In retelling the final hours of Jesus’ life, there is a lot of debate about whether all four gospels should be mixed together to tell one story, or if one gospel should tell the story alone. The four gospels agree on the main points of the passion and resurrection, but the more specific details do vary.
The crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ beating and crucifixion, for example, is unanimously mocking in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 27:21-26, 31, 39-44), while Luke records both condemning and mournful voices (Luke 23:18-24, 23:27-28). In John’s gospel, Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple are close enough for Jesus to address (John 19:25-27), but in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the women stand at a distance (Mark 15:40-41, Matthew 27:55-56, Luke 23:49).
Jesus’ words from the cross, in particular, are strikingly different from gospel to gospel. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels, he cries out in his despair and abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus expresses grace and forgiveness, both to his crucifiers (“Father, forgive them,” 23:34) and to the criminals crucified with him (“Today you will be with me in paradise,” 23:43). In John’s gospel, Jesus’ last words on the cross signify the completion of his work on earth (19:28-30).
There are many passion narratives and reenactments (movies, musicals, plays, etc) which combine the four gospels into a single narrative. There is no question that they often do so to great effect. In this particular incarnation of the Passion Walk, we’re invited into a single gospel, that one narrative might be experienced in-depth.
But which gospel to use? John’s gospel is the text for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary, and so for that reason was not used for the basis for Passion Walks. It is important that we hear the many voices of the gospels as we consider Jesus’ final day.
Matthew’s story is undeniably powerful. It is also, among the passion narratives, one of the more violent. Matthew’s gospel is the one which records Judas’ suicide, the earthquake and resurrections at Jesus’ death, and perhaps most controversially the cry of the Jewish crowd, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25). If a Passion Walk is an activity for families and an opportunity for onlookers to witness, the particular violence of Matthew’s narrative makes it less suitable for public proclamation.
Particularly in Luke’s gospel there is a variety of emotional responses by the crowd: compassionate, mournful, angry, terrified. Christians confess that the violence Jesus suffers at the hands of the Jewish leaders and of Rome is suffered at our hands – that we are just as likely, when challenged and afraid, to turn on mercy and compassion with mouths of destruction.
It is worthwhile, then, for Christians to read the passion narratives of Matthew and Mark where the crowd fully turns on Jesus. It is just as worthwhile to recognize that we can be horrified by that same violence and brokenhearted as the daughters of Jerusalem (Luke 23:28). The gospel of Luke is appropriate for an experience which might raise a multiplicity of emotions. And Jesus’ final proclamation of forgiveness and of surety in God’s care seemed like a grace-full place to end the walk.