Lectionary Commentaries for April 2, 2010
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Craig R. Koester

John’s narrative of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion takes readers into the heart of the gospel.

Because the assigned reading is two chapters long, one might read and preach on only a portion of it. One might also read a section, then preach briefly on it; read another section and preach briefly on it, and so on. The story itself is powerful, yet preaching can help worshipers hear it as a word addressed to them. Here we will focus on several episodes that occur in the middle of the passage, culminating with the crucifixion itself.

Our theme is identity, which is rarely a simple matter. We try to shape our identities so that people see us in certain ways. The way we arrange items on our résumés and Facebook pages creates images of ourselves as we would like others to see us. We seek to show that we are accomplished in a certain field, exhibit leadership ability, have insights to share. The list could go on. Those one meets in the passion narrative also project images of strength and competence. Yet the narrative peels back the images that people project, so that their pretensions come to light in the presence of Christ. The reality is that they are not the people the pretend to be. All fall short. Consider several of the leading figures in turn.

Peter initially appears to be the consummate disciple. He has been following Jesus since the beginning (John 1:40-42), and even when others are offended by Jesus’ claims to have come from God, Peter is bold to declare, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). At the last supper, Peter objects when Jesus washes feet, but then asks for a more complete bath if that is what it takes to be in relationship with Jesus (13:6-9). He even vows that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37). Yet in the courtyard of the high priest, the one who seems to be such a loyal disciple proves to be no disciple. When a servant girl asks whether he is a disciple, Peter repeatedly says, “I am not … I am not” (18:17, 25). Faithfulness dissolves into unfaithfulness.

The Jewish authorities seem to be the consummate law-abiding citizens. They bring Jesus before Pilate, yet refuse to enter his house so that they will remain ritually pure according to the Jewish law (18:28). They tell Pilate that according to the law of Moses, Jesus deserves to die because he has tried to elevate himself to divine status by making himself into the Son of God (19:7). They seem to have a good case. What is more, they scrupulously defer to Roman authority when they tell Pilate that it would not be proper for them to pass sentence on Jesus. As good citizens they rely on the Roman governor for that (18:31).

Yet as they try to get Jesus convicted, they violate their own principles. They briefly show that they are not such good citizens by demanding the release of a terrorist (Greek lestes) named Barabbas (18:40), and this might give the impression that they are trying to subvert the established social order. So changing course in order to achieve their goals, they abruptly declare that they have no king but Caesar (19:15). Yet now the impression is that instead of serving God they serve only the emperor — i.e., the man who would play God — and that would be contrary to Jewish law. Their pretensions are exposed by their words.

Pilate is the Roman governor. He was the most powerful man in the country, accountable only to Rome. He was in charge of the military, the judicial system, and the finances. Pilate would seem to have it all. Pilate also realizes that Jesus is an innocent man, and he declares this three times (18:38; 19:4, 6). The implications would seem obvious. If Pilate really has such power, he should be able to do what he knows to be true by releasing this innocent prisoner. Yet as the narrative progresses, Pilate proves himself powerless to do what is true, and knowingly hands over an innocent man for execution (19:16).

The trial narrative is a sustained exercise in truth telling. Throughout these chapters everyone’s pretensions are exposed: Peter the Christian proves to be no disciple. The Jewish authorities violate their own principles to achieve their own ends. Pilate the Roman proves powerless to put the truth into practice. As the narrative peels back the facades of strength and propriety for these people, it also asks readers: Are you so different? What would happen if we looked closely? The story of the trial is important, because it shows us the fallen character of the world for which Jesus came to die. It discloses the dynamics of sin at work in human relationships. It prepares us for the final aspect of the story, which concerns God’s relationship with such a world.

The identity of Jesus is an issue throughout the passion narrative. He is called a threat to God and society (19:7, 12), and described as an innocent man (18:38; 19:4, 6). But from the evangelist’s point of view, the place that where Jesus’ identity is rightly proclaimed is on the sign over the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19). This sign is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (19:20). It proclaims to the world what God is doing for the world by sending Jesus. The cross is where Jesus reigns because here is where the love of God reigns. In John’s gospel the power of God is revealed as the love of God that seeks to reclaim the world that has turned away from him. God sends Jesus to be the King who comes from the Jewish people in order to reign for the world. God’s kingdom is built through God’s self-giving love. In the crucified Jesus, the world comes to know the lengths to which God will go in order to reclaim the world in love.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Mark Throntveit

The church always reads this marvelous text on Good Friday.

Few Old Testament passages have provided preachers with as much theological and imagistic grist for the homiletical mill as this fourth and final poem in the so-called Servant Songs of Second Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12).

Nevertheless, the passage remains remarkably unyielding with regard to exegetical explanations of who, what, when, and where, not to mention why. Some believe the servant to be a collective figure, usually Israel, whose suffering and dislocation in the exile prove to be redemptive for “the nations.” Others prefer to identify various individuals (Moses, Cyrus, or Second Isaiah, himself, are the top contenders these days) as the servant. The church has naturally seen the suffering, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ poignantly depicted here.

There are problems, however, with all of these attempts to identify the servant. The proponents of an individual identification need to wrestle with the statement that “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days” (53:10), especially in light of the text’s announcement of the servant’s death when it reports “he was cut off from the land of the living,” (53:8). Those identifying the servant with Christ can deal with the death by appeal to the resurrection, but what then of “his offspring”? DaVinci Code, anyone?

The question of the servant’s identity has been debated for centuries without consensus and this will likely continue. Structural observations, however, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the passage, regardless of the servant’s identity. The poem naturally falls into two sections: God’s affirmation of “my servant” opens (A, 52:13-15) and closes (A’, 53:11b-12) the poem framing a “report” (53:1 RSV) of the servant’s mission in the form of a confession (53:1-11a) offered by those for whom the servant suffered, as follows:

A God affirms “my servant” (52:13-15)

B Introduction to the report (53:1)
   C Description of the servant’s suffering (53:2-3)
      X Reason for the servant’s suffering (53:4-6)
   C’ Description of the servant’s suffering (53:7-9)
B’ Conclusion of the report (53:10-11a)

A’ God affirms “my servant” (53:11b-12)

The report itself (53:1-11a) displays a concentric construction. The report opens with wonder as the ones for whom the servant suffered can’t believe what they have heard (B, 53:1). The unbelievable news they have heard is, of course, what we as readers find out in the report’s conclusion (B’, 53:10-11a), namely that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him.” Who’d a thunk it? Or, as our text puts it, “to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”

Their bifurcated description of the servant’s suffering betrays their earlier conviction that this poor loser, disfigured, abused, despised, and rejected was of “no account” (C, 53:2-3). What is worse, he accepted his fate without as much as a peep of protest, “he did not open his mouth.” What a wimp (C’, 53:7-9)!

But in the heart of the passage (X, 53:4-6) these unbelieving, incredulous confessors finally get it. They figure out that while suffering had previously been variously explained as the inevitable consequence of disobedience (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:15) or as a test of faithfulness (e.g. Job 1-2), here suffering, borne willingly, silently, innocently, vicariously, by another in conjunction with the will of God, was depicted as redemptive for others. The ones who had mocked, abused, humiliated, and finally killed the servant are now the ones who confess that he has borne their sin. Their amazement is beautifully presented in the repentant resonance of the Hebrew particles hu (he, him) and nu (we, our) that reverberates throughout this central paragraph:

He has borne our griefs”
“yet we accounted him struck down by God”
He was wounded for our transgressions”

If such is the meaning of the report found in 53:1-11a, what then is the function of the divine address that frames the report? When Arthur Hiller, the director of Love Story (the Oscar winning 1970 film, not Erich Segal’s book, upon which the film is based) begins with the final scene in which Oliver mourns the death of his beloved Jennifer, “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me,” he dictates how we are to experience his film. We know that she is not going to make it; she is going to die no matter how tragic their pain, how poignant their love. If you miss the first five minutes of the film (potty stops, popcorn purchases, and parsimonious parking places head the list in my family!) you will not see the same film … you will “just know” she’s going to get better and that true love will win out in the end. But that is not the film the director wants you to see.

In a similar way, Second Isaiah frames his depiction of the Gospel in action with the divine speech that lets us, his readers, unlike those for whom the servant suffered, know in advance what is to come. This is the way God has chosen to redeem us. Is it any wonder the church, looking back through the lens of the cross, has found in this heart wrenching poem, a crystal clear portrayal of the events of God’s Good Friday?


Commentary on Psalm 22

Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.

This is one of the Bible’s saddest texts, appropriately read by Christians on Good Friday, the saddest day of the church year. I find myself emotionally drawn into the agony of the speaker, and I also experience the speaker’s joy as he celebrates his rescue and prospect for the future.

But Psalm 22 raises a thorny question for me: Who is the speaker — a Davidic king under attack, Jesus on the cross, or both? As a preacher, I have to choose my stance on that question before I do anything else.

If I opt for the Davidic king, I face a further challenge — how to relate the text to the events of Good Friday. But if I opt for Jesus, then I have to decide how Psalm 22, written centuries before him, relates to Jesus.

Some possible interpretive stances include:

  • Psalm 22 as prophetic. It predicts what will happen (and does happen) to Jesus, and he fulfills it.
  • Psalm 22 as typological. It reports a pattern of God’s historical dealings that recurs at the crucifixion.
  • Psalm 22 as allegorical. Beneath its historical, surface meaning lies its true spiritual meaning (i.e., the besieged king is really Jesus on Golgotha).

I opt for a typological reading. My sermon would somehow review the four obvious literary parallels that Psalm 22 and the crucifixion narratives share. This table summarizes them:

Table of Parallel Motifs

MotifPsalm 22Crucifixion Narratives
Main character: a kingImplied in verses 12, 16, 22Matthew 27:11, 29, 37; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32; Luke 23:3, 37, 38; John 19:3, 19, 21
Cry: “My God, my God …”verse 1Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34
Public mocking and ridiculeverses 7-8Matthew 27:28-31, 39-44; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-40
Gambling for his clothesverse 18Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24

In addition to these literary motifs, we also observe that both human figures are servants of God on uniquely intimate terms with their Master. Both figures play a unique role in God’s work in the world. And, both figures achieve great victories despite great hardship. To use a modern analogy to explain how Psalm 22 and the crucifixion narratives relate, my family once took our kids to see the Disney movie “Aladdin.” We loved it, but our older son, a real movie buff, laughed and hooted far more than I did. Later he explained why: he noticed how the movie weaved in motifs from other classic movies of the past.

Likewise, Psalm 22 offers an old classic movie, the crucifixion narratives a more recent one. People familiar with both easily sense the parallels between the two dramas since both portray analogous situations.

That’s why (and how) we can preach from Psalm 22 about Good Friday.

Digging Deeper

As I read and pondered, the psalm’s words and contents gripped me. I began to feel the speaker’s emotional crisis.

Phrases such as “abandoned,” “far from,” and “you do not answer,” (verses 1-2) voice the speaker’s incredible, excruciating relational alienation.

References to “womb,” “mother’s breast,” and “birth” (verses 9-10) attest to the tenderness of the relationship (which is now estranged), its life-long length, and how painful the breach feels.

Passionate pleas for a renewal of closeness (“Don’t keep your distance!” [verse 19]) and for rescue (verses 20-21) echo the agony of alienation.

Reference to the ancestors’ trust and experience (verses 4-5) bespeak the shock he’s suffering. Life with God isn’t supposed to be this way!

The mocking ridicule (verses 7-8), sarcasm (verse 8), and encircling enemies (verses 16-18) mean the speaker has no supportive human community.

Physiological symptoms (verses 14-15, 16b) mirror the crisis’ physical toll on him. He is totally exhausted.

The psalm’s first words, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 1), are Jesus’ final words (in Matthew and Mark). They mark the climax of those Gospel reports.

The bottom line: this person is totally alone. His usual communities — with God and with humans — are gone. The former is totally silent and keeps his distance; the latter surround him with threats and taunts.

Based on these observations, three possible themes to develop or include in a sermon emerge. I hear their echoes throughout the psalm. Homiletically, I might call them “faint, familiar echoes worth remembering.” Or, put differently: if the crucifixion narratives are a DVD, Psalm 22 provides the director’s commentary.

First, there is the total bill due for our sins. We experience alienation from God and from each other, desperate loneliness, and physical despair.

Second, there is the total bill paid for our sins. Into this category goes our incredible suffering and our undeserved public humiliation.  I might term it a “living death,” even a “living Hell.”
Third is the unbelievable depth of love for the world shown by the Father and the Son.

Lastly, there is one large irony. Psalm 22 ends with rescue and victory (verses 22-30) and the crucifixion narratives report that same theme three days later. God snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and effects salvation for humanity. Now, the mocking and ridicule sound foolish. The life surrendered becomes the life renewed. The true king still reigns, and the way is open for humans to conquer both sin and death.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Sharon H. Ringe

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

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.