Luke 23: 33-38 – Crucifixion of Jesus

The crucifixion narrative of Luke extends up to Luke 23: 43. But here we shall deal with its first part (Lk 23: 33-38). The final journey of Jesus reached its destination, a place called the Skull. There Jesus is crucified between two criminals. The crucified Jesus is mocked and derided by the leaders and Roman soldiers, and the inscription on the Cross proclaims that Jesus is the King of the Jews.

The Lukan narrative of the Crucifixion has many points in common with the Markan narrative (Mk 15: 22-32); but Luke adds his own special details and emphases. Here we shall concentrate our attention mainly on the thrust of the Lukan Crucifixion scene.

Like gospel of Mark (Mk 15: 24), gospel of Luke records Jesus’ Crucifixion with great restraint: “And there they crucified him” (Lk 23: 33). Having given notice about the two criminals already (Lk 23: 32), the evangelist now says that they were also crucified along with Jesus (Lk 23: 33). The text of Isaiah 53: 12 is thus fulfilled in Jesus: “He was reckoned with transgressors” (cf. Lk 22: 37). Luke will develop the story of the criminals (Lk 23: 39-43) to emphasize the saving factor of Jesus’ death. The prayer of Jesus for forgiveness of his executioners (Lk 23: 34) is found only in the Lukan narrative. There is considerable doubt about the authenticity of this text (Lk 23: 34a). These words are omitted in some important manuscripts and in certain ancient versions. On the other hand some other manuscripts and versions retain these words. If they are genuine, these words present Jesus as giving an example of forgiveness and love of enemies which he had insisted upon during his ministry (cf. Lk 6: 27-36). There is also a parenetic element in Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness of his enemies. Jesus is the model of martyrs who must also forgive their persecutors. Luke, in fact, shows that the first martyr Stephen follows the example Jesus has set at his Crucifixion. He too prays for forgiveness of those who stone him (cf. Acts 7: 60).

After mentioning the Crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ prayer for his enemies, Luke describes what others did. The crucified Jesus is also deprived of his last earthly possessions. They cast lots for his garments (Lk 23: 34b). The allusion here is to Psalm 22: 18 thus identifying Jesus with the innocent sufferer of the Psalm. The evangelist now distinguishes the people who stood by, watching from the others who mock and taunt Jesus. In Luke 23: 49 also the evangelist mentions the presence of Jesus’ acquaintances and some women who stood at a distance, watching. While the people stood by, watching and reflecting in an attitude of contemplation, others taunt the Crucified Jesus. Those who mock Jesus are mentioned in a descending order of importance – the rulers, the soldiers, and one of the criminals. The rulers (leaders) scoff at Jesus by recalling the point of the Jewish trial “If you are the Christ tell us” (Lk 23: 35; cf. Lk 22: 67). The expression “the Christ of God” (Lk 23: 35) also occurs in Luke 9: 20. The rulers use a two-fold title to mock Jesus – “the Christ of God,” and “the Chosen One.” Next, it is the turn of the soldiers who use the title from the Roman trial to deride Jesus: “the King of the Jews” (Lk 23: 36-37). One of the criminals too taunted Jesus saying “are you not the Christ?”

The Crucifixion narrative (Lk 23: 33-38, 39-43) assume great importance for Luke and for his theological understanding of the life and death of Jesus. At his Crucifixion Jesus reaches the climax of his suffering and it is also a moment when Jesus enters into communion with his Father (God) in prayer and asking for mercy and pardon for his executioners. In the course of his gospel narrative Luke often portrayed Jesus at prayer and now on the Cross Jesus is again in communion with the Father (God) (Lk 23: 34a, 46). Again, the three title used of Jesus by those who mocked him are ironically true of Jesus. These titles had already appeared elsewhere in the gospel:  the “Christ of God”/ God’s Messiah in the confession of Peter in Luke 9: 20; the “Chosen One” in the identification of Jesus by the heavenly voice in Luke 9: 35; and the “King of the Jews” was echoed in Luke 19: 38. The last title is also the content of the inscription officially proclaiming that Jesus was Crucified as King of the Jews (Lk 23: 38).

Above all, in the Lukan perspective the Crucifixion of Jesus is an event of salvific significance. According to gospel of Luke, the Crucified Jesus is the Saviour. The verb “save” comes to be used four times of Jesus in the Crucifixion narrative (Lk 23: 33-43). Indeed, as several scholars have already observed, the verb “save” is used by the rulers (Lk 23: 35), the soldiers (Lk 23: 37), and the criminal (Lk 23: 39) in taunting Jesus. At his birth Jesus was proclaimed by the angel as “Saviour” (Lk 2: 11). During his ministry Jesus saved people from sin, sickness, and death. And now emphasis is given to the saving significance of Jesus’ Crucifixion and death. The next scene (Lk 23: 39-43) will present concretely the salvation of the “good thief.”

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