The Gospel reading for Passion Sunday offers the preacher an embarrassment of riches.1
[Looking for commentary on the Procession with Palms? Read commentary on Matthew 21 by Greg Carey from the Narrative Lectionary Year 1, April 2019.]
This long and multifaceted reading depicts God and human beings at cross purposes. The various characters in the narrative provide a vivid portrait of human sinfulness and its consequences. Judas, motivated perhaps by greed, betrays Jesus but then bitterly regrets his action. The disciples, with Peter at the head, long to demonstrate their faithfulness and love but fail miserably. Jesus’ opponents—the religious leaders, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the crowds—all in their own ways reject, torment, and ridicule Jesus as they seek their own benefit and their own ends. Jesus alone remains fully obedient to God’s will, opening the way for God to defeat humanity’s death-dealing choices through the paradoxical power of the cross.
The story opens with Judas making an arrangement to hand Jesus over to the religious leaders in exchange for 30 pieces of silver and begins to look for an opportunity (Greek efkairía, “good time, favorable occasion”) to betray him. Just two verses later, Jesus tells his disciples, “My time is near.” At the right time, God will make use of Judas’ timely moment to achieve God’s own purposes.
Judas’ story unfolds in four scenes: the arrangement with the chief priests, Judas’ interactions with Jesus at the last supper, the act of betrayal, and Judas’ repentance. Throughout the story he is described, not from the narrator’s perspective much later in history, “as the one who betrayed Jesus,” but with a present participle, “as the one who was in the process of betraying Jesus.” The choice of tense heightens the dramatic intensity of the dinner conversation—suggesting that Jesus’ betrayer might still have the opportunity to make a different decision.
When Jesus predicts that one of the disciples will hand him over, all except Judas respond, “Surely not I, Lord!” The betrayer’s response—“Surely not I, rabbi!”—reveals what sets him apart from the others. Judas sees Jesus as a teacher whose words, though instructive, are not necessarily authoritative. The other disciples all view Jesus as their Lord who is not merely to be heard, but obeyed. Strikingly, even though Judas does not acknowledge Jesus’ lordship, Jesus continues to include him in the group of his disciples, offering him communion with all the rest. With Peter and the other disciples, Judas eats Jesus’ body and drinks Jesus’ blood of the covenant, “poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”
In the next scene, despite having shared in Jesus’ body and blood, Judas continues down the fateful path toward betrayal. At some unspecified point, he leaves the other disciples and then returns with a mob to identify Jesus for the religious leaders and their emissaries, who evidently did not know Jesus by sight. The grace that Jesus offers Judas extends even to the moment of betrayal, when Jesus includes Judas among his own, addressing him as “friend.”
In Judas’ final scene, with his decision irrevocably made, he sees the consequences of his choice. The religious leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate, and Judas realizes that Jesus will be condemned to death. Matthew portrays Judas as repenting for his actions. He confesses his guilt, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood”; he returns the profit from his crime; and he follows his verbal and financial repentance with the only act that, in an honor-shame society, could atone for his dishonorable betrayal of a friend’s life: he kills himself. Jesus’ blood lends a deep ambiguity to the story. Judas is indeed guilty of innocent blood. But that same blood is poured out for forgiveness, and he repented as fully and freely as he knew how. Does God’s mercy extend to Judas?
Judas is far from the only sinner in the story. Just as Jesus prophesies that one of his own will betray him, so he prophesies that one of his own will deny him, and that at the critical moment all of his own will stumble and scatter. Though Peter, as usual, takes the lead role, the other disciples all affirm their absolute loyalty and dedication to Jesus and echo Peter’s claim that even if it costs them their lives they would never deny Jesus. The scene in Gethsemane reveals how empty their promises are.
The inner circle of Peter, James, and John, despite Jesus’ direct command to stay awake with him, promptly fall asleep. When Jesus first returns from his anguished prayer he focuses his speech on Peter, but his words (in the second person plural) are addressed to them all. Even as he orders them to watch and pray so that they are not overcome by temptation, he names both their desire to obey and their inability to do what he commands: “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Jesus’ prayer that his Father’s will be done highlights both his own obedience and his disciples’ disobedience, for while he prays, sleep overcomes them once more. When the arresting crowd arrives, one of the disciples disobeys Jesus yet again by resisting evil with violence, in direct contradiction to his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38). After Jesus rebukes him for resorting to the sword, all of his followers forsake him. The cross is more than they can bear.
During Jesus’ trial, Peter once again exemplifies the disciples’ longing and failure to follow Jesus. He observes events from a distance, but overwhelmed by fear, he thrice denies knowing Jesus. At the moment of denial, he not only abandons his Lord but disobeys his teaching in Matthew 5:33–37 by using oaths to swear that he does not even know Jesus. When the cock crows, Peter realizes the truth of Jesus’ prophecy and the depth of his own lies. Though he weeps bitterly, he cannot undo what he has done. Does God’s mercy extend to Peter?
If the disciples deny, disobey, and flee because of fear and Judas betrays because of greed, the council of religious leaders and Pilate especially show us other facets of human sinfulness. Jesus’ trial reveals the death-dealing machinery of the state, aided and abetted by religious leaders more interested in securing political power than in serving God. In the hands of both the religious and the civil authorities, truth becomes malleable, a tool shaped by false witnesses and selective evidence to benefit the powerful and achieve a desired end. Though the witnesses’ testimonies do not agree, the religious council persists until they find an excuse to denounce Jesus as deserving death and hand him over to the Roman state apparatus for sentencing.
Pilate, recognizing a political mess when he sees it, does his best to evade responsibility for a decision that he knows to be unjust. When the crowd, spurred on by their envious leaders and eager for a spectacle, chooses life for Jesus Barabbas (whose names means “son of the father”) and death for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Pilate readily capitulates to their will. If political stability requires the death of an innocent man, then so be it. What can he do except wash his hands of the whole business and hope that so much innocent blood does not leave a stain? The crowd, on the other hand, uses a traditional and chilling phrase to accept full responsibility for their decision: “His blood be on us and on our children.”
The blood imagery throughout the passion narrative invites careful interpretation and reflection. On the one hand, the repeated references to blood in Matthew 27:4, 6-7, 24, and 25 recall Jeremiah’s prophecy that the temple and the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed because the city was filled with the blood of the innocent (Jeremiah 19:3-8; 22:3-5; compare to 7:5-7; 26:13-15). Given that Jesus echoed Jeremiah’s temple sermon when he cleansed the temple, and that the witnesses at Jesus’ trial testified that he had said he would tear down the temple, it seems clear that Matthew understands the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as an act of divine judgment.
Yet once again Jesus’ own interpretation of his blood at the Last Supper invites us to hear a deeper meaning in the crowd’s words. So many taunts and phrases in the passion story are profoundly ironic. Do the people understand what they are saying? They ask that Jesus’ blood be upon them and upon their children. But Jesus says that his blood is poured out for forgiveness (the blood of the sin offering, Leviticus 4:25, 34; 5:9). Does God’s mercy extend to those who condemned and executed Jesus?
At the center of the narrative, in stark contrast to his sinful disciples and opponents, is Jesus the obedient Son of God who continues to resist temptation just as he did after his baptism. Though he could have escaped arrest, he refuses to be rescued by angels (Matthew 27:53; 4:5–6). The devil promised him the kingdoms of the world and their glory if only he would bow down and worship, but the Messiah, the King of Israel, chooses instead to endure the soldiers’ mocking adulation and the ridicule of the passersby.
The Son of God saves others by not saving himself. Rather than seeking divine status or grasping at royal power, Jesus accepts the death penalty and is executed as one common criminal among others. The Son of Man identifies with every person who has ever felt God’s absence at the moment of deepest need. He dies in agony, alone.
At the moment of Jesus’ death, creation convulses and boundaries break: the temple curtain is torn in two, the earth shakes, the rocks split, and the tombs are opened. The passion narrative in Matthew ends with Jesus buried and his tomb under heavy guard, but the evangelist has already given away the ending by saying that the dead came out of their tombs after Jesus’ resurrection.
The old order comes apart for the Son of God, by his unique obedience to God’s will, has opened the way to a new creation for all God’s children. Here indeed we see God’s cross purposes. Humanity has done its worst, but what humans intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20). The way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.
Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of the third of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah 40-55 (a section of the book commonly called Second Isaiah).1
The passage stands at a critical juncture or turning point for the recurring figure of the servant, at which dark signs increasingly cloud the promise of his mission.
The selection of lectionary verses is unfortunately artificial; although it is legitimate to treat verses 10-11 as a commentary on the foregoing first-person statement in verses 4-9, the exclusion of 9b is not justified. It is, in fact, verse 10 that identifies this passage with the servant, calling the hearers to listen to him.2
The next phrase of Isaiah 50:10 describes someone who “walks in darkness and has no light.” The same Hebrew term for darkness is used metaphorically in Psalm 82:5 and Isaiah 8:22 for those who are unenlightened, but the portrayal of the servant does not suggest such a person, so it seems best to interpret it as referring to the hearers who trust the prophet although they cannot see what he can. However, some interpreters take the comment as autobiographical and conclude that this is another reference to the prophet’s blindness, like Isaiah 42:19: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the Lord?”
The servant portrayed in Isaiah 50 may be the same figure who in chapter 40 responded to the divine summons to “Cry out!” —the one who responds: What shall I cry?” (Isaiah 40:6). Much like that figure, the servant’s mission seems to be initially one of comfort: The servant knows “how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4), using a word for “weary” (y’p) that occurs repeatedly in 40:28-31.
The servant is also a figure of conflict, however. He is portrayed with images of hard, sharp objects —as “a sharp sword” and “a polished arrow” in Isaiah 49:2, and in 50:7 he sets his face “like flint.” The servant presses forward in his mission (verse 5), but the portrayal of his work has taken a darker turn from the optimistic tone of earlier chapters —he is struck, stripped, insulted, and spit on (verse 6). In this way, the passage looks forward to the fourth and final servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), in which the servant also suffers affliction, apparently unto death.
Isaiah 50 supports the idea that the servant was a figure with disciples. The opening phrase of verse 4 is most easily translated, “the Lord has given me a tongue of/for disciples.” (Only with difficulty can translations such as “the tongue of a teacher” [NRSV] or “an educated tongue” [CEB, NIV] be justified, since the Hebrew form is plural: limmûdîm.) At the end of the same verse, he asks to be able to hear “like the disciples.” The passage suggests a combination of toughness, humility, and faith that would be exemplary in a leader of a group. The song of comfort in Isaiah 54 may have this servant in mind when it says, “O afflicted one … all your children shall be disciples of the Lord (Isaiah 54:11, 13).
There is a shift in the use of the term “servant” after these four Servant Songs in Second Isaiah. In Isaiah 40-53, the servant is generally a singular figure, but after the report of his death in Isaiah 53, there is a shift to plural references —the Lord often speaks of “my servants.” At about the same time, the tone of the book shifts from the comfort offered early in Second Isaiah to the harsher tone of Third Isaiah (chaps. 56-66). One way to make sense of these shifts is to conclude that the servant was the leader of a community which tried to bring a message to the people, but its leader (the singular servant) was killed, and the group marginalized. After the death of the leader, the group may have identified itself as “the servants of the Lord,” defining themselves over against those “who forsake the Lord (see esp. Isaiah 65:8-15).
In Isaiah 50, however, the servant expresses confidence in terms that are reminiscent of Job. In Isaiah 50:6, the servant is spat upon (Job 30:10), insulted (Job 20:3), and struck on the cheek (Job 16:10). Like Job (Job 19:3), he speaks up against the idea that he should be disgraced and shamed (Isaiah 50:8). Like Job, he takes his stand, contends his case, and expects vindication/justification (Isaiah 50:7). Of course, such terms are not limited to Job; many of them are drawn from a common language of ancient jurisprudence and/or wisdom literature. And unlike Job, the servant seems confident that God is on his side. Unlike Job (Job 10:2), the servant believes he will not be condemned by God (Isaiah 50:9).
The Servant has proven a uniquely challenging figure to interpreters; the eminent Old Testament scholar S. R. Driver is said to have abandoned his efforts to write a commentary on Isaiah because the literature on the servant overwhelmed him. If a single historical figure lies behind these Isaianic texts, none of the innumerable efforts to determine his identity has ever generated great confidence. If, however, one sets aside that concern, one can see that the servant at least fits into a familiar pattern, as one of many messengers of God who suffers in his mission. To name just a few examples, this can be said of Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jesus. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem and into conflict (John 12:13ff.). Like the servant, Jesus encountered crowds and leaders who did not believe him. The parallels between the two led John to write that “Isaiah … saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke about him (John 12:41).
Jesus’ words in Luke 23:46, incorporating the words of Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” forever tie the psalm, along with Psalms 22 and 69, to the passion narratives of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there is much more to this psalm. It is located in Book One of the Psalter’s collection of Davidic psalms and is classified as an individual lament, in which an individual cries out to God in the midst of a perilous, even life-threatening situation. Laments typically consist of five elements:
The five elements of a lament psalm do not follow a strict pattern in each occurrence of a lament, but rather they move fluidly back and forth as the psalm singer presents herself before God in supplication, perhaps reflective of the inner turmoil she is experiencing in the process of working through what is causing the distress.
In Psalm 31, the elements of lament occur as follows:
The focus verses of Psalm 31 for the Sunday of the Passion include words of complaint/lament in verses 9-13, brief words of trust in verses 14-15, and words of petition in verses 15-16. In verses 9 and 10, the psalm singer cries out to God about oppression that has caused a wasting of her eye, her soul, her body, her bones, and, indeed, her very strength. In these words, we feel and see the physical devastation that comes with unrelenting distress and oppression. An interesting phenomenon of the laments in the book of Psalms is that the oppressors and adversaries are rarely named (a notable exception is Psalm 137). Rather, they are nameless, faceless others, the timeless “every person” depiction of oppressions that humanity has encountered and will encounter for all time, thereby allowing readers/hearers to place themselves in the midst of the psalms’ story worlds.
The psalm singer continues her complaint/lament in verses 11-13, moving outward from the devastation that has come upon her personally as a result of what the oppressors have done to a recounting of how the oppression has affected her life in society. Because of what the oppressors have done to/said about her, she says that she is “the scorn of my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances” (verse 11). She “hears the whispering” as “they plot to take my life” (verse 13).
But utter despair does not have the final say in this selection from Psalm 31, or, indeed, in Psalm 31 as a whole. In verses 14-16, the psalm singer mingles words of trust in God to care for her in the midst of the situation in which she finds herself and words of petition to the God who she is confident can deliver her. She declares in verse 14, “You are my God,” and in verse 15, “My times are in your hand.” In verses 15-16, she petitions, “deliver me from the hand of my enemies … Let your face shine upon your servant,” and “save me in your steadfast love.” The psalm ends in verse 23 with an admonishment: “Love the LORD, all you his saints. The LORD preserves the faithful …”
Psalm 31, a typical lament psalm, is fitting as a lectionary reading for the Sunday of the Passion. It describes the anguish of one who is oppressed in body and mind and in the society in which she lives, one who cries out to God to right the wrongs brought upon her—the words “O LORD” occur ten times in the Psalm. But cries of lament do not dominate the psalm. In fact, the only complaints/laments are found in verses 9-13, and they are surrounded on either side by words of trust in God and/or petition (verses 3-8 and 14-20). J. Clinton McCann writes, “In short, Psalm 31 is a prayer that teaches us about trusting God, both in dying and living.”1 Richard Clifford adds that the psalm singer “is writing about something more than deliverance from a specific crisis. The canvas is broader—life before God, which consists of multiple dangers, deliverances, and thanksgivings.”2 And James L. Mays offers appropriate summarizing words. He states that verse 15’s, “My times are in your hand,” “does not mean it depends on God how long I live, but my destiny (the occasions when things happen that determine my life) is in the hand of God. … In the mouth of Jesus the sentence is surely a profound interpretation of his entire life.”3
J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 391.
Richard J. Clifford. Psalms 1-72. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 161.
James L. Mays. Psalms, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 144.
What is God like? On Palm Sunday this is perhaps the most critical question that we can ask and seek to answer and also apply to our own lives.
No doubt—almost inevitably—we will be thinking about the humility of Christ in choosing to enter into Jerusalem on a donkey; an action, which is rightly understood as being directly in contrast to the acts of naked and often brutal power exhibited by the Roman authorities present at the time in Judea.
Our passage today does all of this: there is the encouragement to consider the actions of the Lord Jesus and to make a direct line of contrast and challenge to our own attitudes and behaviors.
There is the articulation of the example of the Lord Jesus himself.
There is the account of how the power of the Lord Jesus is fundamentally of a different type both to the human authorities and also to the divine figures who were understood to be above and beyond human beings. Both human authorities and divine figures were understood to have a supreme degree of power over humans and thereby exercised that power in self-pleasing ways, not simply to prove the extent of that power, but also to prove their divinity or near-divine status.
Philippians 2:6-11 is universally accepted as taking the form of a hymn. In this way key aspects of early Christian theology would be communicated and remembered.
However, as we read the wonderful expressions of the action and nature of the Lord Jesus we should always bear in mind that the Apostle Paul has placed this hymn in the context of two key themes.
The first and perhaps most obvious theme, is the encouragement and challenge for the disciples in Philippi to continue to develop good character. We see this is 2:1-4.
The second key theme here is that of love. Look carefully and we see Paul speaking about the “consolation from love’ (Philippians 2:1), and “having the same love” (2:3). Then in 2:12 Paul addresses his readers as “my beloved.” The hymn, being bracketed in this way, reminds us that the pre-eminent characteristic of the life of Christ, and essence of God is that of love. This hymn is a simple description of divine love.
The first section of the hymn concerns the nature of divine power. We might assume that as the Apostle Paul write as a Jew all the metaphors and references would naturally arise from Hebrew notions of power. However, what the Apostle Paul does here so skillfully is to contrast the power of the Lord Jesus over against the power of the Greco-Roman gods who would have been so prevalent in the lives and stories of the citizens of Philippi. To speak about divine “form”, being equal with God, “taking the form of a slave,” and “death on a cross” are all examples of Greco-Roman language.
The Apostle Paul therefore is starting very much where the Philippians are. He is contrasting the divine power seen in the Lord Jesus with the understanding of divine power that would have been prevalent within their immediate culture.
There are numerous examples of gods taking human or animal form—with texts, most obviously Homer, using the same language as we find here in Philippians. However, what is described in these ancient texts is often that the gods—being divine, are all-powerful and therefore are free to do as they please—to transform themselves and take whatever form pleases themselves and allows them to take greatest advantage over humans, and in many cases allows them to abduct and seduce the beautiful and desirable.
The power exhibited by the Lord Jesus is profoundly different. The Lord Jesus is in some manner transformed and becomes in appearance as a human being. However, rather than seducing women and men, or insisting upon their obedience, or removing their free-will, the Lord Jesus instead literally “pours himself out,” and takes the form that perhaps is most undesirable—that of a slave: powerless.
The power of the Lord Jesus then is not power-over, but is rather love, compassion, mercy, and companionship alongside. The form taken by the Lord Jesus seems to be a deliberate indication that God’s desire is not for the fulfillment of his own divine self, so much as a desire for the blessing of humanity.
Moreover, we note that the inherent power of the Lord Jesus is deliberately put aside in order to prefer obedience. This obedience is to God, and for the most perfect articulation of the character of God. The form of Jesus’ obedience is that of love. Jesus loves, and loves, and loves—even to the point of crucifixion and even then he loves, “Father, forgive them.”
The passage then take a sharp turn towards Hebrew concepts. We recognize here the monotheistic theology of Isaiah 40-55 as the hymn celebrate the cosmic lordship of Christ.
God exalts Jesus precisely because in life—his taking on the form of a slave, desiring the very best for humanity, and loving to the fullest extent—Jesus truly reflected the nature and character of God.
The hymn appears to draw a direct contrast with the pomp and pretensions of the Romans authorities and most particularly the Roman emperors. While the first part of the hymn reflects Greco-Roman thinking, we can also note how from a Hebrew divine lordship perspective in the second section of the hymn there is a sharp contrast with some of the Roman emperors. Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula and Nero took their apparent divinity to heart and considered that their actions disregarding convention and law regarding marriage were worthy of their divine identity, and were even necessary in order to demonstrate and affirm their own god-like status and power.
What then is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ like? We see God in the life, actions, and form of Jesus. On Palm/Passion Sunday we see God in the actions of humility of the Lord Jesus. Christ humbles himself in order to win our hearts from a position of great weakness, but immense and unbreakable love. At his glorious name all creation shall bow.