I am sure that no one is unaware of the fact that we are in the middle of a Holy Year proclaimed by Pope Francis as the Jubilee of Mercy. As we celebrate Passion Sunday and focus our attention on the passion narrative as told to us by the evangelist St. Luke, we might be able to understand a little better why the Holy Father chose this year in particular. Every third year, during the C Cycle of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass, we listen to the story as told by the one Gentile evangelist. His Gospel, unlike that of St. Matthew and St. Mark, was written for those Christians who had been excluded from the worship of the God of Israel. Consequently, he uses many of the stories of the Gospel to highlight the marginalized people, those who were not allowed into the sacred mysteries of Temple ritual and observance of the Covenant Law of Sinai.
As we read his passion narrative, he makes it very clear that the man who is accused of “perverting our nation” (Luke 23:2) is the one whose infancy and upbringing was totally in fidelity to the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22, 27, 39, 42). This is further borne out in the fact that when Jesus incurs ritual impurity, as he does when he comes into contact with sinners, lepers, blind men, lame men, etc., he observes the constraints that it places upon him by drawing away, usually in prayer. In his preaching he insists that he has not come to replace the Law but to fulfill it.
At the same time, this thoroughly Jewish Messiah does not hesitate to include the stranger in his ministry. St. Luke’s Gospel is the text in which we find the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Samaritan leper. His is the Gospel that tells the story of a boy who runs away from home and is reduced to being a swineherd.
In short, it is St. Luke’s Gospel which concentrates our attention on the compassion and mercy of Jesus not only to sinners but also to Gentiles, those who, in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, are “far off.” The passion narrative of this Gospel continues to show Jesus in this light, for it is only in St. Luke’s Gospel that we hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus went to the synagogue of Capernaum and proclaimed an oracle from Isaiah which he claimed was fulfilled in their hearing: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19) Throughout the Gospel, Luke tells us stories that remind us of Isaiah’s prophecy. However, the one component of the oracle that we hear nothing about until the passion is that of letting the oppressed go free.
In what is perhaps the most poignant of all the stories in St. Luke’s Gospel, we are told that one of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus makes a startling confession: “The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:40-43) When Jesus is at the lowest possible ebb of his human strength, as he is about to die, he forgives this sinner and promises him a share in heaven. While apologists tell us that Jesus instituted the sacrament of penance in the upper room on that first Easter Sunday, an argument could be made that his encounter with the “good thief” on Calvary, which includes both a confession, an expression of remorse and Jesus’ absolution, is the first celebration of the Sacrament of Penance.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy and the proclamation of St. Luke’s Gospel fit together perfectly. We are reminded over and over again through the parables, the stories of encounter with Jesus and through his own actions that God sent Jesus for sinners: “The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.’” (Luke 5:30-32)
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator