One of my favorite scenes from the story of Christ’s birth is of the far-seeing elderly Simeon reaching for the child in Mary’s arms, content now to die for having seen the Messiah with his own eyes. His words to Mary, more eerie than most mothers could graciously accept, always seemed a cryptic little side note from a strange and saintly old man. But the prophecy never struck me as a pivotal introduction to Luke’s overarching motif of suffering throughout his telling of the story of Christ. Says Simeon:
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”(1)
Starting with Simeon, theologian Roy Harrisville draws out a side of Luke that surprised my reading of Luke’s Gospel and passion narrative—if only the surprise of seeing plainly something I’d never noticed.(2) Again and again Luke points out the necessity of Jesus’s suffering, long before he is approaching the cross. I was nonetheless left with a plaguing question perhaps less for Harrisville than for God—or Jesus along the road to Emmaus. Why was it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory, as he tells the men as they walk toward Emmaus? Why was Christ’s suffering a matter of “divine necessity”?
Luke has long struck me as one of the more fascinating narrators of the life and death of Jesus, including details at a story level that make for more nuanced intrigue. “Day after day I was with you in the temple and you did not seize me,” says Jesus at his trial. “But all this has taken place, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled,” he explains in Matthew and similarly in Mark, “But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” Yet Luke’s recollection of the scene is much less formulaic. Jesus replies with a far more layered vision of all that is at work. “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness,” hinting that there is another hour and the power of something else at hand.(3) Luke repeatedly includes hints of these disparate visions at work, blind and brute ignorance beside cryptic insight like Simeon’s, a contrast seen quite literally in the very criminals on either side of Jesus on the cross.
All of this I have cherished in the evangelist’s telling. And I can now see, as Harrisville notes, that Luke’s relentless pointing to the necessity of Christ’s suffering indeed lies at the heart of this dramatic narration; I can see that Luke describes the life of Jesus as the way of the suffering Christ, and the passion of the cross as the necessary event which marks the approaching kingdom. But why? Beyond the need to encourage suffering readers, beyond the musts of scripture, why was it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things? If Luke’s telling is indeed a motif of human ignorance alongside that of the divine necessity, I am thankful for the grace that is shown on the side of unknowing. And I am thankful that Jesus went willingly toward suffering for our own sakes even though we might not fully understand it.
(1) Luke 2:34-35.
(2) Roy Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006).
(3) Parallel texts found in Matthew 26:56, Mark 14:49b, and Luke 22:53b.