Lectionary Commentaries for March 29, 2013
Commentary on John 18:1—19:42
Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12
One of the most famous poems of Second Isaiah, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, depicts a human being, a servant of God, at what seems to be the very lowest point of his life.
Suffering horribly, he is isolated from the rest of the world, which views him with horror and keeps its distance. Everything is not as it seems, however. There is more going on here than meets the eye. Throughout the poem, the prophet invites the audience to view the suffering servant from various angles, creating a poem with a deep tension, a tension built on the contrast between the way things seem to be and the way they truly are.
When it was first written, this poem was most likely intended to inspire the people in exile to see their suffering as meaningful and to assure them that their vindication was near. Throughout the centuries, it has been a powerful word of comfort to many who have suffered in very different circumstances. The scholarship on Isaiah 53 is immense and reflects the powerful impression this poem has made on so many people and communities. For the purposes of this commentary, just two example of the ways in which the poem has inspired will have to suffice.
Scholars have noted that innocent suffering of the servant in Isaiah 40-55 appears to have been a part of the inspiration for the book of Job.1 Early Christians sought to understand and explain the suffering of Jesus through the lens of the suffering of the servant. Just these two examples of the afterlife of Isaiah 53 point to the fact that the words and themes of this poem are not easily forgotten or overlooked. They are haunting. Forceful.
The poem begins with a call to “See…” thus inviting readers to observe the drama as it unfolds. This first section of the poem is spoken by none other than God, who sets the stage for us, describing the upcoming exaltation of an individual called “my servant.” Isaiah uses the expression “my servant” to describe the people of Judah throughout Isaiah 40-55 (see last week’s Old Testament commentary for a more in-depth discussion of this designation for the people), and this phrase was a powerful reminder to the people in exile that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, they belonged to God. They were servants of God, not Babylon. “My servant” connotes a divine purpose, points to a human being worthy of note, and God’s call in the opening verses of this poem to look at “my servant” leaves no room for readers to doubt the dignity and divine purpose of his life.
The appearance of the servant, however, plays with our expectations. While 52:13 suggests that we are about to witness the exaltation of a servant of God who has done well, verses 14-15 describe the physical appearance of the servant as almost sub-human, unworthy of note: “marred, beyond human semblance.” No one — not even the kings of the nations (52:15) — could have anticipated his exaltation, which leads us as readers to ask the same question with which the next part of the poem begins: “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Already the audience is drawn in, compelled to look closer.
This part of the poem provides another perspective on the servant, the perspective of a first person plural: “we.” The identity of this group is unclear. Scholars have suggested the astonished nations and kings of 52:15 are speaking here, and this interpretation makes sense because the sentiments expressed in 53:1-3 are clearly connected with 52:15. It would be a mistake, however, to spend too much time on the issue of identity. The more interesting point is that the group speaking is a group of bystanders.
They are not, as far as they know, involved in the action. Watching from a safe distance, they marvel that God’s might is revealed in this inconsequential human being (verses 2-3). At this point in the poem, the servant stands alone, surrounded by these onlookers, but still isolated from them. The striking dichotomy between his appearance and his true identity is a source of wonder to them, but they are detached from him until the next movement of the poem delivers the most surprising insight into the servant so far.
Verse 4 begins: “Surely, he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…” and the relationship between the group of onlookers and the servant is utterly transformed. They entered the poem as a group of bystanders, but they are bystanders no more. They are bound up with the servant. Their fates depend upon his actions. Even as their description of his physical appearance grows more tortured — “wounded,” “crushed,” and covered in “bruises” (verse 5) — their awareness of his hidden strength and noble purpose grows. He has silently and willingly taken on all of this suffering on their behalf! Indeed, he is marred because he bears the very worst of them: their diseases, their sins! All that was unsightly about him belonged to them, and his disfigurement is part of a larger plan to make them whole. Now they can truly see him, and, in seeing him, they see themselves.
This is a powerful moment in the poem and, I would argue, it is a moment that is often misinterpreted when we try and place it within a theory of atonement. The poetry here is dense with allusion, sound play, and word play. It is richly suggestive and meaningful, but it is not interested in answering the hows and whys of vicarious suffering. It is interested in doing something to the reader. To the community in exile, it was attempting to transform their understanding of their calling in the world, to see their suffering as purposeful with the promise of survival and recognition at the end.
In the Christian tradition, we read this text on Good Friday, and I wonder what purpose it has there. What is this living word trying to do to us? I think it is very important when preaching this text to help our congregations see themselves as the bystanders of this poem, to find themselves struck by the awareness that all of this suffering is what “we” brought on another human being and to be amazed that Jesus willingly took on himself all of this suffering on our behalf.
The next step is to talk about the wide range of responses we might have to this moment of truth. We might be moved to gratitude for the sacrifice of Christ, which might be a good start, but it is only a start. Because to sit, transfixed, at the sight of someone suffering — whether on our behalf or not — is to remain bystanders. This poem demands that we do more than watch. If the servant of God is there in all of that suffering, then that is where we are supposed to be. Where anyone is suffering, that is where we are supposed to be.
1See, for example, Marvin H. Pope, Job, Anchor Bible Commentaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).
Commentary on Psalm 22
Psalm 22 has been described rather glibly as “the fifth passion narrative” for the imagery it has contributed to the evangelists’ depictions of the closing events of Good Friday.
While this description does wrench the psalm out of its original context and ignore the plight of the psalmist who is seriously ill and either abandoned by all or imprisoned, one cannot hear this poignant psalm, in a church, on Good Friday, and not be reminded of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels. This is due to the following, generally agreed upon allusions:
- Jesus’ cry of dereliction quoting the opening words of the psalm (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 in Aramaic)
- the derisive wagging of heads (verse 7 in Mark 15:29; Matthew 27:39)
- the sarcastic mocking of Jesus’ trust in God (verse 8 in Matthew 27:43)
- the division of Jesus’ garment (verse 18 in Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24)
- the allusions to thirst (verse 15 in John 19:28) and the conclusion, “he has done it” (verse 31 in John 19:30 “it is finished”)
At a basic structural level, the psalm juxtaposes a lament (verses 1-21, framed by “you do not answer” in verse 2 and “you have answered me” [NRSV “rescued,” but see the margin] in verse 21) and a thanksgiving (verses 22-31, framed by “I will tell” in verse 22 and “proclaim” in verse 31). James Luther Mays suggests that this lament “moves through two cycles (verses 1-11 and 12-19), each concluding in the petition, ‘be not far’ (verses 11, 19).”1
In addition, each cycle consists of two laments (verses 1-2, 6-8; and 12-15, 16-18, respectively) each followed by assertions of confidence in God (verses 3-5, 9-10); or descriptions of approaching death (verses 14-15, 17-18). The thanksgiving falls into two sections as well: the pray-er’s response in a hymn of praise (verses 22-26) and a (perhaps later) expansion of that individual’s praise to the nations and even the “ends of the earth” (verses 27-31).
I would suggest dwelling on the lament in the sermon. Here the psalmist shares his pain as an innocent sufferer who neither confesses sin nor lashes out at enemies, choosing to relate how suffering has rendered him subhuman, a worm beset by bulls, dogs, lions, and wild oxen (verses 6, 12-13, 16, 20-21). Various parts of his body testify to the lethal effects of his suffering as his disjointed skeleton, with heart melted like wax, is poured out like water; desiccated mouth, parched tongue, and all (verses 14-15). He is mocked and ridiculed by those who see him and who, like Job’s three “friends,” are convinced that his plight is indicative of grievous sin (verses 6-8).
As Mays has shown, alternating with these complaints are assertions of the psalmist’s trust in God. While both regularly appear in biblical laments, the alternation seen here is unusual, especially considering the curious absence of divine response. It’s as if the psalmist were saying, “Why have you abandoned me? . . . when our ancestors trusted you, you delivered them!” In fact, variations on “our ancestors trusted you” appear three times in verses 4-5. What’s the real problem here?
Carroll Stuhlmueller has stressed the importance of the three-fold inclusion in verses 1-2 and 19-21 for a proper appreciation of the lament.2
- In verse 1 God is “far from” the psalmist and far from “saving” (NRSV: “helping”) him. In verse 2 the psalmist complains “you do not answer.”
- At the end of the lament the psalmist prays that Yahweh “not be far away” (v. 19) and calls upon him to “save me” (v. 21); and this time the psalmist exclaims, “you have answered me!” (v. 21, again, NRSV has “rescued me”).
Since “Do not be far from me” also appears at the end of verse 11, its structural significance seems assured and suggests the following concentric arrangement:
A Lament: ‘You don’t answer’ verses 1-8
B Plea: ‘Do not be far from me’ verses 9-11
X Description of Situation verses 12-18
B’ Plea: ‘Do not be far from me’ verses 19-21
A’ Praise: ‘You have answered me!’ verses 22-31
“The key dilemma, then,” to quote Stuhlmueller, “is the absent, silent, deaf God!”3 The movement in the lament is from a deaf, unresponsive God in verses 1-8 to the answering God of verses 19-21. We can only admire the resolute faith expressed by the psalmist in the midst of his suffering, a suffering made almost unbearable by God’s perceived absence, or worse, lack of response. No wonder exuberant praise begins immediately following the assurance that God has answered.
This is a difficult word to preach. Only the dreadful Psalm 88 broaches the appalling notion of unanswered prayer and God’s absence more directly. Perhaps this is why the Church has always used this agonizing psalm in its attempts to understand the profound mystery of the cross. By taking upon himself the unbearable burden of our sin, Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, experienced the equally unbearable burden of absolute isolation from God, thereby bringing reconciliation and restoring our relationship. As Paul so aptly says, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
If one has decided to concentrate on the poignant lament, or prayer for help found in verses 1-21 in the sermon for Good Friday (and speaking from experience, this can be a most rewarding approach), then one has the delightful option of preaching on the magnificent song of praise in verses 22-31 on Easter Sunday, thereby matching the differing moods of the text, so characteristic of this psalm, to the differing worship moods of the congregation.
1J. L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 107.
2C. Stuhlmueller, “Psalm 22: The Deaf and Silent God of Mysticism and Liturgy,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1982): 86-90.
Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25
Admittedly, the narrative of the Gospel for this day is so compelling, with its familiar biblical personages and themes of suffering, and human intrigue that parishioners generally expect a sermon on the Gospel (especially if that has been the liturgical and parish custom).
This Epistle text, however offers rich theological possibilities to proclaim Good Friday so that the listeners will not feel that somehow they have biblically “missed” Good Friday.
The preacher might want to consider answering the following question to guide sermon preparation if the Epistle is preached: On this Good Friday, what might this Epistle text inform us about the multiple meanings of Jesus’ death?
In proclaiming the divine reasons for the cross, many details in this Epistle text can offer a sermonic direction for Good Friday. Behind the details are many varied expressions of Christ’s presence and work and God’s divine desire, through Jesus Christ, to offer salvation to a needy humanity.
The Pericope’s Overall Structural and Theological Concerns
Through studying the pericope’s overall structure, list of topics and theological context, several questions arise, like what is the nature of the biblical book entitled “The Letter to the Hebrews?” Who wrote this letter and to whom? These questions have many possible historical, theological, structural and authorship answers. There is little agreement on these issues academically. Many choose Paul as the author of this work, but some of the wording and images used in it are at odds with Paul’s own theology and other writings.
Before preaching this text, it would be prudent to read all of chapter 10 as well as the entire book of Hebrews in order to contextualize this Epistle reading within the whole book. This section of Hebrews (and the entire book) is deeply imbued with Old Testament references: implied typologies and historical references to Jewish worship practices and theological issues.
For example, the Epistle text signals its links with the Old Testament by referring to such topics as “sanctuary” (verse 19), “a great high priest over the house of God” (verse 21) and “covenant” (verse 15). Two immediate homiletical questions posed by these words are how each term is understood in the passage and the shared theological links among their meanings. Other questions preachers should consider with all these terms are how much time can be devoted to defining them in the sermon and, furthermore, how the use of these terms in the text situates Jesus within the broad scope of Israel’s salvation history.
This text should further signal to the preacher that there are critical concerns bordering this text, including the relationship between Jesus and the contents of the Old Testament, and the relationship of the New Testament to Judaism today. The preacher will need to consider how to avoid preaching anything that implies anti-Judaism and, by extension, anti-Semitism.
While it is useful to know the structural background of this text, care should be taken to formulate a sermon structure reflecting the text structure but not in such a way as to focus on sermonic form to the exclusion of a primary focus on the content. Given the entire book of Hebrews with its sophisticated forms of argumentation, preachers should devote some preliminary research time to studying the rhetorical and theological import of these textual forms.
This letter offers a sacrificial Christology through the use of historical, Hebraic argumentative structures. To get a grasp of the writer’s use of these sometimes complicated structures, it is wise to consult commentaries on Hebrews that specifically address this central and critical literary feature of the letter.
Crafting the Sermon
Any sermon preparation should be founded on the central intention of the Letter to the Hebrews: an extended doctrine of the atonement. This Epistle passage is part of a book-long Christology. The heart of any Christology includes some discussion of Christology’s central reality: the atonement. That is, what does Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross mean for sinful humanity? It is important to regard textual details as preparing listeners to hear the contours of a clear Good Friday Christology based on the Epistle.
How does Jesus’ humanity and divinity affect the way we think of the Cross? How will the sermon on Good Friday address both the larger framework of Christology and its core of atonement? Which of the Epistle’s details relate to elements of the atonement?
Whatever the preacher’s perspective on atonement, in these Epistle verses, they will generally depend on the preacher’s denominational background, which may or may not contain traditional theological materials reflecting Good Friday themes.
There are many doctrines of the atonement available for study and the preacher may well seek these out in the work of sermon preparation. In preaching this text, consider which doctrine of the atonement is being preached and which elements of other doctrines might be helpful to the congregation.
A sermon on the Epistle could discuss varying views of Jesus and the meanings of his death on the cross. This Epistle identifies some of these topics that the traditional Gospel text does not. As a result, this affords the preacher new ways to proclaim the Cross event. For example, this text alludes to the different aspects of God’s work in the salvation of humanity and how the community of believers can respond to those (10:23-25). There is also reference to judgment language in this passage (10:16-18) which needs to be addressed in relationship to the meanings of atonement and the Good Friday cross as well.
One major linguistic feature of this text, which can be used to frame a sermon in a variety of ways, is the language of promise. The passage contains many statements of such on the part of God for the salvation of humanity: “All is not lost!” This passage testifies in the spirit of Good Friday that our salvation is in Christ.
Who has power? In the world, there are many claims to power and illusions of power.
John crafts the passion narrative so that the reader may come to see the power of God in a man executed as a criminal by the Roman state.
Jesus’ power is portrayed in part through his control over the events of his death. He exhibits divine knowledge and control over all the events of his passion. In Jesus’ arrest, his divine power is fully visible. Identifying himself as the one the soldiers seek, Jesus declares “I am” (18:5, 6, 8; ego eimi, NRSV “I am he”), a shortened version of the name of God “I am who I am” (cf. Exodus 4:14). The soldiers step back and fall to the ground, an appropriate response to a revelation of the divine, but one that is wholly inappropriate in the context of the arrest scene. Jesus’ divine power is clearly manifest, yet he does not intervene to alter the course of events.
We see Jesus’ acceptance of and control over events in comparing John with the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels all record Jesus’ request that this cup pass from him (Mark 14:36; Matt 26:39; Luke 22:42). Yet John’s Jesus poses a question: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (18:11). The answer is meant to be obvious. Jesus intends to fulfill the task for which he has been sent. Jesus also carries his cross by himself (19:17), a contrast to the Synoptics, where Simon of Cyrene carries the cross (Matt 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26).
Most scholars agree that John did not know or use the other Gospels in composing his own, and the point is not to assert that one Gospel is right or wrong, or to speculate about the composition history of the Gospels. Instead, these details set in relief the way John crafts his story to shape the character of Jesus. He is fully in control, even in these events of his execution.
Jesus’ interactions in the trial narrative also underscore his power. He responds to questions from powerful people by asking them questions in turn: “Why do you ask me?” and “Do you ask this on your own?” (18:20-21, 34). Similarly, Jesus declares that Pilate would have no power over him unless it were given from above (19:10). The conversation calls into question the knowledge and power of the worldly authorities Jesus confronts.
One final detail peculiar to John underscores Jesus’ ultimate control over the events of his death. The Greek paradidomi (to betray or hand over) appears frequently in this narrative. It describes Judas’s betrayal of Jesus (18:2, 5). Jesus is then handed over to Pilate (18:35). Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified (19:16). But in the end, Jesus “hands over” his spirit (19:30). Jesus’ control is not meant to lessen the responsibilities of each party to his death, but reminds the reader that Jesus is not simply an unwitting victim of an unjust trial. He seeks to “drink the cup that the Father has given” him.
Throughout the narrative, John encourages the reader to think through the significance of Jesus’ death using the metaphor of kingship. From the beginning the trial before Pilate centers on the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33). Pilate and the Jewish leaders engage in an elaborate political exchange, in which Pilate taunts the Jews with the image of Jesus their captured “king,” and the Jews take up Pilate’s claim as a tactic by which to have Jesus killed for “setting himself against the emperor” (cf. 19:12).
Two important things emerge from John’s use of the metaphor of Jesus as king. The first is that Jesus’ crucifixion corresponds to his enthronement as king. Pilate inscribes a title above the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). A similar inscription is found in all four Gospels (cf. Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38), but John expands the narrative at this point. The inscription is written in three languages and posted where many see it.
In this sense, it shares the form of other declaration by the ruling powers. When the chief priests protest, Pilate’s response adds a tone of formal proclamation: “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22). Through John’s description, the reader sees the reality of Jesus’ kingship even in the moment of his crucifixion, and even as others deny it.
The second important element of Jesus’ kingship is intertwined with the Passover metaphor. As Jesus’ “hour” approaches, the narrator repeatedly reminds the reader that the Passover festival approaches as well. In the Synoptics, the day of preparation for the Passover (the day on which the Passover meal is prepared and eaten) is on Thursday. Jesus last meal with his disciples is a Passover meal (see Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23).
John’s chronology is different. He aligns the moment of Jesus’ condemnation with the arrival of Passover. At the climax of Jesus’ trial, John writes, “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.” (19:14). A slightly later source indicates that noon was the time that the Passover offerings began to be slaughtered in the temple in preparation for the Passover meal. John carefully brings Jesus’ death in line with that of the Passover offering.
The climax of the Jews’ argument with Pilate over Jesus’ kingship also occurs at this moment. Pilate presents Jesus as their king (19:14), but the people cry out for his condemnation. “Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’” (19:15). Passover is, in part, a time of remembrance of God’s kingship. God vanquished the Pharaoh of Egypt in a show of power. At the moment the Passover begins, John has the Jewish leaders speaking blasphemy. Instead of proclaiming their allegiance to God, they declare: “We have no king but Caesar.”
John’s irony runs deep here, but it is not meant as a wholesale criticism of Judaism, and Christian interpreters should take care to avoid the all-too-common slander and stereotypes of “the Jews” on Good Friday. John agrees with the central tenets of Judaism that God is king, and that to say otherwise runs against Jewish law. He crafts the story in such a way that the reader may see how the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus’ kingship amounts to a rejection of God.