Luke 22:14 – 23:56 – Betrayal, Denial, Trial


This extensive reading for the Sunday of the Passion intends to present a panoramic view of the final days in the life of Jesus. The length leaves me with the daunting task of selecting smaller sections or particular ideas for homiletic purposes. In order to find an entry point into this vast panorama, I would like to isolate three events that serve as a trajectory through the Passion narrative in Luke while at the same time they hold the broader narrative together as a “unit” of creative story-telling with a purpose. The three events are: the betrayal, the denial and the trial of Jesus.

Luke stated clearly his purpose in writing this Gospel. He intended to write an “orderly account,” which hardly implies a chronological account, specifically that Theophilus “may know the truth (certainty, not alethia) of the things of which you have been informed, (catechesis, oral teaching).” Luke’s purpose is clearly to present the certainty of catechesis, teaching the faith through word of mouth, meaning “the things which have been accomplished among us just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” (In Luke logos is Gospel, while in John logos is Christ the Revealer).

By the time Luke is writing, the proclamation of the word had moved from word of mouth, oral  tradition, to a written text. What Luke intends now is to offer certainty through apologetics. The entry into Jerusalem is, as is the gospel, a lesson in early Christian apologetics. There is an even more specific reason for this gospel. Luke wants to account for why the predicted parousia had not yet taken place. This is a teaching that Luke inherited. The delay of the parousia was a problem: how to reconcile it with the eschatology of the early church. The gospel is entirely eschatological. Jesus is the bringer of the eschatological kingdom of God.

Luke is writing in the context of a church that is waiting for the return of Jesus. Luke must find a different way of understanding this situation. The delay of the parousia meant for Luke that the church is still living in Exile. He must reassess his exilic thinking. There is a sense of proleptic fulfillment of redemption, but the Exile will not be ended until the parousia is accomplished. Certainly the eschatology of the Q Gospel indicates that there will be a time after the resurrection when the disciples will judge the twelve tribes of Israel and that it is hinted that Jesus will be there also. (Luke 22:30). Matthew and Luke approach the parousia differently. It was not until Justin’s Dialogues in the second century that there was an apologia for a first and second coming. How will Luke’s thinking evolve?

For Luke, what is eschatological is no longer a matter of history, and it is no longer necessary to present Jesus only as a figure of Palestinian history. Jesus by his resurrection has transcended history and only as the transcendent one can he be present to his church-in-waiting. In other words, Jesus can be present only because he has never departed. The resurrection is nothing other than the abiding, eternal presence of Christ in his church.  Luke interweaves history, legend and myth to make his case. The aim of Luke’s early Christian apologetics is not to present the certainty of fact, but the assurance of faith. This is what he promises Theophilus.

The Betrayal – Luke 22:3-6; 21-22; 47-48. The word for “to betray” is most commonly used for “to hand over” or “to deliver.” Luke uses the word in 1:2 in the sense of delivering something to someone. For the purposes of homiletics apart from vocabulary, one may say that Judas delivered Jesus to the high priests, who delivered him to Pilate, who delivered him to Herod Antipas, who delivered him back to Pilate, who delivered him back to the high priests and the crowds. The word “to deliver” is only translated as “betray” when used in used with Judas, and this only in the gospels. The account of the betrayal is itself a legend as is seen from the way it is presented in the different gospels. The betrayal is an act of Satan, Luke 22:3. Judas is not acting on his own; he has a non-human conspirator (Satan) and human co-conspirators (chief priests). In Luke 4:13, at the end of the temptation of Jesus, “the devil departed from him until an opportune time.” Now we are told in 22:6 that Judas is waiting for an opportunity to betray him “in the absence of the crowds.” The temptation is tied to the Passion by the betrayal, and the Passion itself may be said to be the final series of temptations as the trial clearly shows that what is at stake is his identity and power, that is, his origin and destiny.  In 22:30; 46, Jesus asks his disciples to pray that they not enter into temptation. The Passion already bears the stamp of temptation.

The betrayal conceals within its structure the idea that “the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed,” 22:7, as a memorial of the great deliverance of Israel from Egypt. For this reason the Passion could not have happened at any other time or festival. Hence the need arose for the dramatic entrance. This was a time for the sacrifice of the lamb, and one can hardly think through this without reflecting on the story of Abraham and Isaac. Luke uses an earlier tradition (I Cor.11) to express the continuity between the conspiracy and the exposure of the betrayer. What had become cultic activity for Paul is for Luke an opportunity to point to the betrayer. Luke 22:21-22. The betrayer has always been in their midst. He is one of them.

While Jesus was at the Mount of Olives praying, a crowd led by Judas approached him. He attempted to kiss Jesus who said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:47-48). The title “Son of man” is a construct of the Palestinian Church, and is frequently placed upon the lips of Jesus, who never used it to identify himself. In Luke Judas did not kiss Jesus to identify him for the authorities. Jesus points out that he was in the temple daily and no one seized him. If Jesus is so well known, why is it that he must be identified by Judas?  Further, what is the content of this betrayal? Of what does it consist? It does not make sense that Judas simply points to Jesus. What testimony did he give to the high priests that may have constituted a betrayal? There is no such evidence, though the questions of the high priests (Are you the Christ? Are you the Son of God?), indicate the crimes with which they were concerned, which we encountered earlier in the temptation. I will say more on this later. In Luke 9:44 Jesus tells the people that the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and the people did not understand “this saying.” We still don’t understand.

Because the betrayal is a legend we cannot enter into it in the same way we would enter into a historical text. Let us return to what I consider to be the formative legend of the Petrine tradition as reported in Luke 9:18-22. Palestinian Christianity was still struggling with Judaism over the identity of Jesus. Their answer through Peter is that he is “The Christ of God.”  Jesus then “charged and commanded them to tell this to no one.” A stronger and perhaps earlier tradition is offered in Matthew 16:13-23. Peter’s answer is “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” After declaring Peter’s place and authority in the church, Jesus “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” I believe that this is a legend of early Christian apologetics. This legend clearly identifies who Jesus is, and the fact that Jesus wants this to be kept secret. There are certainly early indications that others knew his identity and kept it secret. Mary did, 1:31-35; Elizabeth did, 1:43; shepherds did, 2:10-12; Simeon did, 2:25-35. But they all remained silent. Another group needs to be mentioned who knew his identity. The man with the unclean spirit, 4:34-35; demons, 4:41; the leper, 5:13-14; the Gerasene demoniac, 8:28; Jairus, 8:56; the disciples at the transfiguration, 9:36; the followers in 10:21-24. But they all kept silent. It may be said of all these people, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables; so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.” 8:10.Who Jesus is must be kept a secret. On the other hand, what Jesus did is well known as reports went throughout the region. 5:15; 5:26; 7:17; 7:22; 8:34, 39; 18:34-35.

Now I can disclose the content of the betrayal. When Judas points to Jesus in 22:47-48 he is doing more than saying “this is the man.” Judas is identifying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is what constitutes his betrayal: he discloses the secrets of the kingdom of God to which he was privileged as one of the twelve. These are the very things that Jesus is questioned about by the high priests. His betrayal is at once an act of disclosure and an act of disobedience. He alienates himself. I will reflect more on this when I examine the trial.

The Denial – Luke 22:31-34; 54-62. I have maintained throughout my interpretation of the Gospel of Luke that the Passion of Christ is the Passion of the Church. In Luke 22:28 Jesus acknowledges that the disciples are the ones who have continued with him through his trials. The word for trials is the same for temptations. I have also emphasized that the Passion of Christ is a continuation of the temptation in chapter four. I am addressing the essential feature of the eschatology of Luke. The eschatology of the Q Gospel is adopted by Luke in 29-30 where Jesus assigns his disciples as judges over the tribes of Israel. In 22:31-34 Jesus tells Peter that Satan “demanded” him “to sift him life wheat,” but that Jesus prayed for the strengthening of his faith. (A point to consider: why did Jesus not pray for Judas who is in the grip of Satan in 22:3? The two disciples are treated differently for a purpose). This is also an affirmation of the role that Peter will play in the church. Others may be sifted and fall away, but Peter will not. It then comes as a surprise that Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him shortly. And indeed Peter does deny Jesus three times. “I do not know him,” 22:57. Comparative denials are in 22:58, 60. However, I must examine more closely the content of the denial as I did the content of the betrayal, to reveal what the denial really means.

The point I wish to emphasize here is one that is often obscured by the familiarity with the story. When Peter denies knowing Jesus he is indeed still keeping the secret as Jesus commanded! Peter does know who Jesus is. He calls him “Lord” in 5:8. He calls him “the Christ” in 9:21. He sees him transfigured in 9:28-36. Peter’s denial of Jesus is not an act of cowardice, fear or unfaithfulness. In 22:32 Jesus prays that Peter’s faith may not fail, and by keeping the identity of Jesus secret, Peter demonstrates that his faith has remained strong by his refusal to disclose the identity of Jesus. Judas exposes the secret; Peter keeps it. After the episode of the denial, Peter disappears from the Gospel of Luke and may be seen only as part of “the eleven” after the resurrection. Peter disappears as Peter. He will appear soon as the Church. Peter and parousia are intimately connected, as I will demonstrate later. Peter has done what is demanded of him: keep the secret.

The Trial – The apologetic purpose of the betrayal is to acquit the religious authorities of the blame for the death of Jesus. Luke was to assure Theophilus that the religious authorities were not responsible for the death of Jesus. The conspiracy with Judas puts the blame squarely in the closest circle of followers of Jesus. Jesus is sent to the cross by one of his own. In Mark 10:32 “the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles.” In Luke 18:31-32 “he will be delivered to the Gentiles” and they will kill him. The apologetic purpose of the betrayal in Luke has been accomplished. The chief priests and the scribes are absolved.

I would like to refer to what follows here as the non-trial trial. Jesus comes before the high priest, Pilate and Antipas and he is never found guilty of anything.

Before the high priest – Luke 22:54; 63-71.

Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane and taken to the house of the high priest. He is held there overnight in some sort of secrecy to avoid the crowds. Verse 66 points to the next morning as the time when Jesus appears at the assembly of elders, chief priests and scribes. They question him, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” Then they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” Notice that Jesus does not repeat these words. He simply answers, “You say that I am.” Jesus is indicating rightly that he has made no claims to messiahship or sonship.  The claims are not his but theirs.  This is what Judas disclosed to them. The words are on their lips, not his. Jesus is saying that their claims are an acknowledgment of who he is. Jesus is innocent.

Before Pilate – Luke 23: 1-8; 23:13-25.

The next phase of the trial is before Pilate. Now they present three charges. “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.” 23:2. Pilate questions him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus says, “You have said so.” Again, it is Pilate himself who speaks the words, “the King of the Jews.” Jesus does not make this claim. Pilate found no crime in him. Jesus is innocent.

Before Herod – Luke 23:8-12

The third phase of the trial is before Herod Antipas. Apparently Antipas after heaping abuse upon him could find no crime in him either, so he sent Jesus back to Pilate. After calling the chief priests and their followers together, Pilate informed them that he found Jesus not guilty of any of their charges. “Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” 23:16.The high priests and the crows with them disagreed. Three times Pilate tried to release Jesus but they would not let him. “And their voices prevailed.”23:23. But Jesus is innocent.

These trajectories into the Passion call for new ways of interpretation and preaching.

I have presented the betrayal, the denial and the trial as points of entry into the Passion of Christ. Luke’s narrative lifts the events out of history through the use of legend and presents the eschatology of the early church. This eschatology wants to account for the delay of the parousia, the promised return of Christ to his church after the resurrection. As long as the parousia is not an accomplished event, the church still lives as a community in Exile. Luke must resolve this. Luke as the theologian of the Exile must offer the church a new understanding of itself. By making Jesus himself the eschatological event, Luke offers his readers the choice of living hopefully from the future rather than surrendering themselves to the present. The present is what kills, it holds death for all. The present is the wages of sin. As long as the church is bound to and by the present, as long as the church is only an historical reality it cannot offer salvation to the world. But Christ has been crucified and raised from the dead. This makes all the difference.

The Cross opens the way into the future, for together with the resurrection it proclaims the reality of new life, the new creation, for in the Cross all have died with Christ, and through the resurrection all have been raised with him. The Cross that rises into the light is none other than the Manger emerging from darkness. Birth and death are not separate events. They are joined together for all time by the humanity of the one who stretches between them to lift the humanity that watches from afar into the timelessness of the parousia, the eternal home of the resurrection and the Resurrected, as that which is always already here.

The Alpha is the Omega. What is Omega cannot ever leave behind what is Alpha. The Alpha is the future dawning repeatedly and relentlessly, while the Omega is dawning future, always dawning and ever future, impervious to a despotic present that wants it to remain. The Omega, the dawning future cannot remain for the same reason that the church cannot remain. The wages of sin is death. The penalty for remaining is death, oblivion, alienation. The Omega must always be about gathering up and gathering in the Alpha, beyond both beginning and end, because the resurrection has put an end to all ends and all ending. The church is where all endings end because it itself is the resurrection made visible and viable. It is where all things are made new. One can never enter the church and leave as the same person. Exiting the church is taking the resurrection into the open space called human existence that stretches ahead into an ever-expanding multiplication of redeeming grace.

That is why the parousia has never been a delayed event. It is an event always already present. It is the proclamation of Christ, not about Christ, which, when grasped in faith, brings Christ out of the Manger and onto the Cross. We preach Christ, and him crucified! The parousia in which the resurrection resides, is present in confession and absolution. It arrives in bread and wine. It rises from the water of baptism. It permeates the catechetical mystery of the church. It says the time of the Exile is over. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

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