A story occasionally visited needs to be told well.
The Christian witness confesses that the passion and resurrection stories are central to the church’s proclamation. Yet the next two Sundays are the only times during Year B (Gospel of Mark) that Revised Common Lectionary assigns any texts from Mark’s last three chapters. The length of this Sunday’s gospel reading may mean less time for preaching. So in worship be ready to carefully and thoughtfully read the biblical composition itself so that the gospel sounds forth.
Spend significant time each day this week reading aloud so that you are equipped to tell the story with passion, conveying in the gospel reading itself the essential dynamics of this poignant moment in the life of God. In my own congregation I will perform the whole reading by heart (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2L7JbJGWEw) so that I can make eye contact with the congregation. They will feel as though they are hearing the story from one who actually witnessed it.
Key to the effective telling of this composition is finding an authentic voice as the narrator. Do not tell this story as a disinterested observer. The narrator has passionately witnessed to us about Jesus and his ministry for fourteen chapters. We know from the beginning of his account that he believes Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). He has not forgotten this when he recounts the Messiah’s death.
Long ago a friend suggested that I tell this story from a place of broken-heartedness. “Tell it as though you are a follower of Jesus who has just seen his crucifixion and then recounts what you had seen to others who loved and followed Jesus.” Keeping this identity in mind as you tell the story will help all the words sound appropriately. They will come out neither sterile nor melodramatically, but as the faithful witness to a beloved person.
If you use the shorter lectionary option, you will begin with the taunting of Jesus by the cohort. Thomas Boomershine in his monograph on Mark’s passion narrative, The Messiah of Peace, notes that a cohort means that six hundred armed men watch this spectacle of Jesus’ humiliation.1 They show no restraint in what they do to him. Stripped naked and wearing nothing but symbols that mock his weakness, the soldiers publically abuse and torture him.
Jesus drove the gospel narrative for thirteen chapters; now others steer him where they want him to go. How do you, narrator, recount the story of the humiliation of Jesus as one who loves him? How do you sound as you speak the unspeakable things done to him?
The taunting continues with the crowd and the religious leadership playing their parts. While two thousand years of hearing the story has taught us to shake our heads at their head shaking, the narrator would have understood their mocking. The followers of Jesus had seen his power and must have hoped that he would come down off the cross. “Come on, Jesus, show those mocking you what divine power looks like!” But he remains the object of their derision and violence. Even in this extreme situation, he stays true to his early teaching about losing oneself and not seeking to save oneself (Mark 8:35).
Jesus’ powerfully haunting words
The gravity of the events reach their culmination when Jesus finally does something. He cries out from the cross. His shrill cry is filled with anguish. First we hear him cry out in his native tongue. Then we hear what he says again as the narrator translates. So twice we hear the cry.
Since the first cry will be in a language that your congregation does not know, what they understand will be the raw emotional pain Jesus is experiencing as he seeks the God who does not come to his aid. Be sure they hear that! The translated phrase becomes a moment translating the anguish of Jesus into a moment shared between the narrator and those listening.
The people who heard this story in 70 CE had seen or heard about Roman punishment by crucifixion of thousands of Israelites, had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple. They knew his cry as their own. So will some members of your congregation.
After my two-hour performance of Mark’s gospel, this is the moment that audience members most often wish to discuss. They recognize Jesus’ cry as their own. While you can explore this in your sermon, they will experience it directly as they listen to your telling of the story. Jesus, of course, knows this language of protest from the psalms (Psalm 22), but the final resolution of the psalm does not appear in the passion story. He dies profoundly disoriented, this person who had oriented his life toward the will of God.
An unexpected confessor
With the death of Jesus, the temple curtain is ripped in two from top to bottom. Josephus tells us that the curtain was eighty feet tall with the panorama of the heavens wondrously embroidered upon it. This ripping echoes the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism. Yet no divine voice speaks.
Rather, the centurion who has overseen the crucifixion speaks what the narrator trusts to be true: Jesus is the Son of God. While some have suggested this is one more sarcastic taunt of the crucified, the narrator does not signal this as a taunt as had happened earlier. The centurion may not understand the weight of what he is saying. But the gospel writer wants the audience to understand and confess this truth.
In this moment, when the divine barriers between God and humanity are ripped asunder, something essential happens. When the spirit of God is on the loose, even the executioner can be turned around to see what he has done. The spirit points him and also us to a Messiah of peace who does not seek to save himself, but loses himself.
This Galilean miracle worker stuck to God’s project to the bitter end. He dies an innocent death. But in that very moment the centurion sees that brutality is not the answer to life’s perplexing problems. The way out of the cycles of violence is laid bare in Jesus’ death. We see the violence and long for a better way to live. We follow the God of Jesus in the way of peace. In Jesus’ ultimate solidarity with those who have tasted the bitter feeling of God-forsakenness, God paradoxically becomes present.
1. Thomas Boomershine, The Messiah of Peace: A Performance-Criticism Commentary on Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 255.
Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of a larger poem that extends to 50:11.1
Its subject is a servant of God (50:10), who speaks of his life in God’s service with both pride and pugnacity. The poem begins with his boast of being attentive to the word of God (verse 4), and he proclaims that his calling is “to sustain the weary with a word.” Then the poem takes a surprising turn: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from disgrace and spitting” (verse 6).
This poem is in that portion of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) written in the final years of the Babylonian exile, so speaking a message of comfort to the weary exiles of that time would seem to be a compelling and attractive calling. Inviting torture is less so. And yet this servant, suffering so horribly, goes on to declare, “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced…” (verse 7a) and “he who vindicates me is near…” (verse 8a), all the while daring those who would oppose him to come forward and confront him!
He is a compelling and strong character, whose dignity and ferocity are at odds with his beaten visage, and the prophet of Second Isaiah offers him to the people in exile as a powerful symbol of courage and hope in the midst of profound suffering. Indeed, the prophet offers the model of the servant to the people and calls them to be like him — to understand their own suffering as he does — rooted in the call to be faithful servants of God.
There are several poems in Isaiah 40-55 whose focus is this individual whom God calls “my servant.” These include 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12. While there has been a tendency to view these poems as sounding a distinct note within Second Isaiah and excising them from their context, contemporary scholarship has moved away from this treatment of the servant poems and made solid arguments for regarding them as integral to Second Isaiah’s work and message.
Understood within the context of Second Isaiah, the servant poems are best seen as part of the prophet’s effort to inspire and transform the people in exile from seeing themselves as helpless slaves of Babylon (see Isaiah 49:7) to servants of God, endowed with dignity and purpose. This commentary is not the place for a comprehensive study of the imagery of the servant in Second Isaiah, but a few notes on servant imagery within the book might be helpful:
The servant of God is never given a name in these poems, suggesting that the poems about the servant are not descriptions of a historical individual (or, at least, are not only descriptions of an actual person) but are deliberately non-specific in order to allow the people to imagine themselves as the servant. When there is a particular name associated with the servant, the name is “Israel” or “Jacob” (41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3, 5-6), indicating that the prophet’s intent is for the people as a whole to see themselves as the servant and not to associate the term with one particular person.
The servant of these four servant poems is a blameless individual, whose faithfulness to God is unparalleled and whose suffering is extreme (see especially 52:13-53:12). Some have argued that the servant cannot possibly be the people in exile because they were not beyond reproach, but Second Isaiah begins with the admission that the suffering of the people has exceeded the fault: “[Jerusalem] has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:2b).
Also consider the perspective of 52:4-5, which reads: “Now therefore what am I doing here, says the Lord, seeing that my people are taken away without cause?” The above examples demonstrate that there is room within the framework of Second Isaiah to regard the people in exile as suffering undeservedly.
The people to whom the prophet writes were living in exile, but there is only a single mention of the people serving Babylon in Second Isaiah. In fact, Babylon is not even mentioned by name in that single text: “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” (49:7a).
The Hebrew word translated “slave” here is the same word translated as “servant” in the texts that speak of God’s servant in the rest of Second Isaiah. Considering the fact that the people in exile were under the control of Babylon, it is surely significant that the prophet does not speak of their lives and their labor as belonging to anyone but God. As God’s own servant, the people are divinely called and empowered, and they will ultimately be vindicated (42:1, 6-7; 43:10; 44:1-5; 49:1-6; 50:4, 7-9; 52:13, 53:5, 10-12).
Reading Isaiah 50:4-9a in light of the servant imagery we find throughout Isaiah 40-55 highlights the fact that the servant is not to be viewed simply as a description of a particular person in history. Open ears, learned and sustaining speech, a staunch faith and a willingness to suffer are the hallmarks of the ideal servant of God. God’s calling to be “my servant” is issued to the people in exile, struggling to maintain their identity as God’s own people in the midst of the Babylonian empire. It is a powerful calling, and it issues through the ages to Judea in first century ce and to us as well.
This poem is, of course, the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, which is the Sunday of the Passion. This text will serve as background for most sermons delivered this Sunday, but it is my hope that it will deepen our sense of gratitude for the one we profess as Christians to have fulfilled the calling to be God’s servant in the truest sense.
I hope that gratitude is not the only response to this servant song and to the story of the Passion, however. In both the Passion of Christ and the suffering of the servant of God in Second Isaiah, a call is issued. The call is not to a life of ease but to a life in the service of God, grounded in our faith. May our ears ever be open to the word of God and our mouths ever ready to speak a word of comfort. May our faces never be hidden out of fear or shame because the God “who vindicates me is near.”
1 Commentary first published on this site on March 24, 2013.
Psalm 31 is one of three psalms that appear prominently in the story of Jesus’ passion.1
For the Gospel writers this psalm, along with Psalms 22 and 69, seems to have expressed better than any other passages the nature of Jesus’ suffering and his emotional turmoil while being rejected, betrayed, and crucified.
Psalm 31 appears explicitly only one time, in Luke 23:46 when Jesus quotes verse 5a, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” But the entire psalm provides appropriate backdrop for Jesus’ passion. The psalm is a prayer by one who suffers unjustly and in that suffering puts complete trust in God.
Psalm 31:9-16 is chosen as a lectionary reading for the Sunday of the Passion, the beginning of Holy Week. It is appropriately paired with Isaiah 50:4-9a, which gives testimony to the suffering of God’s servant. Like the servant in the Isaiah passage, the psalmist in Psalm 31:9-16 reports that he or she trusts completely in God, yet is rejected by the people. This combination of trust and rejection makes the passage well-suited for Passion Sunday.
This section of Psalm 31 begins and ends with petitions for God’s favor and protection. Verse 9 opens with a cry to God to be gracious “for I am in distress.” The word for distress is a general term that may apply to many circumstances. It derives from a verb that means “to bind” or “be restricted.” Thus the noun communicates the idea of being in dire straits, with no possible escape. A form of the same word appears in verse 7 with the sense of “adversities.”
Verses 9b-10 then gives a litany of symptoms of this distress that suggests sickness, depression, and perhaps persecution. This mixture of references is typical of psalms in which the psalmist petitions God for help (see Psalm 6 for a similar mix of images). If the reader desires to know the exact situation of the psalmist such inexact language may be frustrating. But if the reader wishes to identify with the psalmist and to use the words of the psalm to lift his or her circumstances to God in prayer, the openness of the language may be a welcomed feature.
The language of verses 9-10 has in common with other petitions in the Psalms two important features: first, although the language is stereotypical and does not allow a narrow interpretation, all such language seems to complain about death in one way or another. The psalmist is overtaken with the forces of death that rack the body and spirit and allows enemies to have their way. Thus, the psalmist asks God to intervene and transform the situation (“deliver me,” verse 15).
Second, the psalmist seems to assume this is a problem for God and that the very fact of the psalmist’s distress is reason enough for God to act. As Walter Brueggemann says, “the speaker intends to turn his problem into a problem for Yahweh.”2 These two features of the complaint and petition provide grand illustration of the verse Jesus cites on the cross: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
Verses 11-13 draw the plight of the psalmist close to that of the suffering servant of Isaiah. So wretched is the psalmist, “an object of dread” (verse 11) that people on the street run away, just as they “hide their faces” from the despised servant (Isaiah 53:3). But perhaps the psalmist bears closest similarity to the prophet Jeremiah. With “terror all around” (verse 13) the psalmist, like Jeremiah is rejected by many acquaintances and is the victim of vicious plots (Jeremiah 20:3).
The psalmist’s testimony that “I have become like a broken vessel” is like an expression in Jeremiah 22:28. The term translated “broken” means literally “perishing.” Thus, the psalmist complains of having an experience that is supposed to be the experience of the wicked (see the term “perish” in Psalm 1:6; 2:12).3 This was Jeremiah’s complaint as well. More importantly, it was Jesus’ experience that, though he lived faithfully in dependence on God, he was despised and rejected.
In the final portion of the lectionary reading for Passion Sunday (verses 14-16), the psalmist voices complete trust in God despite the dire circumstances. The psalmist declares “trust” in the Lord and declares, “you are my God,” which is to say, “you control my life” (verse 14). Verse 15 uses the word “hand,” which refers to power and authority to describe the locus of the psalmist’s hope. The psalmist acknowledges that he or she has no power to affect the future. This power is God’s alone.
Verse 16 concludes the passage with two petitions that are common in the Psalter. “Let your face shine” evokes the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:25 in which Aaron calls on God’s favor for the Israelites. References to the light of God’s countenance (Psalm 4:6) or the shining of God’s face (Psalm 11:7; 17:15) are common descriptions of God’s favor. Since the Israelites believed they could not literally see God’s face (Exodus 33), this language may refer to the rays of the sun which symbolized God’s protection and care.
The second petition in verse 16 is for God to “save” “in your steadfast love.” “Steadfast love” refers to God’s covenant faithfulness by which God is known (Psalms 90:14; 106:1). Thus the psalmist appeals to God’s character as just and faithful, as one who does not abandon those who rely on him. As Psalm 31 is read on Passion Sunday and in the context of Jesus’ suffering and death, this final petition may be read rightly as the prayer of Jesus, the one who placed his spirit in the protective power of his God (Psalm 31:5).
1 Commentary first published on this site on April 13, 2014.
2 Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Facets; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 31.
3 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV (Ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 801.
What’s in a name? From a biblical perspective — everything!1
A name was believed to represent the essence of a person’s character. The name Jesus, of course, is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “he saves.”
“The name that is above every name…”
In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul incorporates into his letter what is most likely an early Christian hymn. In this hymn we see how Jesus embodies his given name, “he saves.” Being “in the form of God,” he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, as something to be held onto at all costs and used to his own advantage. Rather, he willingly “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point to death — even death on a cross” (2:6-8).
Jesus is not a passive victim, but enters fully and willingly into his mission. He empties himself of all claims to divine glory and honor to become a human being — not a human of high status and honor, but a lowly slave serving other human beings. He humbles himself even to the point of dying a slave’s death, for the shameful and tortuous form of execution by crucifixion was reserved for slaves and rebels against Roman rule.
This Jesus is the one whom God highly exalts and to whom God gives “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11). In exalting Jesus, God gives Jesus his own name — “Lord” — and confers on him Lordship over all creation. One day every knee will bend before him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and every tongue join in confessing together that Jesus Christ is Lord.
This hymn makes the astonishing claim that the one we call God and Lord is most fully revealed in the crucified one. The one who humbled himself and took the form of a slave shows us who God is and how God acts. God’s essential character is shown to be one of self-emptying love rather than self-aggrandizement or grasping for power and glory. God’s high exaltation of Jesus confirms the divine nature of his mission and ensures that one day he will be acknowledged by all for who he truly is. Jesus, the one who saves, is God’s anointed one (the Messiah or Christ), and Lord of all.
“Let the same mind be in you…”
Paul incorporates this hymn into his letter in the service of pastoral theology. He is thankful for the Philippians’ care for him and support of his ministry (1:3-8), yet there are some problems in the community. In particular, Paul is concerned about dissension among members (2:2-4; 4:2-3), and about “opponents” who preach righteousness based on circumcision and law observance (1:28; 3:2-3, 7-11, 18-19). Paul urges the Philippians to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel” so that he will know that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).
Paul continues on this theme of unity of mind and spirit, urging the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). In encouraging the community to be “of one mind,” it is unlikely that Paul expects no differences of opinion within the community, for he is not so naïve about congregational life. Rather, he implores them to be united in a spirit of love and concern for the common good. This becomes clearer in what follows, as he urges them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” and further exhorts them: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4).
Paul then introduces the Christ hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The phrase “in you” is plural (en humin), and perhaps better translated “among you.” Paul envisions the life of the community being formed by the mind of Christ — by a spirit of humility and loving service to one another rather than competition and grasping for power and control.
On this Sunday marking Jesus’ passion, a preacher might explore with hearers what it means to bear this name above all other names. Does our life together reflect “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”? Are we looking to the interests of others rather than our own interests? Are humility and servanthood evident among us?
Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of “Christendom” and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant.2 Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor “the name that is above every name.”
1 Commentary adapted from one first published on this site on January 1, 2012.
2 Marsha L. Moore-Keish, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 174.