Lectionary Commentaries for April 18, 2014
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Melinda Quivik

Thorny questions rise up when we are confronted with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

These are the matters the preacher has to wrestle with for the Good Friday sermon, and it is time for truth-telling. It is not a time for trivializing any — even tiny — aspect of the faith we have been given in Christ Jesus. Pilate himself asks for the truth in John’s Gospel! Along with Pilate, the assembly is ripe for honesty on this day. Here are only some of the possible questions posed by scholars and people of faith for this day’s readings:

Why, really, does Jesus let this torment happen to him? The answer goes a long way toward describing Atonement Theory — and there are several.

Which powerful group is more responsible for Jesus’ death: the religious leaders or the political overlords? Weighing one or the other as having greater force changes the meaning of the death.

Why does the crowd clamor for Jesus’ execution? Is it akin to totalitarian nations today in which emaciated people sing to their dear leader?

What forces stop Pilate from renouncing his ability to stop the execution of someone he says is innocent? Where are the same forces at work today denying justice?

Is Jesus guilty of committing sin by letting people kill an innocent person?

If Jesus is without sin, how can he be fully human? And if he is fully human, what does it mean for him to say that his kingdom is not of this world?

Good Friday is exactly the time to ponder some of the hardest problems of the Christian proclamation and leave the assembly with a thread to pull on, a nugget to explore. It is not easy to approach these matters. Some pastors may want to believe that the Passion story “says it all” on this day, seeing no need to preach.

The story, however, does not answer the questions it raises. For that reason alone, there must be a sermon on Good Friday. People who come for worship at this powerful time do not come in order to be whisked out the door at the end with a skip in their steps. They come to honor and focus on what is of utmost importance to them: issues of life and death, guilt and forgiveness, awe and astonishment at the complexity of the figure Jesus and the richness of the biblical witness.

In the presence of such huge issues, the preacher’s task is to tell us who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Some possibilities:

Jesus is a mirror on which we see the face of all that creates pain in our world. He is a victim who cannot be ignored. On him we see the suffering of all the lives that have been cut short or twisted or denied.

Jesus is an open door through which we are invited to a feast that is a time, first, to contemplate failure, loss, and sorrow, and secondly, to pray for the world and meditate on the cross. We bow before the instrument of his death because through its work, we see our own selves more fully.

Jesus is a king who turns Pilate’s questions around and places them onto his interrogator.

Jesus is the nearly silent one who, faced with accusations that are impossible to address because the accusers have no idea what they are saying, doesn’t even start. Jesus shows us the futility of speaking the truth to those who have no desire to hear. Their personal agendas leave them without the vision needed to listen. This happens all the time in our world.

Jesus is one who loves his mother and his friends. He looks upon them from the agony of his dying and honors them.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself with the words of ego eimi — I am — placing himself in the same identity as the voice who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. It is our proclamation that the I am is one. We do not know whether Jesus himself knew himself to be one with God or whether that is the proclamation of the writer of John. Pilate’s inscription over Jesus (“The King of the Jews”), does not say that Jesus said he is the King.

Even at the very end, the Gospel tells us that Jesus maintained the power to determine his response to his life. He “gave up his spirit”; the crucifixion did not take it away from him. John maintains Jesus’ divine power in this way.

The disciples were not in attendance except for “the women,” Jesus’ mother Mary, and the beloved disciple. But Joseph of Arimathea came with Nicodemus and a great and honorific abundance of myrrh and aloe. Although Jesus did not prove to be the one who would rescue the poverty-stricken, hungry, and ill people from the oppression of the Roman government as some had hoped, others could see beyond his death to something enduring. Perhaps they realized their own gratitude. Nicodemus had been given the water of life by Jesus. Joseph was welcomed despite his fear. We stand in their place on this day: welcomed and baptized, invited to the water and the word.

The last words of the Gospel reading are, “they laid Jesus there.” It is the new tomb. This is the right ending place because it is in the tomb where Jesus awaits his Resurrection; it is beside the tomb where the assembly will sit for the Vigil of Easter on Saturday, the ending of the Three Days liturgy. The preacher on Good Friday prepares the assembly for the waiting time by offering an image of Jesus in all the beauty of a death so sacrificial that it makes us weep in horror and gratitude all at once.

[For consideration of what the sermon can be at the Vigil of Easter, check out my article, “Preaching the Easter Vigil: Notes on an ancient sermon.”]

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Michael J. Chan

When reading this text, Christians have typically wondered about the identity of the servant, and more specifically whether it makes reference to Jesus.

The other “servant songs” in Second Isaiah are often consulted for hints as to the servant’s identity (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9). Questions about the servant’s identity, of course, are entirely appropriate, and the text’s own ambiguity encourages us to ask them.

I want to come at these texts with a slightly different set of questions, however: What is God trying to accomplish through the servant? Another way of formulating the question is, “What is the servant’s mission?” That is to say, I’m interested, at least initially, in function rather than identity. This angle also accords well with the text itself, which, while reticent about the servant’s identity, is preoccupied with the servant’s task and the nations’ response thereto.

Such an approach, moreover, might lead us not only to ask questions about suffering servants in the past (e.g., the prophet himself or Jesus), but might also lead us to think about how God might be analogously active in, among, and through God’s contemporary “servants” in the church. I submit that this text’s ambiguity allows us — better, encourages us — to interpret the suffering servant against multiple historical and theological horizons, including our own.

God has enabled the prophet to see something in the servant’s suffering that others do not. Whereas most see him as appalling (52:14), lacking in beauty (53:2), despised by men (53:3), diseased (53:3), and of little account (53:3), the prophet, through imagistic verse, reveals a God hidden behind and actively at work in, with, and under the servant’s suffering.

The issue is not simply that the servant’s suffering has meaning — the servant’s suffering is his calling. Behind the veil of suffering, the prophet finds God’s saving work in that which is undignified, uncomely, and repulsive. The paradox this text revels in is that this shattered one, whose suffering benefits all nations, is the one to whom “the arm of the Lord has been revealed” (53:1).

But what precisely is that calling? And what is God trying to accomplish?

Isaiah 52:13-15 serve as a prelude to Isaiah 53:1-12. The poem begins with a tone of triumph:

“Indeed, my servant shall prosper,Be exalted and raised to great heights (Isaiah 52:13)

Moving beyond the first verse, one quickly realizes that, whatever victory the servant is going to achieve will be so unexpected that it will awe the nations of the earth into silence:

Just as the many were appalled at him —

So marred was his appearance, unlike that of man,

His form, beyond human semblance —

Just so he shall startle many nations.

Kings shall be silenced because of him,

For they shall see what has not been told them,

Shall behold what they never have heard.” (Isaiah 52:14-15 TNK)

Even though we aren’t given many details about the servant’s mission at this point, we do know a few things, especially about how the nations of the earth will respond to the servant: His mission will be blessed, unexpected, astounding, and even global (“nations … kings, verse 14). Somehow, through the exaltation of a servant whose form and appearance are repulsive, God will not only startle the nations but will also allow them to see and behold something entirely new (verse 15). Revelation will somehow emerge from repugnance.

In a moment of realization, the same kings and nations mentioned in verses 13-15 break the silence with a powerful confession:

            “Who can believe what we have heard?

Upon whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him:

No charm, that we should find him pleasing.

He was despised, shunned by men,

A man of suffering, familiar with disease.

As one who hid his face from us,

He was despised, we held him of no account.

Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,

Our suffering that he endured.

We accounted him plagued,

Smitten and afflicted by God;

                But he was wounded because of our sins,

Crushed because of our iniquities.

He bore the chastisement that made us whole,

And by his bruises we were healed.

We all went astray like sheep,

Each going his own way;

And the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us.” (Isaiah 53:1-6 TNK)

Contemplating the broken, despised, and God-forsaken body of the servant, the nations realize something about the servant’s mission and something about themselves: The sins that the servant bears are “our sins,” “our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). They realize that hidden behind the servant’s suffering is the saving will of God for the world.

The image of the burden-, sickness- and sin-bearing servant, then, communicates simultaneously judgment (those sins are mine!) and salvation (those sins and ailments are no longer mine!). Upon realizing God’s kindly will toward them, the nations make a powerful confession of sin:

We all went astray like sheep,

Each going his own way;

And the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us (emphasis mine).

Rescued from their wandering, the nations of the earth no longer gawk at the suffering servant, they now see him as their savior.

But the servant is not the only one who suffers because of the “sin” (awon) and “transgression” (peša?) of the world. In Second Isaiah more broadly, both sin and transgression are blamed for God’s “divorce” of Judah (Isaiah 50:1). Judah’s sins (awonotêka) actually weary God (Isaiah 43:24). God, it would seem, is not only hidden behind the suffering and mission of the servant, the servant’s suffering also echoes the suffering of God, who also is able to work redemption through the servant’s affliction.

The image of a vicarious, intercessory sufferer, whose hardship results in healing for the world, is certainly a profound one. Do Christians do violence to the text when they hear echoes of Second Isaiah’s suffering servant in the Christologies of the NT? No, not really. Problems only emerge when Christians assume that a Christological interpretation exhausts the text’s potential.

Such a view blinds us to how other servants might wear the “mantle” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. On a very basic level, the servant represents the human embodiment of redemptive suffering, something God can work in any age. Understood in this way, the “mantle” of Isaiah 52-53 has been worn by many servants of God, including Moses, Jeremiah, Israel, and perhaps even Second Isaiah himself. Each of these servants suffered for God’s people, and shouldered their sins for the sake of God’s will for the world.


Commentary on Psalm 22

James Limburg

I remember the conversation well, though it took place a number of years ago, in Germany.

My wife and I were renting an apartment from a retired couple who became not only our landlords, but also our friends. Each evening after coming back on the bus from the University of Tuebingen, I would stop upstairs and visit with Herr Jung, our friend, in German. He was a retired mechanic, very bright, and spoke excellent high German. When he offered to visit with me in German for an hour each day, I jumped at the chance immediately.

Our conversations ranged over a variety of subjects, from World War 2 to the Arab-Israeli conflict to the latest antics of the family next door. But one afternoon I could see that he was very worried about something. His dear wife had been diagnosed with cancer, and the prospect was not good. He knew I was a Lutheran pastor and was studying theology. And he put the question to me directly. “Herr Limburg, she is such a wonderful person. She has always helped people in trouble. But now this!” And then his question sank into my soul, “Warum, Herr Limburg, Warum?” (“Why … why?”)

I don’t remember what I said that evening. But I do remember the question. And it made me think of exactly the same question raised by the anguished writer of Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why … ?” And it was also the question raised by Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).

The clue to understanding this psalm is in recognizing that it is made up of the typical elements of an individual lament, a prayer from a time of trouble. Those elements are most obvious in Psalm 13 which consists of a complaint (verses 1-3), a cry for help (verses 2-3), an affirmation of trust (verse 5) and a vow to praise (verse 6).

These parts are easily identifiable in Psalm 22. Verses 1-2 are a complaint beginning in verse 1 in the “you” form with a repeated “my God,” then continuing in the “I” form in verse 2.

With verses 3-5 the tone changes to an affirmation of trust. The psalmist looks back at his family’s history. To put it in modern terms, “My grandparents lost the farm but they never stopped going to church! And you, God, helped them through those times.”

Verses 6-8once again articulate a complaint, this time in the “I” (6a) and “they” forms (6b-8)

With verses 9-10 the psalmist swings back to affirming trust in God, this time recalling his own history. He says, in effect, “I’m 70 years old now, Lord. And you’ve been with me for all those years, ever since the time I was born!”

Verse 11 is the first expression of a cry for help. The psalmist asks, “Do not be far from me” (linking with the “far from” in verse 1) and then says that he is facing trouble alone.

Verses 12-18 clarify the nature of that trouble. Certain persons in the community are making life miserable (“bulls … lions”; read, “members of the church council?”). There is no doubt in the mind of the one praying whose fault it all is — “it’s your (God’s) fault!” (verse 15c).

The complaints continue with vivid metaphors. The enemies are like a pack of wild dogs (verse 16; see 1 Kings 22:38). And what are these people in the community doing? “Dividing up my clothes, “says the psalmist, “acting like I am already dead!” We can imagine the conversations that the sufferer picks up, perhaps hearing, “I’m a 42-long and I could certainly use that sport coat!”

The extended cry for help in verses 19-21 again picks up the “far off” words of verses 1 and 11 and uses the personal name ”Yahweh” for the first time (NRSV LORD), pleading for help.

With verse 21b the psalm modulates from a mournful minor key to a bright major. The psalmist has recalled God’s saving work in the past (verses 3-5, 9-10), has now experienced it in the present (verse 21b), and anticipates further stories of God’s deliverances in the future (verses 30-31).

What does this psalm mean for the “Good Fridays” in our own lives, when we are shaken by grief or almost destroyed by the circumstances of life?

First, the psalm points to the importance of community, a group of concerned fellow-believers who are more than a “support group” but who will sympathize and pray with and for us when we are suffering. The psalm assumes life in such a community, remembering the community of the past (verses 4-5), pointing to the community of the present (verses 22, 25), and anticipating the ongoing community of the future (verses 30-31).

Second, we notice that the “why” questions at the beginning of the psalm are never answered. Never is there a voice from heaven saying, “These things are happening to test you … ” or something similar. Or when the laments ask “How long, O Lord” (Psalm 13) there is never a voice coming out of the clouds saying, “In about two weeks it will all be over.”

Even for Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:46), the questions remain questions.

I have heard the Jewish teacher Elie Wiesel tell on a number of occasions of a young man who was very disturbed because he had so many questions about God. Most disturbing was: “Why does God allow suffering?” A friend advised the young man to travel to another town to hear a particularly gifted rabbi speak. He did, and something happened. He returned and said “The questions remained questions. But somehow, I could go on.”

Finally, we remember that Jesus prayed this psalm on the cross. If Jesus believed himself forsaken and far from God, it should not be surprising that we ordinary believers feel that way at times. In such difficult times Jesus reached for this psalm.

The questions may remain questions. But somehow, we may be able to go on.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Erik Heen

Good Friday is the day the church pauses to meditate on the death of Jesus.

It is a day of darkness. The pall of death is inevitably present. Yet this darkness also allows the power of God, usually hidden by human vulnerability, to be revealed.

Krister Stendahl (d. 2008), long-time professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School and later bishop of the Church of Sweden, in a homily given on Good Friday at which I was once present, compared the death of Jesus to a solar eclipse. When the moon throws its shadow upon the sun, the sun’s light is obscured and the earth is shrouded in darkness. Yet at the point of the total eclipse, the sun’s corona — its crown — though usually invisible to the eye because of the sun’s radiance, can be seen.

So too in the death of Jesus, what Luther paradoxically referred to as hidden revelation of God is clearly apparent. That is, Good Friday reveals that God is present where one would least expect — on the cross, or in moments of weakness, in our vulnerability, our suffering unto death itself (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9). The deep irony of Good Friday, of course, is that this truth regarding God’s power was experienced by Jesus himself. As Paul says succinctly in 2 Corinthians 13:4: “He was crucified in weakness.” Such is the theological territory that underlies today’s second reading from Hebrews.

As 4:15 declares, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Or as Gregory of Nazianzun put it, “That which he has not assumed, he has not healed.” God intimately understands our frailty — from the inside out. Such weakness is not an impediment to God’s ability to bring life out of death. In fact, God’s power is known only when the depth of our weakness is acknowledged.

Hebrews’ meditation on God’s grace-filled accommodation to human weakness is subtly brought out in its distinctive “high priest” Christology. Interestingly, the priestly figure that Jesus is identified with is the mysterious Melchizedek, mentioned only twice in the Old Testament. The first occurrence is Genesis 14:18 where he is described as king of Salem (who brought out bread and wine) and “priest of God Most High.”

The second text where Melchizedek appears in the OT is Psalm 110:4, the one Hebrews quotes at 5:6: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Though Melchizedek is introduced in 5:6, one must wait until chapter seven of Hebrews for the full significance of the typos to be revealed. There, Hebrews, pursuing a close (and maximalist!) reading of the OT texts dealing with Melchizedek notes that he is, “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” That is, Melchizedek is eternal — without birth, without death.

Though this reading of the OT texts on Melchizedek might strike us as odd, what is critical to note is that Jesus, unlike Melchizedek, does die. Our high priest, the one who intercedes for us before God, knows that which is most characteristic about the human condition: suffering and death. That our God is not above death, but has passed through it — actually has been killed — is at the heart of the Christian confession. It remains as scandalous today as it was in the first century. As Hebrews put it (2:9): “Jesus, …for a little while was made lower than the angels…so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (cf. Philippians 2:6-7).

This text has generated a variety of theological questions, two of which may be helpful to discuss within the context of Good Friday. One is the claim of 4:15 that Jesus, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, [was] yet without sin.” What does it mean that Jesus was without “sin”? And, if so, how was he “like us”? The second question responds to the statement in 5:7 that in his prayer “to the one who was able to save him from death… he was heard because of his reverent submission.” But did not Jesus die?

In North America we have a tendency to equate “sin” with moral indiscretions — we lie, we steal, we cheat, we yell at our kids or our spouse, we are self-absorbed, or we are prideful as to our ability to skirt most of these issues (i.e., we take the moral high ground and distance ourselves from other “sinners,” falling to the sin of pride). Try as we might, we cannot shake ourselves free from our bondage to such “sins”. Though NT theologians are aware that such sins consciously committed are problematic, primarily because they tend to destroy human community, they are not the focus of much theological reflection. That is because the conscience intervenes (if working) to convict us of our guilt in such cases.

“Sin” (with a capital “S”) is something both more fundamental and subtler than such sins of commission or omission. Sin is, simply, unbelief in the goodness and mercy of God. Our primary Sin, as the Genesis story about Adam informs us, is that of disobedience, a disobedience that flows from our doubt that the limitations that inevitably come with being creatures (rather than God) are limits best respected.

So, when Hebrews says that Jesus was like us “yet without sin,” it intends to underscore Jesus’ human obedience, Jesus’ faithfulness to God during his passion and death. Hebrews’ insight is that against all evidence to the contrary, Jesus continued to have faith in the goodness and mercy of God even on the cross. In fact, such is the very definition of faith in Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

The second crux of this passage is tied up with Jesus’ prayer for salvation to “the one who was able to save him from death,” and yet he dies. Does this not mean that Jesus’ prayer went unanswered?

God does save Jesus “from death,” though not in any simple way. Jesus dies, as we all shall. Yet the promise of the gospel is that death does not have the last word. God is able to bring life from death. Jesus is resurrected. This Christian perspective on death is of importance not only as we contemplate our own deaths, but as we come up against the power of death-dealing forces in our lives, day by day. These are the forces that often seem to have the upper hand in beating us down, of robbing us of hope, of energy, of goodness of spirit, of kindness.

For Hebrews, the power of these henchmen of death has also been destroyed on the cross. As Hebrews puts it, “Since, therefore, the children [i.e., you and me] share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (2:14-15).