The Death of the Just Man

Luke 23:33-49

Luke When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals-- one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One."

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man." When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Commentary by Donald Senior, C.P.

Luke fills the crucifixion scene with details typical of his portrayal of Jesus. He is crucified with the two criminals surrounding him, fulfilling Jesus' own prediction at the supper table: "For I tell you that the scripture must be fulfilled in me, namely, 'He was counted among the wicked"' (23:37). Just as Jesus had repeatedly taught his disciples not to respond to violence with more violence and to be forgiving (6:27-36), so he forgives the very men who had condemned him and who drive the stakes into his body (23:34).

When one of the crucified criminals joins in the chorus of derision that accompanies Jesus to his death, the other confesses his sin and asks for mercy (23:39-43). It is Luke's prescription for authentic conversion as exemplified in the story of publican and the sinner (18:9-14) and so Jesus promises this man not only forgiveness but a place at his side that very day as his journey to God triumphantly reaches its home in paradise. The moment of Jesus' death is charged with drama. As a sign of the terrible power of death, the sun's light is eclipsed and darkness grips "the whole land" (23:44). The Temple veil covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies is torn in two--as if to say that even God's presence leaves the people. This is, indeed, the "hour of darkness".

From the midst of these terrible omens comes Jesus' piercing voice, his life breath poured out in a final prayer: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." (23:46). The words are from Psalm 31 (verse 6) and express the core of Jesus' being--his unshakable trust in God, a trust that death itself could not destroy.

His death has an immediate impact. The Roman centurion who had overseen his execution is struck to the heart by the manner of Jesus' death, the first of an endless stream of believers touched by the cross of Christ. "This man was truly just", he acclaims. The wording of his confession fits perfectly with Luke's portrayal of Jesus in the passion. Jesus the martyr prophet was indeed a "just" man: totally committed to God's cause; willing to face death for the sake of the gospel.

Luke also uniquely describes the impact of Jesus' death on the bystanders. The people who had walked the way of the cross with Jesus (23:27) and now witness his death return "beating their breasts"--a sign of repentance (23:48). And standing at a distance are those "who knew" Jesus (Luke's subtle way of inching the frightened and scattered disciples back into the story?) and the faithful women "who had followed him from Galilee" (23:49). The gathering of the community which would burst into life after the resurrection already begins, at the very moment of Jesus' life-giving death.

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