Luke and Easter

By Rev Dr Matthew Wilson

All four gospels recount the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Each gospel tells the story from a different perspective, and each story is different.

John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus quite differently from the other three synoptic (like-seeing) gospels. However when it comes to the Easter narrative, Luke’s gospel is quite distinct from its synoptic companions – Matthew and Mark.

Luke’s distinctive contributions to the Easter story include (but are not limited to):

  • the hearing before Herod Antipas
  • the inclusion of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ among the crowd on the road to the cross
  • the comments by the other two men crucified alongside Jesus
  • the centurion’s proclamation of Jesus’ innocence (rather than as Son of God), and
  • come the Easter day narrative, Luke includes the story of the road to Emmaus and keeps the disciples and followers in Jerusalem and its environs, rather than sending them to Galilee to meet the risen Jesus.

When Luke sets out to write his two part ‘orderly account’ of Jesus that we know as Luke and Acts, we need to be careful to understand that for Luke it is not what we would regard as factual or historical accuracy that is first in his mind as author, but rather telling the ‘truth’ of the story.

Luke is seeking to convey to his reader what the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus means.

What difference does Jesus’ story make to life?

For Luke, the theological message of the Jesus story is central.

Scholars have long noted that Luke shapes his narrative throughout the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts in terms of journey.

Through the gospel we take a journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and the cross.

Then in Acts we journey not, as is prophesied in the opening chapter from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth, but rather from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the city of Rome, centre of the empire (and from there, presumably, to the ends of the earth).

For Luke it is essential that the events of the Easter story – death and resurrection - remain focused on Jerusalem ‘the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it’ (Lk 13:34). 

So Luke keeps Jesus’ disciples and followers close to Jerusalem, in the city itself and the satellite towns of Bethany and Emmaus.

It is here that Jesus journeys with and explains to his followers how his crucifixion fulfils scripture.

It is here that they recognise that Jesus is not simply a ghost, but a resurrected person who eats with them.

It is here that they remember the broken bread and the wine of the Last Supper.

It is here they gather to prepare for the coming of the Spirit and the fulfilment of God’s plan.

And it is from God’s city of Jerusalem that they will go forth into the world with Jesus’ new message of the inclusivity of God’s kingdom to the wider world.

Jesus also speaks of Jerusalem, and through Luke alludes to the future destruction of the city and its temple, with the interjections of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ who weep for him from the crowd on his way to the cross (23:27).

The text suggests that these are nursing mothers – not only through the use of a particular Greek word already used by Luke in 11:27, where women call out on Jesus a blessing on the breasts that nursed him – but also though Jesus subsequent words.

The women in the crowd are encouraged to weep for themselves and their children - the focus remains on the city and its residents.

The text echoes Zechariah 12:10, Isaiah 4:4 and Song of Songs.

The residents of Jerusalem have failed to recognise Jesus, and the theological result will be the subsequent defeat and destruction of Jerusalem and its people.

Luke also includes a conversation between the men being crucified – the two ‘thieves’ and Jesus.

Conversation during an execution designed to asphyxiate the victim would be very difficult, however again Luke’s point is theological.

Although the leaders and the crowds of Jerusalem do not recognise Jesus, one of the thieves who die with him does.

Along with the centurion this thief recognises not Jesus’ divinity, but his innocence. Jesus’ suffering and death is unmerited, undeserved, a failure of human justice.

Which brings us back to Jesus’ trial.

The trial in Luke’s narrative is by far the most complex within the gospel narratives.

Jesus’ ordeal begins with a night time discussion at the High Priest’s house, followed by a formal hearing before the Jewish Sanhedrin or Council in the early morning.

From there Jesus is taken to Pilate – who proclaims his innocence, but on being challenged by the Jewish leaders, refers Jesus on to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee.

Herod, like the ‘bad’ thief, desires a sign that will prove Jesus is truly the chosen of God. As with the thief, no sign is forthcoming.

So Herod, also proclaiming Jesus’ innocence, sends him back to the Roman authority, Pilate. Pilate once again affirms Jesus innocence but bows to the pressure of the crowd and allows Jesus to be condemned to death.

Is this historically accurate by our standards? Probably not.

It certainly does not seem to fit with what we know of Roman justice or the character of Pilate.

Luke himself reminds us that Pilate has already mingled the blood of a number of Galileans with that of their sacrifices (Lk 13:1-4) and we know from non-biblical sources that Pilate had over 2000 people crucified for a disturbance in the Jerusalem temple some time after Jesus’ death – an event that ultimately led to him being recalled to Rome.

Would Pilate really be willing to repeatedly pronounce a religious agitator who had disturbed the social, religious and economic security of the temple during the Passover season as innocent?

Would he really bow to the pressure of Jewish leaders who, it seems from non-biblical sources, he despised?

It is unlikely.

But again Luke’s point is theological, not a report of events as they unfolded. The crowd, the religious leaders, the Roman authorities, the ‘bad’ thief all fail to grasp who Jesus is. They do not understand. They do not see.

They expect spectacle and signs and wonders, and so miss the presence of God amongst them.

They may acknowledge Jesus’ innocence, but it does not prompt them to act any differently. Jesus is given over to die. Only a few begin to see and understand who Jesus is.

Luke chooses not the resurrection, but the ascension of Jesus as the centre-point of his two volume work.

The Ascension will end the gospel of Luke, and retold, will set the scene for the book we know as Acts.

We need to remember that the Lukan Easter narrative is part of a much longer story. A story which reaches its centre as the ministry, mission and person of Jesus who the crowds and leaders have failed to hear, see and recognise. The Jesus who has died unjustly and been resurrected is confirmed by God.

God proves this affirmation as the risen Jesus is taken up from the disciples and those who have heard, seen, listened and believed, to be with God.

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.” (Ps 118:22-23). 

Rev. Dr Matthew Wilson is minister at Nowra Uniting on the south coast in NSW. He has previously ministered in congregations and university chaplaincy. He completed a PhD in Luke and Interfaith relations in 2012. He convenes the UCA - Jewish National Dialogue and is a casual lecturer in New Testament and Interfaith Studies at Charles Sturt University.