in the reader’s mind.
The curtain in the temple is the one separating the holy place from the Most Holy place into which the high priest entered in the day of atonement with the blood of the sacrificed animal. As this was a key aspect of the temple cult, it is clear that the tearing of the curtain is a sign that this cult is finished. It has disqualified itself by making a sacrifice of God’s son. In that sense it is a negative sign. It may however easily have a positive significance: the most holy place is no longer a bit of the temple, but rather the executed Jesus, who becomes the place of atonement for all who turn to him, through the preaching of the Gospel. Probably both these meanings were intended by Luke.
(In Mark I detect the further meaning that the ripping of the curtain is the unveiling of the most holy place, that is, of God’s self: here in this broken man is God.)
Luke goes on to record that there were spectators who came to see the “spectacle”! And he adds, ambiguously that Jesus’ friends ( Greek: gnostoi) were also present and saw all that happened. Luke is indicating that there were witnesses of the execution, but he edits out the names of the women mentioned by Mark. I think Luke wants to include the disciples as witnesses even although Mark says plainly they had run away. In order to do so, he cuts the names of the women at this point.
The judicial innocence of Jesus is important to Luke, who therefore puts a declaration of it in the mouth of the appropriate authority, the centurion who is meant to encourage future Roman officials towards the same judgment.
All in all, Luke’s description of Jesus’ execution is very spare, revealing his forgiveness of enemies, saving of sinners, endurance of suffering and obedience to God. The apocalyptic elements of the tradition are not excised, but simply noted. Luke is depicting the execution of Jesus as the terrible but fitting end to his ministry of obedience to God and communication of God’s goodness in the face of evil. In opposition to injustice, lies, mockery and pain, Jesus remains in control.
Every day in our world there are men and women, of all religions and none, who by their refusal to give up in the face of terrible suffering and injustice share in this ministry of Jesus.
( A completely different editing of Mark can be seen in Matthew 27, in which the apocalyptic elements are emphasised and increased)