Lectionary Commentaries for April 14, 2017
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Robert Hoch

The narrative begins with the picture of a garden where Jesus will be betrayed and it concludes in a garden, where Jesus will be buried.

In between, readers witness Jesus’ trial, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ last words from the cross, and finally his death and burial. At one point in the narrative, the narrator switches back and forth between two scenes in the trial: one outside, in the courtyard where the crowd interrogates Peter; the other on the inside, with Pilate interrogating Jesus.

This gives the viewer “double insight” into the development of the story — a double insight that would be consistent with John’s hope that we would believe and believe again. But believing may also mean getting close to the possibility of unbelief.

The story begins with one screen: Jesus, his prayer still hanging in the air, and his disciples go “across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered” (John 18:1). At this point, John supplies a dramatic climax to the prologue: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Perhaps ironically, the narrator of John introduces the creaturely lights of human power (lanterns, torches, and weapons) alongside the uncreated light of God in Christ. If Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of night, with what he knew (“we know that you are a teacher,” John 3:2), now, we see other “lights” coming for Jesus.

Under cover of a different night, religious authorities assemble “a detachment of soldiers together with police” — they bring lanterns, torches, and weapons — or light as a weapon. Think police flash lights and how they might be used to disorient a suspect — shone into the eyes, the suspect often shields himself or herself, turns but doesn’t know where to turn.

Only this time, these weapons bounce harmlessly off Jesus who is the light of the world. Thus, according to John, he knew all of what was going to happen and he, not they, comes forward with the question: “Whom are you looking for?” (John 18:4).

A stunning reversal! We expect shouts and commands from the police, but instead the captive interrogates his captors.

Not incidentally, this image of excessive police force, commands to comply, is a far too familiar one. If one wanted to explore how this text “interrogates” the militarization of the police force, it would not be out of line — the text invites this kind of analogy.

Readers will recall a similar question in other contexts, including the call of the disciples: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). The disciples looked for Jesus and, in some ways, recognized him, desired to stay with him. By contrast, the police and religious authorities come “looking for Jesus” but they cannot see him, despite their lights and their weapons, and perhaps precisely because of them.

Twice Jesus asks, “Whom are you looking for?” And they answer two times, “Jesus of Nazareth” (verses 5a, 7b). Jesus’ self-description, simply “I Am” (no “he” in the Greek) throws out a shockwave of unrecognition — “they stepped back and fell to the ground” (verse 6b). Still staggering with shock and disorientation, Jesus asks them again, “Whom are you looking for?” (verse 7b).

Noteworthy, too, is Simon Peter’s reaction — he lashes out, using a sword not unlike those who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus’ exhibits a power wholly unlike the world of Roman and religious elites.

Verses 12-14 supply a transitional text, almost like a screen that goes black with a written account of what happened after the lights went dim — you might even call this a brief intermission before resuming the story.

Now the screen splits into two pictures, one showing Peter “outside at the gate” (verses 15-18) and the other showing Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest (verses 19-24).

How does this split screen arrangement change our engagement with the text? On the one hand, it gives the reader an insight into the narrative. The reader enjoys an advantage over Peter and the other disciples. But it also creates a closeness to both conditions — Jesus’ trial as well as Peter’s denial.

John’s account of believing includes our proximity to denial. But what is denial? Is it only what Peter says, in response to being questioned, or is it that and something else as well? Beyond the denial itself, Simon Peter seeks invisibility — he warms himself by a coal fire, along with others, guarding his identity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him.”1

How many of us struggle with this, wanting to hide our faces in the anonymity of our “coal fires”? An all too common image of all of us is the downturned face reflecting the light of a screen. It seems like a metaphor or a symbol for Peter’s particular version of invisibility. Even so, even Peter cannot escape detection — some of that light must cling to him, even amid his denials!

With Peter’s third denial, the story moves to the trial before Pilate. The question, which Jesus raised before, “Whom are you looking for?” returns, only this time it is on the lips of Pilate: “Are you king of the Jews?” (33b).

It seems like a bit of cat and mouse, but the truth is that John deals in double meanings. Pilate unintentionally confesses Jesus as king — he does not understand Christ’s kingdom but, like Caiaphas, he inadvertently testifies to the saving purpose and power of Jesus, whose kingdom is in this world but not of this world. Pilate asks, “What is truth” and yet, the whole time, he has been speaking to the one who says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) — he talks to him, he is his “captive” — but he does not see him!

Who is this king? For whom are we looking as a church? As people of faith? As a society? Do we need to look with new eyes, with a different heart upon this one we know and yet do not know? We will see more completely the kind of kingship Christ brings in the crucifixion.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2003), 113, as quoted by Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 63.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Terence E. Fretheim

This “servant song” (with 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9) has been the subject of much scholarly debate.1

The suffering servant has been linked to Jesus since NT times, though direct references are uncommon (e.g., Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; I Peter 2:22) and the text refers primarily to past events. One interpretation among Jewish readers (and others) has been corporate (supported by Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 48:20; 49:3), having reference to the hardships that Israel as a people (or remnant thereof) have endured and the redemptive effect. The apostle Paul uses these texts to refer to himself and his mission (Galatians 1:15; 2:2; 4:11; Romans 10:16; 15:21; Acts 13:47) and I Peter 2:21-25 commends the servant’s way to the Christian. Christians discern special connections to Jesus Christ, but the servant’s characteristics are open-ended enough to enable links to both individuals and communities that have suffered through the centuries.

The servant stands in the prophetic tradition (Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). Their suffering is viewed in many texts in vocational terms, willingly taken up for the sake of the many, which is recognized by God as effective for new life in the world. In the servant songs, the suffering of the prophet is raised to a new key.

The main body of this text is 53:1-9, a confession by a community (note the “we”), probably Israel, on the suffering of the servant and their role therein. This is set within a framework of two speeches by God that honor the servant:  52:13-15; 53:10-12. 

52:13-15 — God promises the ultimate exaltation of “my servant” before nations and kings. He has been cruelly disfigured and others look at him in numbed astonishment. The startled nations will finally see the significance of the servant and what he has done (see 49:7). 

53:1-3 — To paraphrase verse 1:  who would have believed that the arm (= power) of God would be revealed in such a suffering one? Suffering is God’s chief way of being powerful in the world! The speakers (“we”) concede that his origins are unremarkable, like a plant struggling for survival in an arid land. His appearance is like that of a leper; he suffers rejection by his own community; he is nothing to “write home about” (cf. Israel in Ezekiel 16:1-7). Pain and loneliness are his lot (cf. Job 19:13-19). The range of the suffering at the hands of others is amazing: despised, rejected, sorrowful, sick, assaulted, considered insignificant; verses 4-7 continue: afflicted, wounded, crushed, bruised, chastised, oppressed, unjustly accused.

53:4-9 — The speakers (like Job’s friends) thought he had been punished by God for something he did, when in fact they had caused his suffering. Remarkably, this suffering ends up making atonement for the very sins that produced it. The common Christian interpretation of his suffering as substitutionary is possible, but not likely. Sins “laid on him” (53:6) recall the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:20-22); the goat is not a substitute, but “bears on itself all their iniquities to a barren region.”On Israel’s behalf, the servant is “cut off from the land of the living” (53:8), “bearing their iniquities” (53:11), and “carrying the sin of many” (53:12). Like sheep the people have gone astray, but like the goat of Atonement Day, the lamb/servant bears their sins away into the wilderness, silently (see 42:2)

The “we” ceases at verse 7 and is replaced by a 3rd person account. The servant’s persecution and the false judgments of his work lead to death and the grave. He was sent to establish justice (42:4) and suffers a “perversion of justice” and, with the RSV, “Who gave [him] any regard?” (53:8). Moreover, he is given a dishonorable burial. The “tomb with the rich” may refer to wealth gained at the expense of others. 

53:10-12 — The text ends on a note of promise; death does not have the last word. The servant will come to know what God has accomplished through him. The servant takes the sin into himself, “bearing their iniquities,” making many righteous. This is like the role of God in Isaiah 43:24-25, where the word translated “burden” comes from the same root as “servant.” What God does in Isaiah 43:24-25–bearing human sin, which leads to the unilateral declaration of forgiveness–is what the servant does in Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 43:24 God plays the role that the servant here assumes. In some sense, the servant is understood as an enfleshment of God and the effects of the servant’s work are spoken in terms that are normally ascribed to God (note the Spirit placed “upon” the servant in 42:1). But, even more, the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence; in and through the servant’s suffering, God suffers what is necessary to overcome the forces of evil.

What the servant has done is understood to be the will of God (53:10). That is, his sufferings are taken up and given a vocational understanding–suffering on behalf of others (cf. Mother Theresa). The phrase, “take up the cross,” must refer only to the sufferings that could be avoided (not all suffering should be so understood!). The servant’s “offspring” are those who follow his example and carry on his way of being for others in the world (see I Peter 2:21).

One haunting question: Why is suffering given such a prominent place in the divine economy for both OT and NT? Why do God, the suffering servant, and Jesus, the righteous one, suffer so?  We may be helped by noting how the passion story draws especially on Psalms of lament (22, 31, 34, 35, 69) to express the plight of the righteous sufferer. These psalms and the servant songs (and other texts with suffering servant themes, such as Job and Jeremiah) show that it is nothing new or unusual for faithful followers of God to suffer. This is the shape of life needed to rid the world of suffering. Jesus stands in a long tradition of righteous ones, whose mission on behalf of life is carried forward in and through suffering. His followers are called to give a suffering shape to their daily lives for the sake of the life of others (I Peter 2:21).

1. Commentary first published on this site on April 22, 2011.


Commentary on Psalm 22

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 22 has been described rather glibly as “the fifth passion narrative” for the imagery it has contributed to the evangelists’ depictions of the closing events of Good Friday.1

While this description does wrench the psalm out of its original context and ignore the plight of the psalmist who is seriously ill and either abandoned by all or imprisoned, one cannot hear this poignant psalm, in a church, on Good Friday, and not be reminded of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels. This is due to the following, generally agreed upon allusions:

  • Jesus’ cry of dereliction quoting the opening words of the psalm (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 in Aramaic)
  • the derisive wagging of heads (verse 7 in Mark 15:29; Matthew 27:39)
  • the sarcastic mocking of Jesus’ trust in God (verse 8 in Matthew 27:43)
  • the division of Jesus’ garment (verse 18 in Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24)
  • the allusions to thirst (verse 15 in John 19:28) and the conclusion, “he has done it” (verse 31 in John 19:30 “it is finished”)

At a basic structural level, the psalm juxtaposes a lament (verses 1-21, framed by “you do not answer” in verse 2 and “you have answered me” [NRSV “rescued,” but see the margin] in verse 21) and a thanksgiving (verses 22-31, framed by “I will tell” in verse 22 and “proclaim” in verse 31). James Luther Mays suggests that this lament “moves through two cycles (verses 1-11 and 12-19), each concluding in the petition, ‘be not far’ (verses 11, 19).”2

In addition, each cycle consists of two laments (verses 1-2, 6-8; and 12-15, 16-18, respectively) each followed by assertions of confidence in God (verses 3-5, 9-10); or descriptions of approaching death (verses 14-15, 17-18). The thanksgiving falls into two sections as well: the pray-er’s response in a hymn of praise (verses 22-26) and a (perhaps later) expansion of that individual’s praise to the nations and even the “ends of the earth” (verses 27-31).

I would suggest dwelling on the lament in the sermon. Here the psalmist shares his pain as an innocent sufferer who neither confesses sin nor lashes out at enemies, choosing to relate how suffering has rendered him subhuman, a worm beset by bulls, dogs, lions, and wild oxen (verses 6, 12-13, 16, 20-21). Various parts of his body testify to the lethal effects of his suffering as his disjointed skeleton, with heart melted like wax, is poured out like water; desiccated mouth, parched tongue, and all (verses 14-15). He is mocked and ridiculed by those who see him and who, like Job’s three “friends,” are convinced that his plight is indicative of grievous sin (verses 6-8).

As Mays has shown, alternating with these complaints are assertions of the psalmist’s trust in God. While both regularly appear in biblical laments, the alternation seen here is unusual, especially considering the curious absence of divine response. It’s as if the psalmist were saying, “Why have you abandoned me? . . . when our ancestors trusted you, you delivered them!” In fact, variations on “our ancestors trusted you” appear three times in verses 4-5. What’s the real problem here?

Carroll Stuhlmueller has stressed the importance of the three-fold inclusion in verses 1-2 and 19-21 for a proper appreciation of the lament.3

  • In verse 1 God is “far from” the psalmist and far from “saving” (NRSV: “helping”) him. In verse 2 the psalmist complains “you do not answer.”
  • At the end of the lament the psalmist prays that Yahweh “not be far away” (v. 19) and calls upon him to “save me” (v. 21); and this time the psalmist exclaims, “you have answered me!” (v. 21, again, NRSV has “rescued me”).

Since “Do not be far from me” also appears at the end of verse 11, its structural significance seems assured and suggests the following concentric arrangement:

A  Lament: ‘You don’t answer’ verses 1-8

    B  Plea: ‘Do not be far from me’ verses 9-11

         X Description of Situation verses 12-18

    B’ Plea: ‘Do not be far from me’ verses 19-21

A’ Praise: ‘You have answered me!’ verses 22-31

“The key dilemma, then,” to quote Stuhlmueller, “is the absent, silent, deaf God!”4 The movement in the lament is from a deaf, unresponsive God in verses 1-8 to the answering God of verses 19-21. We can only admire the resolute faith expressed by the psalmist in the midst of his suffering, a suffering made almost unbearable by God’s perceived absence, or worse, lack of response. No wonder exuberant praise begins immediately following the assurance that God has answered.

This is a difficult word to preach. Only the dreadful Psalm 88 broaches the appalling notion of unanswered prayer and God’s absence more directly. Perhaps this is why the Church has always used this agonizing psalm in its attempts to understand the profound mystery of the cross. By taking upon himself the unbearable burden of our sin, Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, experienced the equally unbearable burden of absolute isolation from God, thereby bringing reconciliation and restoring our relationship. As Paul so aptly says, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

If one has decided to concentrate on the poignant lament, or prayer for help found in verses 1-21 in the sermon for Good Friday (and speaking from experience, this can be a most rewarding approach), then one has the delightful option of preaching on the magnificent song of praise in verses 22-31 on Easter Sunday, thereby matching the differing moods of the text, so characteristic of this psalm, to the differing worship moods of the congregation.


1. Commentary first published on this site on March 29, 2013.

2. J. L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 107.

3. C. Stuhlmueller, “Psalm 22: The Deaf and Silent God of Mysticism and Liturgy,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1982): 86-90.

4. Ibid., 88.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Sharon H. Ringe

For modern-day Christians, the cross has become purely a religious symbol.1

It adorns the walls of our homes and our places of worship, its presence marks our altars as holy places, and we wear it as jewelry. In short, it rarely touches the ground! With its exalted status as the focal point of our faith, the cross has lost its power to scandalize. We bracket the religious meaning from any memory we might carry that in Jesus’ time the cross was an instrument of execution used by the Romans, and reserved for slaves or those charged with treason against the Empire.

Early Christians could not avoid that connection. Crosses were all too common sights at the edges of the cities and along the Roman highways. For these ancestors in the faith, the challenge was to find ways to articulate the religious meaning of the cross in imagery and language powerful enough to transform the immediate horror it represented. Today’s reading from Hebrews is one expression of that quest.

The opening parameter of the reading is a bit puzzling. Verses 16 and 17 seem to bring to a close the previous section, echoing 8:8-12 as they recall Jeremiah 31:31-34 and the “new covenant” that God will write on the people’s hearts. That task that initially belonged to God is attributed to the Holy Spirit, affirming God’s continuing presence and activity on behalf of God’s people. What is remembered is also still an apt expression of how God acts among us in this time after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Now, though, the writer’s emphasis is on the meaning of the crucifixion for us, and its implications in our lives. The paragraph that encompasses verses 19-25 is the first part of a three-part exhortation that follows on the identification of Christ’s high priestly ministry. This first part is an admonition, and it is followed by a warning (10:26-31) and a paragraph of encouragement (10:32-39).

The admonition that appears in English as a paragraph consisting of several sentences, in Greek is a long, complex sentence of closely linked participial clauses. It consists of two parts–the two-fold Christological basis (verses 19-21) and the three-fold admonition proper (verses 22-25)–introduced by the conjunction “therefore,” emphasizing its dependence on what has preceded it. The author’s theological depth and rhetorical skill is evident in that tight structure as well as in the substance of these verses.

The author begins by establishing common ground with those being addressed by calling them αδελφoι, literally “brothers.” The masculine plural form, however, would be used to encompass an audience including both genders, and that is certainly the case here. The NRSV’s use of “friends” to convey that inclusiveness is certainly appropriate, as long as it is understood to convey familial intimacy and interdependence.

The first of the Christological bases draws on the imagery of the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple. Only the High Priest could enter this dwelling place of God to intercede on behalf of the people, who would wait anxiously outside until the priest had completed his task. Our posture now is different, says the author of our text. We now can approach with “boldness” or “confidence,” on the strength of Jesus’ life offered in sacrifice for us. Unlike the temple curtain, which kept the people separated from God’s presence, Jesus’ death–the offering of his very life–opened a “living way” to God (verse 20).

The second of the Christological bases for the admonition also draws on temple imagery, but in a way that does not fit smoothly with the first. In the theology of Hebrews, Jesus is at once the perfect sacrifice that opens the path to God, and also a “great priest” who can be our human advocate before God (verse  22). Clearly the intent is not literal description, but rather a parabolic approach that draws us in and invites us to contemplate the ineffable truth that is the way of Christ.

The consequences of these Christological truths are expressed in three exhortations. They are conveyed grammatically by the hortatory mood (“let us”), and they elaborate, in turn, on the faith, hope, and love that are the mark of the Christian (see also 1 Corinthians 13).

  • The first exhortation concerns our approach to worship, in which we are called to embody confidence and integrity, marked liturgically by “washing” (literally cleansing oneself) and “sprinkling,” an apparent reference to baptism (verse 22) as an initial step into the Christian community.
  • The second (verse 23) urges tenacity in maintaining hope, which by definition pulls us forward beyond what we presently see or experience. That tenacity is possible, not through our own strength, but through the faithfulness of the One who stands behind the promises that ground us.
  • Finally, we are exhorted to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (verse 24), in an echo of Paul’s determination that faith not be an abstraction, but come to ethical expression and have consequences for the life of the community as we wait for the Day of Christ’s return.

Like the epistle appointed for Passion Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (Philippians 2:5-11), this one too draws us beyond this day and the events that mark it in the gospel narratives, into our own lives as Christians. They push us to reflect on the meaning of the crucifixion for our own lives, and to continue the quest for adequate human language to express the ways of God.


1 This commentary was first published on this site on April 2, 2010.