The Gospel reading for Passion Sunday offers the preacher an embarrassment of riches.
This long and multifaceted reading depicts God and human beings at cross purposes. The various characters in the narrative provide a vivid portrait of human sinfulness and its consequences. Judas, motivated perhaps by greed, betrays Jesus but then bitterly regrets his action. The disciples, with Peter at the head, long to demonstrate their faithfulness and love but fail miserably. Jesus’ opponents — the religious leaders, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the crowds — all in their own ways reject, torment, and ridicule Jesus as they seek their own benefit and their own ends. Jesus alone remains fully obedient to God’s will, opening the way for God to defeat humanity’s death-dealing choices through the paradoxical power of the cross.
The story opens with Judas making an arrangement to hand Jesus over to the religious leaders in exchange for 30 pieces of silver and begins to look for an opportunity (Greek efkairía, “good time, favorable occasion”) to betray him. Just two verses later, Jesus tells his disciples, “My time is near.” At the right time, God will make use of Judas’ timely moment to achieve God’s own purposes.
Judas’ story unfolds in four scenes: the arrangement with the chief priests, Judas’ interactions with Jesus at the last supper, the act of betrayal, and Judas’ repentance. Throughout the story he is described, not from the narrator’s perspective much later in history, “as the one who betrayed Jesus,” but with a present participle, “as the one who was in the process of betraying Jesus.” The choice of tense heightens the dramatic intensity of the dinner conversation — suggesting that Jesus’ betrayer might still have the opportunity to make a different decision.
When Jesus predicts that one of the disciples will hand him over, all except Judas respond, “Surely not I, Lord!” The betrayer’s response — “Surely not I, rabbi!” — reveals what sets him apart from the others. Judas sees Jesus as a teacher whose words, though instructive, are not necessarily authoritative. The other disciples all view Jesus as their Lord who is not merely to be heard, but obeyed. Strikingly, even though Judas does not acknowledge Jesus’ lordship, Jesus continues to include him in the group of his disciples, offering him communion with all the rest. With Peter and the other disciples, Judas eats Jesus’ body and drinks Jesus’ blood of the covenant, “poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”
In the next scene, despite having shared in Jesus’ body and blood, Judas continues down the fateful path toward betrayal. At some unspecified point, he leaves the other disciples and then returns with a mob to identify Jesus for the religious leaders and their emissaries, who evidently did not know Jesus by sight. The grace that Jesus offers Judas extends even to the moment of betrayal, when Jesus includes Judas among his own, addressing him as “friend.”
In Judas’ final scene, with his decision irrevocably made, he sees the consequences of his choice. The religious leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate, and Judas realizes that Jesus will be condemned to death. Matthew portrays Judas as repenting for his actions. He confesses his guilt, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood”; he returns the profit from his crime; and he follows his verbal and financial repentance with the only act that, in an honor-shame society, could atone for his dishonorable betrayal of a friend’s life: he kills himself. Jesus’ blood lends a deep ambiguity to the story. Judas is indeed guilty of innocent blood. But that same blood is poured out for forgiveness, and he repented as fully and freely as he knew how. Does God’s mercy extend to Judas?
Judas is far from the only sinner in the story. Just as Jesus prophesies that one of his own will betray him, so he prophesies that one of his own will deny him, and that at the critical moment all of his own will stumble and scatter. Though Peter, as usual, takes the lead role, the other disciples all affirm their absolute loyalty and dedication to Jesus and echo Peter’s claim that even if it costs them their lives they would never deny Jesus. The scene in Gethsemane reveals how empty their promises are.
The inner circle of Peter, James, and John, despite Jesus’ direct command to stay awake with him, promptly fall asleep. When Jesus first returns from his anguished prayer he focuses his speech on Peter, but his words (in the second person plural) are addressed to them all. Even as he orders them to watch and pray so that they are not overcome by temptation, he names both their desire to obey and their inability to do what he commands: “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Jesus’ prayer that his Father’s will be done highlights both his own obedience and his disciples’ disobedience, for while he prays, sleep overcomes them once more. When the arresting crowd arrives, one of the disciples disobeys Jesus yet again by resisting evil with violence, in direct contradiction to his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38). After Jesus rebukes him for resorting to the sword, all of his followers forsake him. The cross is more than they can bear.
During Jesus’ trial, Peter once again exemplifies the disciples’ longing and failure to follow Jesus. He observes events from a distance, but overwhelmed by fear, he thrice denies knowing Jesus. At the moment of denial, he not only abandons his Lord but disobeys his teaching in Matthew 5:33–37 by using oaths to swear that he does not even know Jesus. When the cock crows, Peter realizes the truth of Jesus’ prophecy and the depth of his own lies. Though he weeps bitterly, he cannot undo what he has done. Does God’s mercy extend to Peter?
If the disciples deny, disobey, and flee because of fear and Judas betrays because of greed, the council of religious leaders and Pilate especially show us other facets of human sinfulness. Jesus’ trial reveals the death-dealing machinery of the state, aided and abetted by religious leaders more interested in securing political power than in serving God. In the hands of both the religious and the civil authorities, truth becomes malleable, a tool shaped by false witnesses and selective evidence to benefit the powerful and achieve a desired end. Though the witnesses’ testimonies do not agree, the religious council persists until they find an excuse to denounce Jesus as deserving death and hand him over to the Roman state apparatus for sentencing.
Pilate, recognizing a political mess when he sees it, does his best to evade responsibility for a decision that he knows to be unjust. When the crowd, spurred on by their envious leaders and eager for a spectacle, chooses life for Jesus Barabbas (whose names means “son of the father”) and death for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Pilate readily capitulates to their will. If political stability requires the death of an innocent man, then so be it. What can he do except wash his hands of the whole business and hope that so much innocent blood does not leave a stain? The crowd, on the other hand, uses a traditional and chilling phrase to accept full responsibility for their decision: “His blood be on us and on our children.”
The blood imagery throughout the passion narrative invites careful interpretation and reflection. On the one hand, the repeated references to blood in Matthew 27:4, 6-7, 24, and 25 recall Jeremiah’s prophecy that the temple and the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed because the city was filled with the blood of the innocent (Jeremiah 19:3-8; 22:3-5; compare to 7:5-7; 26:13-15). Given that Jesus echoed Jeremiah’s temple sermon when he cleansed the temple, and that the witnesses at Jesus’ trial testified that he had said he would tear down the temple, it seems clear that Matthew understands the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as an act of divine judgment.
Yet once again Jesus’ own interpretation of his blood at the Last Supper invites us to hear a deeper meaning in the crowd’s words. So many taunts and phrases in the passion story are profoundly ironic. Do the people understand what they are saying? They ask that Jesus’ blood be upon them and upon their children. But Jesus says that his blood is poured out for forgiveness (the blood of the sin offering, Leviticus 4:25, 34; 5:9). Does God’s mercy extend to those who condemned and executed Jesus?
At the center of the narrative, in stark contrast to his sinful disciples and opponents, is Jesus the obedient Son of God who continues to resist temptation just as he did after his baptism. Though he could have escaped arrest, he refuses to be rescued by angels (Matthew 27:53; 4:5–6). The devil promised him the kingdoms of the world and their glory if only he would bow down and worship, but the Messiah, the King of Israel, chooses instead to endure the soldiers’ mocking adulation and the ridicule of the passersby.
The Son of God saves others by not saving himself. Rather than seeking divine status or grasping at royal power, Jesus accepts the death penalty and is executed as one common criminal among others. The Son of Man identifies with every person who has ever felt God’s absence at the moment of deepest need. He dies in agony, alone.
At the moment of Jesus’ death, creation convulses and boundaries break: the temple curtain is torn in two, the earth shakes, the rocks split, and the tombs are opened. The passion narrative in Matthew ends with Jesus buried and his tomb under heavy guard, but the evangelist has already given away the ending by saying that the dead came out of their tombs after Jesus’ resurrection.
The old order comes apart for the Son of God, by his unique obedience to God’s will, has opened the way to a new creation for all God’s children. Here indeed we see God’s cross purposes. Humanity has done its worst, but what humans intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20). The way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.
The lectionary selection constitutes the third of four so-called “Suffering Servant” songs that appear in Deutero-Isaiah.
The other three songs appear in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6 and 52:13-53:12.
Scholarly debates about the identity of the Servant persist. Traditional Jewish interpretation identifies the Servant with the suffering nation of ancient Israel while other scholars posit that the Servant was the prophet himself.1
Since early in the church’s history, however, interpreters have seen in the Servant the figure of Jesus Christ,2 and that opinion perseveres in the works of some contemporary scholars who are open to an understanding of biblical inspiration that includes “predictive prophecy.” For example, John N. Oswald, no mean biblical scholar, remarks on verse 5 by noting that, among the company of biblical prophets, all reacted negatively to the things their calling required of him. “Yet,” Oswald writes, “this man calmly says he never did.” Oswald continues: “Who can be intended here? Only one other prophet in Israel’s history said anything similar — Jesus bar-Joseph (John 8:29).”3
Whether is it is possible or desirable to return to an earlier, pre-critical understanding of biblical prophecy is beyond the scope of the present discussion save this, my modest claim: Jesus Christ certainly did fulfill Old Testament prophecy in the sense that the older texts were filled full of new meaning in the light of the Christ event. The alignment of the third Servant Song on Passion Sunday is a case in point. Whomever the Servant was in the context of the 6th century prophet, the lectionary’s juxtaposition of this text with Jesus’ looming passion casts the shadow of a cross over the Servant’s song. The indignities suffered by the Servant in verse 6 become the story of Jesus’ passion.
On further reflection, however, this song turns out to concern itself less with the Servant and his suffering and more with the one whom he addresses as “the Lord GOD” (’adonay Yahweh). Of the eight instances of that title in Deutero-Isaiah, four of them occur in these verses (Isaiah 50:4, 5, 7, 9).4
What is it, then, that the ’adonay Yahweh does in this short poem?
First, the Lord GOD has formed the speaker into a “teacher,” giving him the ability to sustain the weary with a word (verse 4). Indeed, nowhere in this poem does the poet describe himself as a servant (’ebed). He is rather among the “learned” (limmudim). That plural noun occurs at the end of verse 4, a fact made clearer in the KJV: “The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned … he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The adjective suggests that the one who is taught is a disciple, hence the NJB’s translation of “a disciple’s tongue … to listen like a disciple.”
The image that emerges, therefore, is of a Lord GOD who has called this individual not once but daily, “morning by morning.” Each day the Lord GOD wakens his ear and opens that ear to hear (verse 5). All of this is without the poet’s resistance or turning aside and done precisely so that the Lord GOD might sustain the weary and those in want through this learned disciple.
The motive for the enemies’ violence is left unspoken. Perhaps it is inevitably the case that when the embodied word of God comes among people, when a message of grace comes to a people who will have redemption on their own terms or not at all, then ferocious rejection is inevitable. If so, here is another instance where Jesus’ story is filled full of meaning in light of the prophetic oracle.
Second, it is clear that the Lord GOD has not abandoned the poet. “The Lord God helps me,” he declares both in verse 7 and 9. The face that is spit upon and insulted (mikkelimmoth, a noun derived from the verbal root kalam, verse 6) is the very face that is “set like flint” and not shamed (niklameti, from that same root kalam, verse7). The Servant’s confidence rests in the proximity of “he who vindicates me” (literally, ‘the one who makes me righteous’). No one can contend against him in a court of law nor, one supposes, in the court of public opinion, since God has justified him. Paul makes a similar claim in Romans 8:31-39.
Given that this short poem is about the activities of the Lord GOD, we might suppose that it is not only Jesus but we ourselves who are instructed as disciples and summoned to sustain the weary with a word. It is good to waive our palm branches and wish Jesus well as he starts his way to the cross, but Jesus summons us to do more. We are to go with him fully prepared and willing to suffer.
Like the Servant, Jesus’ disciples know that we worship a God of mercy, justice, and love. Speaking a word to those wearied by the absence of those divine qualities has, however, become more frightening. Those that would welcome the immigrant, for example, or those who might speak against racism, misogyny, and homophobia are increasingly subject to the same violence as that experienced by those wearied ones. Blows, insults and spittle — not to mention bullets — are too frequently the norm.
Believers must speak out; it is to speak that God opens our ears morning by morning. But we can face insults and danger when it comes, ‘setting our faces like flint’ knowing we shall never be disgraced even if we are publicly scorned — or worse. God our helper, our vindicator, will see us through all the way to our own Easter Sunday.
1 Richard J. Clifford, “Isaiah, Book of,” in NIDB, vol. 3, ed. by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2008), p. 86; Richard J. Clifford, “Isaiah, Book of (Second Isaiah)” in ABD, vol. 3, ed. by David Noel Freedman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 499-500.
2 See, for example, comments by the ancient church fathers in Mark W. Elliott and Thomas C. Oden, eds., Isaiah 40-66, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament, vol. XI (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007), 130-133.
3 John N. Oswald, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 325.
4 Elsewhere ’adonay Yahweh occurs Isaiah 40:10; 48:16; 49:22; and 52:4. The expression is likewise infrequent in Trito-Isaiah (56:8; 61:1, 11; 65:13, 15).
One of the defining features of the prayer for help is the return to trust that defines its complaint.
Psalm 31 has both of these elements, and each is employed to full effect. These two elements go hand in hand, as the cry for help arises out of a place or state of deep need, and at the same time out of a sense or state of deep trust.
The complaint portion, of the portion of the psalm which makes up our reading, charts a place in which there is “terror all around!” (verse 13). The source of this terror is twofold, the physical distress of the psalmist, and her feeling that she is an object of scorn, dread, and the plotting of her enemies. The call for help emerges first from the psalmists “distress,” “grief,” “sorrow,” and miserable sighing (verse 10). This deep emotional distress manifests itself, as is often the case, in physical suffering: “my eye wastes…my soul and body also…my strength fails…my bones waste away.” And second, the call for help is uttered over the voices of those who see the psalmist’s misery, speak scornfully of him, and have begun to scheme against him.
The trust which is the balancing source of this cry for help is simple, yet profound. “You are my God,” says the psalmist, and “My times are in your hand….”
I am guessing that all of us know people (and are people) whose stories echo this struggling, yet surging faith. There are two particular phrases in this section of Psalm 31 that bring to mind stories that I trust will serve to illustrate the struggle and the upsurge of trust in the midst of life’s hard times.
“Those who see me in the street flee from me.”
We have long time family friends, from one of the parishes my father served. A number of years ago, this family lost one of their sons to an aneurism. It was unexpected, sudden, and devastating. This family had lived in the same small town for generations, they knew and were known by folks all over their county. But when their son died, something seemed to change. People grew distant, reserved, unsure. Not everyone, of course, but lots of folks.
One day as these grieving parents were walking along the small town’s downtown, they saw a member of their home congregation coming towards them down the block. This man looked up, saw them, and started to cross the street away from them. But in the middle of the street he stopped, shook himself, and turned back, walking straight towards them. He greeted them somewhat shamefacedly, and said, “I started to walk away, because I know you lost your son, and I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”
This wasn’t scorn, or whispering, or scheming, but it was turning away from someone who was suffering; a kind of silence that is just as deadly and terrible. They had become “a horror to their neighbors, an object of dread…”
“My times are in your hands.”
Years ago, I was serving a little country church, Trinity Lutheran, in Sibley Township, MN.
My family lived in the parsonage next to the church, which had the cemetery spanning the length of the church property behind them.
My daughter Hannah, as a toddler, loved to play hide and seek among the headstones.
One Thursday morning as we were chasing around among the stones, Hannah literally stumbled across this one[i]:
Born January 2nd, 1901; died October 18th, 1923.
“Der Meister ist da und rufet dir.” John 11:28
“Meine zeit steht in deinen handen.” Psa 31:16
I was struck, immediately, by that second Scripture quotation, because in one of those wild coincidences, the text that I was preparing to preach on the following Sunday, was from Psalm 31. So on that Sunday I shared the story of our discovery of that grave stone, and remarked on what a powerful expression of faith, even in the face of death, this was.
Little did I know. After worship, one of the old boys of the congregation asked me if I knew the story behind it.
Traugott Schlachtenhaufen had been a son of the parish pastor. He himself was a seminary student. While home from school, Traugott and his brothers convinced their father to go rabbit hunting. As the story goes, Pastor Schlactenhaufen, firing at movement in the bushes and thinking it was a rabbit, shot and killed his son Traugott.
After he had gone home, and, in his distress and misery, bent the barrels of his shotgun into a “U” on a workbench vice, the father chose this verse for his son’s gravestone: “My times are in your hands.”
How could he?
He could, because his Savior had. Jesus quoted from Psalm 31, one of his last words, “Into your hand I commit my spirit;” (Psalm 31:5). He could, because in the face of death, in the face of loss, he could do nothing else, need to do nothing else, than to trust the God who is steadfast in love, whose face is ready to shine upon God’s servants, and who first says to us “You are my beloved.”
The German poem at the bottom of the stone captures the tension between sorrow and trust that Psalm 31 encapsulates, and puts upon our lips:
“Was wollt ihr Euch betrüben, Why are you troubled,
Daß ich zur Ruh gebracht? that I am brought to rest?
Seid still, Ihr, meine Lieben, Be still, my beloved,
Gott hat es wohlgemacht!” God has made it well.
[i] Image of Traugott Schlachtenhaufen grave marker © Karl N. Jacobson.
A preacher’s first instinct may be to pass over the second New Testament reading for Palm/Passion Sunday.
Compared to the drama of the Gospel text, themes typically drawn from Philippians 2, such as incarnation doctrine or humility, may spark scant excitement at either end of the homiletical contract, pulpit or pew. But in recent years, fresh exegetical insights into the grammar of this classic text are challenging traditional interpretations, opening up powerful homiletical territory for the preacher.
What we make of the hymn-like core of this text turns, in part, on how we understand the rare Greek noun harpagmos (Philippians 2:6c). Verse 6 is typically understood to be declaring that although Jesus was “in the form of God,” he did not regard “equality with God” as “something to be grasped” (NIV) or “something to be exploited” (NRSV), and therefore opted to assume the “form” (NRSV) or “nature” (NIV) “of a servant.”
In other words, instead of “grasping at” equality with God (which, according to tradition, was the sin of Lucifer), Jesus humbly “emptied himself” (NRSV) or “made himself nothing” (NIV). For his humble deferral, Jesus was subsequently exalted to Lordship — “given the name above every name” (verse 9). This has been the basis of many a sermon admonishing Christians to practice humble self-effacement.
But in the last couple of decades, interpreters have been pointing out that the unusual word harpagmos is actually more like a gerund, which (as you’ll remember from grade school grammar) is a noun that refers to an action. The best translation would be not “something to be grasped,” but “[the act of] grasping.” This shifts the senses of verses 6 and 7 rather strikingly, to something like this: “Jesus, ‘being in very nature God’ (NIV), did not consider likeness to God to consist in grasping, but [instead] taking the form of a servant, poured himself out.”1 In other words, Jesus, in fidelity to the true nature of divine power, practiced the outpouring of the self, not self-assertion and domination.
This would mean that Philippians 2, far from being a touching portrait of a self-effacing Jesus, speaks of Jesus’ radical embodiment of divine redemptive and restorative power as the power of self-outpoured service to the other. The alternate translation also has the advantage of helping us resolve the troublesome tension between the affirmation in verse 6 that Jesus is somehow “in the form of God” and yet somehow at the same time refusing to act “godlike.”
The truth is, Jesus as God-in-flesh is, and remains, fully part of the divine life. How could Jesus, with any consistency, decide not to be god-like? The fact is, he doesn’t. Jesus’ choice to live as a servant is not a deferral of his divine nature, but rather its truest expression.
This way of understanding Philippians 2 may strike some as theologically scandalous. Certainly, it reverses long-held assumptions about the meaning of the Christ-hymn. What of the declaration that God has “therefore … highly exalted him” (verse 9)? The splendor of Jesus’ lordship is his servanthood. Maybe this is nowhere better captured than in John’s apocalypse where Jesus is the enthroned “slain Lamb” (Revelation 5:6-14), and in this form, the object of the adoration of all earth and heaven.
It is precisely Jesus’ self-outpouring pursuit his redemptive human life amid the world’s oppression-wracked, sin-wrecked, violence that qualifies Jesus to bear “the name above every name,” the One before whom all on heaven and earth drop to their knees in awe and wonder.
Homiletically, today’s second reading calls for sermons that proclaim nothing short of a radical reimagination of the world-restoring power of God. It may be useful to begin a sermon by tracing more traditional interpretations before returning to the text for a second look and unpacking fresh understanding of its import. If Jesus’ self-giving servanthood was the truest embodiment of God’s redeeming, life- and society-restoring power, this has profound implications for the church’s witness in the world.
Recently, public television ran a news story about the “White Helmets,” a cadre of volunteers in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo. Amid the indiscriminate bombing of residential neighborhoods in the city, the “White Helmets” rush to the scene of collapsed buildings, digging with bare hands if necessary to free survivors from their tombs of crumbled concrete.2 The attackers know about them, and sometime deliberately return to blast the same sites in hopes of eliminating the White Helmets. Could it be that it is their dust covered faces and bleeding fingernails, not the screaming bombers overhead, that reveal the Might that can make a new world?
In troubled and troubling times, the church has always been tempted to enforce its views of what is right and good for humanity by making political threats, manipulating the news media, and resorting to deadly force. But such means, no matter how piously framed, will never move this world full of anxious, mutual aggression, one step closer to peace or goodness.
Followers of Jesus need to trust the lead of their Servant Lord, who, in the hours before his death, broke bread with his betrayer, washed the feet of those who abandoned him, healed a soldier armed to arrest him, and forgave both the repentant criminal dying beside him and his unrepentant tormentors.
1 Author’s translation. For similar phrasing reflecting the idea that harpagmos functions here as a gerund (a noun that refers to an action), see Morna D. Hooker, “Philippians 2:6-11,” Jesus und Paulus: Festschrift fur Werner George Kummel aum 70 Geburtstag (G?ttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1975), 151-164; and N.T. Wright, “Harpagmos and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5-11,” Journal of Theological Studies 37:2 (1986), 321-352.
2 PBS Newshour, 12.19.16.