On the Sunday before Easter, the lectionary supplies readings for a liturgy of the palms, and readings for a liturgy of the passion.
In contexts where many do not participate in the liturgies of Holy Week, especially Good Friday, it is advisable to include the passion reading with its depiction of the crucifixion. This extended reading includes many important and rich episodes that are deserving of homiletical treatment. In this brief commentary, the focus will be on Mark’s testimony concerning the cause and meaning of Jesus’ death.
Mark does not supply a thorough and intellectually satisfying account of how the death of Jesus saves. Unlike some later interpreters, this gospel is not overly concerned with working out the technical details of how the death of Jesus figures in a divine transaction calculated to fix what is wrong with us. Furthermore, when reflection on the efficacy of the death of Jesus grows too abstract, strays too far from the particular stories that form the gospel witness, bad theology happens. Overly simplistic talk about God demanding the suffering of an innocent is dangerous talk for Christian communities that should be focused on breaking the patterns of abuse and oppression that devour the most vulnerable in our midst.
But a close reading of these chapters (and the broader biblical witness) does not support simplistic transactional understandings of the crucifixion as divinely sanctioned redemptive violence. A sermon that invites its hearers to imagine along with this story can help the community think and feel in a more nuanced way about the causes and meanings of the death of Jesus. This narrative invites the cooperative imagination into a space in which a subtle and realistic interplay of diverse causalities can be explored.
Why did Jesus die, according to Mark? Because of the failings of his closest followers. Judas betrayed him (Mark 14:10-11, 18, 43-45). His inner circle of disciples were too weak to keep awake and wait with him (Mark 14:32-42). Peter, despite his promises and protestations, denied him in his moment of trial (Mark 14:66-72). Mark even gives us the vivid image of an unknown young follower fleeing naked into the night from the scene of the arrest — his cowardice exposed for all to see (Mark 14:51-52). It is true that Jesus died because he was betrayed, deserted, and denied by his followers.
But that is not the whole story. Jesus died also because of the machinations of his enemies, both religious and secular. His ever-escalating conflict with the powerful reaches its endgame in these chapters. The chief priests and scribes look for an opportunity to kill him, and maneuver so as to avoid repercussions from the sympathetic crowd (Mark 14:1-2). His arrest under cover of darkness leads to a sham trial in the high priest’s courtyard (Mark 14:59). In the morning, an audience with Pilate proves that empire is more interested in keeping the Pax Romana than pursuing justice (Mark 15:15). It is true that Jesus died because his message and his way of being provoked powerful enemies.
But that is not the whole story. He died also because of his own self-giving love. On one level, a gospel account that begins with a breathless piling up of stories about the remarkable agency of its protagonist — with healings, feedings, exorcisms, and authoritative teachings unfolding “immediately” one upon another — concludes in a very different way. In these chapters, he is depicted as a passive victim placed under arrest, mocked, beaten and impaled. Yet, in the final analysis, Mark is clear that Jesus’ life was not taken from him, but given by him. This is shown in ways subtle (Mark 15:5, his choice of silence is a source of amazement), symbolic (Mark 14:22-25, his offering of bread and wine signifies his offering of his own body and blood to his followers), and explicit (Mark 10:45, in which he speaks of “giving his life”). It is true that Jesus died because he chose to give his life for others.
But even that is not the whole story. For it is the testimony of this witness that behind, and beneath, and through these many causes, there was also the inscrutable and deeply troubling will of God. We read it in the grammatically elusive dei (“must”) of the first passion prediction (Mark 8:31). We see its trace in the rending of the temple curtain at the moment of death (Mark 15:38). And most of all we overhear it in the tortured Gethsemane conversation between the reluctant but trusting Son, and the One he dared to call “Abba” (Mark 14:35-36). In that grief-stricken garden scene, especially, we confront the crucial claim that Jesus submitted his own will to God’s, breaking down in that moment our carefully constructed distinction between the cause which is his self-giving love, and the cause which is God’s mysterious will.
Mark’s passion story is less an argument to be understood, and more a theological poem to ponder. Held within its thrall, we are reminded again that those who claim to follow Jesus are capable of betrayal; we are educated about the paranoid violence of empire; we are warned about the dangers of self-interest among the professionally religious. But most of all we are fascinated by a particular man who, when push comes to shove, refuses to withdraw the high-stakes wager which is his whole self completely surrendered to that new way of being he called the Kingdom of God. Hoping against hope, he risks it all. If such risk is met by abandonment (Mark 15:34), then all is lost; but if by vindication (Mark 15:39), then all is gained. The passion narrative is not a doctrine to be dissected, but a drama to be experienced and explored again and again by those who would dare conform their own lives to the courageous, winsome, and faithful identity it discloses.
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).
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.1
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).
“Our senses attach all the scorn, all the revulsion, all the hatred that our reason attaches to crime, to affliction … (E)verybody despises the afflicted to some extent, although practically no one is conscious of it.”1
Simone Weil’s description of the social degradation of affliction reflects with devastating precision the experience of the speaker in Psalm 31:9-16. When we see someone who is afflicted, with physical or mental illness, homelessness, disability, we tend, out of fear of our own vulnerability, to recoil, and to regard that person with disdain. When we experience affliction, we see that disdain in the eyes of others, and we even come to believe ourselves to be worthless. Often, acute suffering is, in the eyes of human beings, criminal.
The portion of Psalm 31 appointed for today begins with lament and a plea for God’s graciousness. Prior to verse 9, the psalmist has prayed for God’s deliverance and protection, and proclaimed that God is the one who sees affliction and can provide refuge (verses 1-7). God is praised for not delivering the sufferer “into the hand of the enemy,” but has, in words that recall the covenantal promise of land in Genesis 26:22, set the psalmist’s “feet on a broad place” (verse 8). The opening verses of Psalm 31 acknowledge the psalmist’s suffering, but place emphasis on the speaker’s assurance of God’s deliverance.
But verse 9 begins a powerful lament, one that evokes the psalmist’s physical and psychological torment, and, most poignantly, the devastating effects of others’ scorn. The psalmist pleads for God’s graciousness, “for I am in distress” (verse 9a). The exact nature of this distress is not identified, but its dimensions are clear and familiar to all of us. Pain of some sort has engulfed the sufferer, some affliction that has filled the speaker’s life “with sorrow, and my years with sighing” (verse 10a). Images of physical and psychological pain intermingle, as is so often the case when we experience deep distress. The psalmist’s “eye” and “soul and body” waste away from grief (verse 9b); the speaker’s “strength fails” and “bones waste away” (verse 10b). Acute suffering can consume us utterly; whatever its cause, affliction is felt as deeply in our souls as in our bones.
It is the social degradation, the scorn and rejection of others, which inflicts the deepest wounds upon the afflicted. The psalmist’s tone is one of grief, but also of astonishment, that compassion is nowhere to be found. The speaker is scorned by “adversaries,” which, although troubling, is not particularly surprising. But rejection and revulsion are felt closer and closer to home; the psalmist is “a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances” (verse 11). Even those on whom one can expect to depend in times of trouble have abandoned the afflicted person. Indeed, the psalmist is as good as dead to others: “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead” (verse 12a). No one gives any thought to one in such great distress. The psalmist feels useless, worthless, utterly unwanted, “like a broken vessel” (verse 12b). The psalmist’s life, indeed the psalmist’s very self, is in shards, and no one has any use for the broken pieces.
This sense of abandonment, however, is accompanied by a terrifying sense that the psalmist is surrounded by those intent on doing harm. The speaker hears “the whispering of many — terror all around!” as others “scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” (verse 13). Deep in physical and emotional torment, the afflicted one experiences others’ rejection and fear as assault. The psalmist feels both utterly abandoned and utterly besieged, the isolation that affliction engenders feeling like a very threat to the sufferer’s life.
Yet the psalmist continues to proclaim trust in the Lord; indeed, the speaker clings to God as the only one on whom the afflicted one can depend. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God’ ” (verse 14). The isolation and violence that affliction has wrought are contrasted by the “hands-on” imagery of God’s presence with the sufferer. “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (verse 15). The psalmist calls on God to let God’s “face shine upon your servant” (verse 16a). This verse recalls the familiar refrain of Numbers 6:25: “the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.” This is not only a call for God to show God’s favor to the sufferer, it is also a cry for the very presence of God with the sufferer. This verse continues, “save me in your steadfast love” (verse 16b). The word translated as “steadfast love,” hesed, refers to God’s covenantal love for Israel, God’s promise to “be for” God’s people. It is from within that covenantal love that the psalmist calls for God’s salvation, with assurance that it will be received.
The appropriateness of this text for Passion Sunday is obvious: Jesus is the one afflicted and scorned. Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke (23:46), Jesus utters words from this Psalm on the cross: “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (verse 5). The social degradation and the continued trust in God of Psalm 31 resonate loudly with the Passion of Christ. But how does this text fit with an observance of Palm Sunday? This is the day of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds that gather do so not to revile him, but to revere him, laying down palm fronds and cloaks to pave his way into the city of God. How does this celebration square with the lament of an afflicted person, rejected and abandoned by others? That human tendency to hate the afflicted, which Simone Weil identifies so aptly, provides a clue. We can turn against each other on a dime. In a matter of days, the crowd that cries “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 10:9b) could very well be the same crowd that cries, “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13). The one who rides into Jerusalem on a carpet of cloaks is also the one who knows our deepest afflictions, and, through the inexhaustible compassion of God, takes them into Godself. We are far from abandoned in our affliction; we are enfolded in the love of God. Being so embraced, we are formed not to scorn, but to embrace afflicted persons whom we meet.
1 Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), 71.
Every year, the Sunday that begins Holy Week gives us this reading from Paul: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … ”
The brilliance and wisdom of Philippians 2:5-11 becomes especially poignant when the worship honors both the pageantry of the palm waving (Hurrah for Jesus!) and the darkness of the passion (Oh, sacred head … ) celebrated together on one day, for the admonition to live in the mind of Christ Jesus entails both adulation and sorrow. Entering into Holy Week — whose end will be both a tortured death and an awe-filled rising up out of the grave — with the words of this letter, opens the way for the people who have come to reckon with this mystery to know themselves as Christ-bearers: “Let the same mind be in you … ” How can we possibly imagine such a thing?
It is significant for answering that question to notice that every year of the Revised Common Lectionary (A, B, and C), we also hear from Isaiah the cries of the servant who is assaulted and aided: “I gave my back to those who struck me … The Lord God helps me … ” This image of the suffering servant beloved of YHWH is set next Paul’s meditation on Jesus’ suffering as an exhortation to the church of Philippi to welcome that humility for themselves. The readings culminate this year in the crucifixion story from the Gospel of Mark. We hear in that story, in yet more words about opposing realities: the laudatory cries of joy and the crowd shouting to “Crucify him!” We are given the opportunity to ponder these jarring truths.
This pondering, Paul reminds us, must take place in the context of our own present time, in our own lives, which, if we are attentive, show us that Jesus’ disciples and people of faith engaged in praise and scorn of him then, and that we persist, still today, in tolerating injustices all over the world. Jesus knew the sorrow of being intensely misunderstood — hailed while on his way to being killed. This is the lot of many people today — and also many animals, oceans, and plants.
This text is a judgment on two unbalanced expressions of the way of Christ: triumphalism (exultation over success — emphasizing the victory of resurrection) and excessive humility (emphasizing sin to the point of affected sentiment, obsequious self-abasement). The image of Christ is not simply one or the other. The image is not only an example of goodness to be imitated (Christ the judge), nor is it simply an image of taking charge as ruler (Christ the victor). The image does not give us either a pitiable loser or Superman. The image is both portraits because the story is true: the one sent to be our savior became empty in order to be given the highest name.
The question for us as individuals and as the church is this: How are we to live in Christ Jesus? As Fred Craddock puts it, the church is defined as “the in Christ Jesus mind.”1 The church is oriented by this admonition in several ways. First, it is the second person of the Trinity who stands in the center of our proclamation: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … ” We can gauge our bending and confession — our worship — on this basis. Is Jesus at the center? Or does another allegiance, even our difficulty in believing, play a larger role in what we do and say on Sunday?
Second, the verb for “was” in Philippians 2:5 isn’t really there in the Greek, making it unclear which verb to assume: “Let the same mind be in you that [was] [you have] in Christ Jesus … ” We may be exhorted to look back at Christ Jesus’ mind or we may possess the mind of Christ Jesus by virtue of our baptism. Another possibility is that we assume both translations would be accurate? The mind, the orientation, the way of being that was in Christ Jesus, is now in the body of Christ, the church. This is a startling assertion, and it compels us to measure up or at least interrogate our priorities. Churches and judicatories continually urge congregations to be “in mission,” to reach out, to advocate and care for the voiceless and powerless. If we do this outreach as persons who are manipulating the political realities of our age, is that the same manner of outreach that is meant to having the mind that was in Christ? This is what I mean by measuring. It is a plumb line, a yard stick, a means for holding a vision that can guide us as does the Good Shepherd’s rod and staff of Psalm 23. It is a measure, even, that can comfort us.
Finally, we are challenged by the humility of the one who emptied himself not to “lord it” over others even in the admonition from Paul that this highly exalted name deserves every tongue to confess it. As Christian history has repeatedly and shamefully shown, such honor easily turns into coercion and violence. We have enough of that in our world. The cry of this letter is for a unity among all people: “every knee should bend … ” But it is not the job of believers to fixate on making people of other faiths come over to “our side.” Rather, it is the highly exalted one who will, by God’s power, become known and welcomed. When the church takes God’s place, disaster follows.
Our world is not crying out for more intolerance but for greater mercy and loving kindness. We require a re-hearing of what has sounded like a charge to the church so that we hear in it the promise that in God’s time, in God’s reign (which is already here in our midst), there will be (and is!) unity of purpose and vision.
1 Fred B. Craddock, Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 43.