Lectionary Commentaries for March 30, 2018
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Timothy J. Sandoval

Preachers have much to work with in the lectionary’s Good Friday reading — two full chapters from the Gospel of John!1

John’s account of the first Good Friday begins in John 18 with Jesus and his disciples crossing, at night, the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem, in order to reach a garden on the other side. In John, it is an anonymous place, though Matthew and Mark call it the garden Gethsemane. At the end of John 19, the account of the day concludes with Jesus’ body being laid to rest on the eve of the Sabbath (verse 31), in a place near to where he had been crucified, in a new tomb hewed out within another garden. Gardens and darkness frame Jesus’ last day in John.

Gardens now and then

When we think of “gardens” today we often imagine a patch of ground in someone’s backyard where flowers and vegetables sprout up. Of course, people in ancient Judea appreciated the beauty of flowers. They also often grew vegetables in areas near their homes in order to supplement the staples of their diet — grains (for bread and beer), olives (for olive oil), grapes (for raisins and wine). However, the term “garden” in the ancient world does not carry these connotations.

Ancient gardens were, by contrast, more akin to what we know today as parks. Not the sort of park that has baseball diamonds and basketball courts, but those with a refreshing fountain in the middle and footpaths lined with trees, places where people might calmly stroll or picnic. Ancient parks were more like that: spaces where pools of water could be found to refresh oneself and to water intentionally planted trees and shrubs. They were to be places of beauty where the body and spirit of visitors could be refreshed or restored.

Eden, paradise, is of course the archetypal garden in the Bible. Yet like the divine King in Genesis 2, monarchs throughout the ancient Near East also were renowned for being “gardeners,” for constructing magnificent gardens — Nebuchadnezzar’s “hanging gardens” in Babylon surely being the most famous. Among his other accomplishments Qoheleth, the Solomon-like figure of the book of Ecclesiastes, also recounts his building of a garden: “I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.” (Ecclesiastes 2:5-6)

A tale of two gardens

It is not surprising then that a tomb — someone’s “final resting place” — like the one we read of in John 18 might have been carved out in a garden; nor is it anything extraordinary that Jesus would be “laid to rest” in such a peaceful and restorative place. Even today cemeteries are often tranquil, garden-like locations. What’s more, the calming and refreshing nature of ancient gardens, like the one where Jesus was interred, may subtly anticipate Jesus’ resurrection and the manner in which he will restore his followers to faith and peace.

It is, however, deeply ironic that the garden — the place that Jesus and his disciples knew well to be a place of retreat and restoration (“Jesus often met there with his disciples”, John 18:2) — would become the scene of a military and police action, and of violent resistance. As John 18 tells us “Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.” The tranquil darkness of night in the garden is interrupted by lurching shadows and shafts of light, the clamoring of soldiers, and the clanging of their iron armaments. At this moment, Peter meets the threat of violence with his own violence and is rebuked by Jesus:

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’” (John 18:10-11)

Both the Garden of Gethsemane and the tomb-garden occupy important places in the Christian theological imagination. One is the site of Jesus’ anguish over his impending death; the other is the place of his rising again to life. The tomb-garden is perhaps the one we prefer to remember, though preachers of John 18-19 might also recall with their congregations the other one too, especially on Good Friday.

With Jesus in the gardens

Many of us may be familiar with the protestant hymn, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” For some, the hymn’s lyrics are too sentimental and run the risk of leading the faithful into an overly sentimentalized and personalized understanding of the Christian life. It’s emphasis on an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus may make us forgetful of God’s call to join in the construction of a world of justice and mercy, the work of what Jews call the Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world.

Yet the prominent place the hymn gives to the peace and tranquility that the individual believer might find in relationship with Jesus is a powerful and legitimate message of good news. When we today, in the imagination of faith, “come to the Garden alone,” the possibility of a genuine encounter with the risen Christ, like that which Mary Magdalene experienced on the first Easter (John 20:1), is open to us too. The hymn points us to a Christ who accepts us fully and promises to always to be with us: “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.

The garden of the hymn, however, is the garden of Easter mourning. But what of the garden of Good Friday night? Perhaps in knowing well that we stand firmly in the tomb-garden with the risen Jesus, we can also on Good Friday find our way back to Gethsemane and the Jesus who is with us there.

In Gethsemane we are reminded of Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice pro nobis, “for us” — but not merely in the sense that he has taken upon himself our individual sin and guilt. We are also reminded that violence and viciousness in our world is often quite a lot bigger than any one of us. It is not merely the sin and viciousness of individuals from which our world needs saving. Judas, the individual, betrayed Jesus, yes. But the violence and institutions of empire put him to death and today continue to rupture the tranquility of all our gardens.

On Easter, Jesus will indeed be raised to life and meet us in the tomb-garden. On Good Friday, by standing in the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus, Judas, Peter, the soldiers and all the rest, preachers can remind us fully of why he was killed.


1. This same commentary can be read in Spanish here.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Vanessa Lovelace

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is a song of hope to the people of Judah exiled in Babylon, assuring them that God has not abandoned them.

Suffering servant of the Lord

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is the first reading for Good Friday in Year B from the Revised Common Lectionary. On the day that Christians around the world remember Jesus’ crucifixion and death, it is not surprising that the lection focus is a passage about one who suffers, is despised and rejected. Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is the fourth among poems in Isaiah 40-50 referred to as the Servant Songs (see also Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 50:4-9) because the central character in each one is directly or indirectly denoted as the servant of the Lord. However, despite some debate regarding the servant’s identity, the general consensus is that the servant is figuratively “Israel” collectively (Isaiah 41:8; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3).

The servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is described as someone so physically marred and disfigured that he is beyond recognition (52:14-15). He suffered and sacrificed his life in recompense for the sins of others (53:10-12). Jesus’ followers, familiar with the poem, made connections between the servant’s pain and anguish and Jesus’ suffering and death. For example, the writer of Luke’s gospel ascribes the words of Isaiah 53:12 to Jesus: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled” (Luke 22:37 New Revised Standard Version) to make sense of the brutal manner of his death.

The author of the gospel of John alludes to Isaiah 52:13-15, which declares that the servant would be lifted up and, despite his deformed appearance, nations would be drawn to look upon him and marvel. The author attributes Jesus as saying, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). This passage surely inspired the composition of the hymn “Lift Him Up,” whose refrain includes the verse “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Elsewhere, John quotes from Isaiah 53:1, in relation to the crowds’ denial of Jesus, to claim that their actions were in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:38).

Divine judgment

For Jesus’ followers, turning to the servant poem in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to explain Jesus’ suffering and death, was understandable. Yet, despite Jesus never having referred to himself as the suffering servant of the Lord, some Christians have gone so far as to interpret Jesus’ passion as the fulfillment of the predictions in Isaiah 40-50. For them, Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Such assertions fail to recognize the role of Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Bible.

Although Israel’s prophets were “foretellers” who spoke about Israel’s future, they were also “forthtellers,” who called Israel to live into covenant fidelity in the present based on God’s benevolence towards them in the past. Therefore, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 should be read, on one hand, in regards to the book of Isaiah as it concerned events in Israel during the composition of the book. On the other hand, within the literary unity of Isaiah 40-50, it should be read in the context of the Babylonian exile.

The Babylonians invaded Judah and its capital city Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE, destroying the temple and forcibly removing the nation’s elite population to Babylonia. The experience left the community shocked and traumatized. The prophet explained the exiles’ captivity and suffering as God’s retributive justice for Israel covenantal disobedience. However, other nations derided Israel’s deity in light of the nation’s defeat and even some of the exiles questioned God’s supremacy in light of Judah’s downfall.

New hope

In a turn of events, the book shifts from a theology of suffering as retributive, to suffering as redemptive. No longer is the servant understood as suffering for covenantal infidelity, but as an act of redemption. The poet writes in striking parallelism, a common literary style in Hebrew Bible poetry, to effectively convey the impact of the servant’s message on the community.

The figure, who has borne the people’s infirmities and carried their diseases (Isaiah 53:4), was wounded for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities (verse 5), is now recognized as one who was unjustly punished and sent away for an offense he did not commit. Those who were previously astonished at his appearance, are now surprised to learn that he bore the pain and humiliation on behalf of the sins of others. On account of his selflessness, he would see his offspring survive and prosper (verse 10).

To quote the poet, “Who could have imagined his future?” (verse 8). Indeed, the exiles could not have imagined that they would have a future outside of Babylon or hope to be restored to their homeland. The poem exonerates both the exiles and Israel’s deity, whose exaltation and restoration of the servant reveals God’s might to all nations.

It is easy to see how Christians might read the words of the prophet Isaiah put into Jesus’ mouth by the New Testament writers and conclude that the prophet was prophesying about Jesus. For the writers, who were heirs of the prophetic traditions, it was expedient to connect the figure of the Suffering Servant with Jesus’ passion. However, instead of claiming that Jesus is the anonymous servant described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 hundreds of years earlier, his followers recognized that he was one among several righteous servants who were regarded as having suffered for the acts of others.

Good Friday reminds us that God in Jesus reconciled humanity to Godself through Jesus’ death. Yet, God’s work is ongoing and as long as there is sin and evil in the world, there will be other Innocents who suffer and bear the guilt of the offenders.


Commentary on Psalm 22

Amanda Benckhuysen

Borne out of a gut-wrenching anguish, Psalm 22 is the cry of one who knows what it is to be bullied by his enemies, rejected by his community, and abandoned by God.1

The threat for the psalmist is imminent as a “company of evildoers” surrounds him like bulls ready to attack and lions eager to devour. Bystanders despise and mock him. Even God seems to have forsaken him. The one in whom his ancestors trusted, the one who he has worshiped since his birth, this one has also seemingly cast him aside. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the psalmist cries. “O Lord, do not be far away! … Come quickly to my aid! (verse 19).” Yet in his time of trouble, God remains agonizingly silent.

The distress of the psalmist is palpable. With no one to help, the psalmist is consumed with a fear that debilitates him, exacting a physical and emotional toll. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax (verse 14),” the psalmist murmurs. For twenty-one verses, the psalmist voices his agonizing pain, his loneliness, his feelings of abandonment. God, where are you? “Deliver my soul from the sword … save me from the mouth of the lion! (verse 20a, 21a),” the psalmist pleads.

Then rather abruptly, the threat is gone. The enemies who once circled around the psalmist have been replaced by a worshiping community. The psalmist’s fear of affliction has been redirected into fear of the Lord. Lament has turned to praise. The world, which was once a place of danger for the psalmist, has become a place of joy and blessing — not just for the psalmist but for the wider community as well to whom blessings now flow. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord (verse 26a).” All this, the psalmist tells us, is God’s doing. In the end, God did not despise the affliction of the afflicted but heard his cry, his desperate plea for help. God turned his face toward him. God answered and acted for his sake, one whom the community had stigmatized, marginalized, and cast off. The holy God, enthroned on the praises of Israel, stooped down and attended to the needs of one despised and rejected.

For those familiar with the Christian Scriptures, it is almost impossible to read this psalm without calling to mind the events of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cried (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Certainly the gospel writers understood Jesus as taking on the experience of the psalmist and all who would pray this prayer, embodying the sorrow, the loneliness, and the abuse reflected in this psalm. Soldiers gambled for his clothes (cf. Psalm 22:18 and John 19:23-24). Passersby jeered at him (cf. Psalm 22:7-8; Mark 15:29, Matthew 27:39). Enemies sought his life. And God remained silent.

The associations between this psalm and the passion of Christ highlight how fully and completely Jesus entered into the suffering of humanity, taking the sorrow and anguish of those who are afflicted upon himself. So the writer of Hebrews can speak of Jesus as one who became like his sisters and brothers in every respect and who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness and suffering as he intercedes for God’s mercy on our behalf (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). But Jesus’ suffering is not just about solidarity and sympathy. Jesus not only suffered like us or with us, he suffered and even died for our sake. His is a redemptive suffering, a vicarious suffering, a suffering that marked the beginning of the end of all senseless and gratuitous suffering caused by human sin and evil. Jesus’ suffering brings about the new day described in verses 22-32 when all the families of the nations shall worship the Lord and the poor shall eat and be satisfied and the Lord will reign with justice and righteous and suffering and sorrow shall flee away.

As we consider this psalm on Good Friday, at least two avenues for reflection open themselves up to us. First, Psalm 22 reminds us that our faith is not rooted in a facile triumphalism. Christ’s was a hard-won anguish-filled victory against all that the forces of evil could muster. He stared sin and evil in the face and put them to death in his own body. This psalm, then, gives us a glimpse of what our redemption cost God, the Son submitting to the excruciating journey of the Via Dolorosa all the way to his brutal death on the cross. The father, tormented by Jesus’ cries for help and overcome by grief at his last breath all for the sake of our redemption. What wondrous love is this? What greater demonstration of love can there be than that God would lay down his life for us?

Second, it is not difficult to imagine those in our society who would pray this prayer, those who are the target of prejudice and injustice, those who suffer gratuitously on account of laws, policies, and social norms which fail to make space for them, those whom our society has pushed to margins. Good Friday is a day to join with Jesus in his fierce grief and sorrow over the sin of the world, to lament the forces of evil and cry out to God to bring healing to our sin-sick world. Through the cries of Psalm 22, we are reminded the evil that still plagues our world and even resides in our own hearts and so we lift up our voices in lament, awaiting the day when God will finally bring an end to all evil and pain.

“Come quickly, Lord. Do not be far away!”


1 Commentary first published on this site on March 25, 2016.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Craig R. Koester

The Epistle to the Hebrews explores the meaning of Jesus’ death through multiple lenses.

The writer recognizes that no one-way of conveying the meaning is fully adequate. The interplay of perspectives is what gives depth. In this passage from Hebrews the lenses are drawn mainly from the Old Testament, which gives a deep resonance to the writer’s language. The primary texts were considered greater length earlier in Hebrews, allowing the writer to cite them more briefly here.

The lens of covenant construes the crucifixion in terms of Israel’s relationship with God. Earlier the writer recalled how the covenant was established at Mount Sinai, when Moses made the relationship tangible by spattering God’s altar and the people themselves with blood (Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:18-22). The Law was read aloud so its message could be heard. The spattering of blood was an action that formalized the relationship. Covenant making was done in a manner that could be seen and felt. Relating to God was not merely an idea; it involved a claim upon the whole person.

Hebrews also recalls that this same tangible quality of covenant life was part of Israel’s ongoing relationship with God. In earlier chapters the writer recalled the actions of atonement that were depicted in Leviticus 16. Like the initial establishment of the covenant, the practice of atonement under the covenant also involved the offering of blood (Hebrews 9:1-10). The provision for atonement was made in the Law of Moses itself, where it was described as an annual event on the Day of Atonement. The assumption is that year after year there is a need for relationship with God to be restored. Year after year the high priest is to offer animal sacrifices. And year after year the priest sprinkling blood in the sanctuary makes forgiveness effective and tangible.

Yet the writer of Hebrews also recalls that Jeremiah developed the theme of covenant in a new way. Jeremiah spoke of an act that would be definitive rather than repetitive. The prophet told of a new covenant that would not be like the old one, which was repeatedly broken by human unfaithfulness. Rather, it would be a definitive act of divine forgiveness, in which God promises to remember the people’s sins no more (Jeremiah 13:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16-17).

Hebrews brings together the themes of covenant and atonement by declaring that the promised new covenant, like the old one, is enacted in tangible form — now through the death of Jesus. The action comes from God’s side of the relationship. It is not a gift that people offer to God, but a gift that God offers to people. Through it God aims at transforming human hearts and minds, as promised in the new covenant passage.

The writer of Hebrews has no patience for grace that remains an abstract concept or forgiveness that only floats in the realm of ideas. To transform human hearts and minds is to transform human lives. That is why throughout Hebrews the author says that the self-offering of Jesus is complete, not partial. It is the gift through which God claims people wholly for renewed relationship. Good Friday worship does not repeat Christ’s action. Rather, it brings us back to that singular, pivotal, definitive gift with startling clarity.

Altering the lens, Hebrews then asks readers to think of the openness that Christ’s act creates. Earlier the writer pictured readers as worshipers in a sanctuary — a space that may have features like the sanctuaries in which worshipers gather on Good Friday. The essential structure of Israel’s ancient sanctuary had two parts: an outer court and an inner court, with a curtain separating the two spaces. According to the Pentateuch there was also an open courtyard around the two-part sanctuary. But what is important for Hebrews is simply the inner court and the outer court, with the curtain creating a barrier to the place of divine presence in the inner court. The sense is that God remains hidden. The divine presence is too holy, too overpowering to be encountered by common human beings.

Yet Hebrews says that the curtain has now been opened, but not in the older pattern in which the high priest would enter and exit year after year on the Day of Atonement. Rather, Christ’s definitive act has been to open the curtain and to cross the barrier separating God from human beings in order that others may follow. Hebrews calls this a new and living way, because it is a way that gives new life.

To picture the scenario more vividly, think of people gathering in the narthex of your church with the doors to the sanctuary closed. The people are outside; the altar and pulpit are inside. The people may mingle around in the open space, but the doors create a barrier to the place where bread and wine convey God’s grace in a tangible way. The doors block the sound of proclamation from the hearing of the people.

Hebrews announces that Jesus’ offering of himself — in the flesh — opens the door and removes the barrier to encountering God in a tangible, transformative way. Through the act of opening the doors to the sanctuary and gathering around the cross we give visible expression to what Christ has done.

Christ’s act is a community-forming act. It is striking that Hebrews does not picture isolated individuals coming to Jesus but rather a community gathering in the presence of God. Throughout this section the readers are addressed in the first person plural, as a group. The writer tells this community that what is ongoing is not blood sacrifice, since God’s action in Christ is complete and definitive. Rather, what is ongoing is gathering and keeping the faith. What is ongoing is encouraging others and provoking others to acts of love that continue making tangible the grace that Christ made tangible. The way the writer uses images of Christ opening God’s sanctuary to human beings keeps finding new expression as the worshiping community itself is opened to new forms of service that extend the message of grace beyond the walls in public witness to what Christ has done.