Lectionary Commentaries for April 22, 2011
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

David Lose

The irony inherent in the name given to this day — Good Friday — is palpable throughout John’s account of Jesus’ Passion.

Though no death of an innocent should be considered “good,” yet through the obedience of the beloved son, even to the point of death, God redeems humanity. While reading the whole of this lengthy passage with appropriate breaks for prayer, song, and meditation may be the best way to “preach” it, I will point those preachers who want to say a little more to what I would describe as the revelatory irony in several passages of John’s narrative.

I Am (He)

John’s Jesus is strikingly different than the one portrayed by his sibling evangelists, and nowhere is this more striking than in the garden. He is not afraid, nor does he pray for relief. This is the mission and destiny for which he has been born and so when Peter seeks to defend him by the sword, Jesus’ question is almost the opposite of the prayer recorded by Mark, Matthew and Luke. In John’s account, Jesus could not imagine saying, “if it be your will, remove this cup from me.” Rather, he boldly asks, “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?” Or, in other words, “Bring it on.”

And they do. It is not just a few guards or temple police that come for Jesus, but an entire Roman cohort of 480 soldiers. And when they answer Jesus’ bold question, “Who are you looking for?” Jesus replies with the Greek form of the divine name, “I Am.” (We supply the “he” to make the sentence function grammatically.) In this declaration, Jesus is revealing an essential element of his identity — that he and the God of Israel are one. Little wonder, then, that at this pronouncement, the whole cohort is thrown to the ground. Though they have come to arrest Jesus with weapons they are powerless in his presence and, indeed and ironically, fall prostrate as if in worship. Jesus, it is clear, gives himself up by his own choice, just as he said we would back in John 10 — “I lay down my life — no one takes it from me — and I will take it up again” (John 10:17-18).

What Is Truth

Pilate is not a neutral figure in John. He asserts his authority over and against both Jesus and the religious authorities who accuse him by assigning Jesus the title “King of the Jews.” Only Caesar, after all, can crown a “king of the Jews,” reminding the religious authorities of who really exercises power in this affair. At the same time, he bends to their will and agrees to have Jesus crucified even as he declares Jesus’ innocence. Pilate is a complicated figure, trapped by forces larger than he can imagine. He sardonically — or is it wistfully? — asks, “What is truth?”  in order to avoid the political gambit that has been laid in front of him.

Ironically, he is standing in the presence of truth embodied when he asks this question, and it is only because he lacks the courage to see and acknowledge this truth that he is doomed to ill-fated political machinations as he tries, and fails, to sit the fence. What is truth? That Jesus is, indeed, the king of the Jews and all the world, the one through whom God exercises a rule of “grace upon grace” (1:16) and in this way defeats not just the power of Caesar but of death itself.


Jesus needs no help carrying his cross in John’s gospel. He knows this is the time where he will “draw all people to himself” (12:32). All that he does is therefore done in order to fulfill Scripture. Throughout John’s passion, the cross is not Jesus’ moment of humiliation, but rather of his glory. He reigns from the cross, issuing, for instance, an executive order that creates the first Christian family by uniting his mother to the disciple he loved. (This is a family born not of blood of the will of the flesh but from God (1:13), the first of a new humanity united in Christ.) Finally, near the end of the scene, when Jesus has fulfilled all that is required, he cries in victory, “It is finished.” Or, to borrow the common parlance, “mission accomplished.”

The great irony of John’s passion is that in Jesus we see God’s strength, majesty, and might revealed amid the pain and humiliation of crucifixion. While there is tremendous value in the more “human” portrayal of Jesus in Mark or the more compassionate Jesus in Luke, John’s depiction of the Passion of our Lord reminds us that, ultimately, Jesus is Lord. Through him God overcomes any and all obstacles — including death — in order to redeem and restore us. When we feel most vulnerable, most broken, most hopeless, it may be that John’s picture of Jesus will remind us of the promise that just as Jesus not simply survived but also conquered through his suffering and death, so also will we prevail, brought to abundant life through the sacrifice and triumph of the Good Shepherd.

A Note on Anti-Jewish Elements in John

When we listen to the passion according to John it is difficult not to wince at some of the references John makes to “the Jews” and to his characterization of Jews more generally. Some explanation of the circumstances of John’s gospel — written from and for a community suffering persecution and expulsion from the synagogue — is probably in order. It must be stressed, however, that what may have been understandable, if also regrettable, polemic in the first-century has had disastrous effects ever since, and Christians must therefore be the first to defend our Jewish brothers and sisters then or now against the charge that they crucified Christ.

For more on this, see Matt Skinner’s article on Working Preacher as well as the sources he cites.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Terence E. Fretheim

This “servant song” (with 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9) has been the subject of much scholarly debate.

The suffering servant has been linked to Jesus since NT times, though direct references are uncommon (e.g., Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; I Peter 2:22) and the text refers primarily to past events. One interpretation among Jewish readers (and others) has been corporate (supported by Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 48:20; 49:3), having reference to the hardships that Israel as a people (or remnant thereof) have endured and the redemptive effect. The apostle Paul uses these texts to refer to himself and his mission (Galatians 1:15; 2:2; 4:11; Romans 10:16; 15:21; Acts 13:47) and I Peter 2:21-25 commends the servant’s way to the Christian. Christians discern special connections to Jesus Christ, but the servant’s characteristics are open-ended enough to enable links to both individuals and communities that have suffered through the centuries.

The servant stands in the prophetic tradition (Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). Their suffering is viewed in many texts in vocational terms, willingly taken up for the sake of the many, which is recognized by God as effective for new life in the world. In the servant songs, the suffering of the prophet is raised to a new key.

The main body of this text is 53:1-9, a confession by a community (note the “we”), probably Israel, on the suffering of the servant and their role therein. This is set within a framework of two speeches by God that honor the servant:  52:13-15; 53:10-12. 

52:13-15 — God promises the ultimate exaltation of “my servant” before nations and kings. He has been cruelly disfigured and others look at him in numbed astonishment. The startled nations will finally see the significance of the servant and what he has done (see 49:7). 

53:1-3 — To paraphrase verse 1:  who would have believed that the arm (= power) of God would be revealed in such a suffering one? Suffering is God’s chief way of being powerful in the world! The speakers (“we”) concede that his origins are unremarkable, like a plant struggling for survival in an arid land. His appearance is like that of a leper; he suffers rejection by his own community; he is nothing to “write home about” (cf. Israel in Ezekiel 16:1-7). Pain and loneliness are his lot (cf. Job 19:13-19). The range of the suffering at the hands of others is amazing: despised, rejected, sorrowful, sick, assaulted, considered insignificant; verses 4-7 continue: afflicted, wounded, crushed, bruised, chastised, oppressed, unjustly accused.

53:4-9 — The speakers (like Job’s friends) thought he had been punished by God for something he did, when in fact they had caused his suffering. Remarkably, this suffering ends up making atonement for the very sins that produced it. The common Christian interpretation of his suffering as substitutionary is possible, but not likely. Sins “laid on him” (53:6) recall the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:20-22); the goat is not a substitute, but “bears on itself all their iniquities to a barren region.”On Israel’s behalf, the servant is “cut off from the land of the living” (53:8), “bearing their iniquities” (53:11), and “carrying the sin of many” (53:12). Like sheep the people have gone astray, but like the goat of Atonement Day, the lamb/servant bears their sins away into the wilderness, silently (see 42:2)

The “we” ceases at verse 7 and is replaced by a 3rd person account. The servant’s persecution and the false judgments of his work lead to death and the grave. He was sent to establish justice (42:4) and suffers a “perversion of justice” and, with the RSV, “Who gave [him] any regard?” (53:8). Moreover, he is given a dishonorable burial. The “tomb with the rich” may refer to wealth gained at the expense of others. 

53:10-12 — The text ends on a note of promise; death does not have the last word. The servant will come to know what God has accomplished through him. The servant takes the sin into himself, “bearing their iniquities,” making many righteous. This is like the role of God in Isaiah 43:24-25, where the word translated “burden” comes from the same root as “servant.” What God does in Isaiah 43:24-25–bearing human sin, which leads to the unilateral declaration of forgiveness–is what the servant does in Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 43:24 God plays the role that the servant here assumes. In some sense, the servant is understood as an enfleshment of God and the effects of the servant’s work are spoken in terms that are normally ascribed to God (note the Spirit placed “upon” the servant in 42:1). But, even more, the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence; in and through the servant’s suffering, God suffers what is necessary to overcome the forces of evil.

What the servant has done is understood to be the will of God (53:10). That is, his sufferings are taken up and given a vocational understanding–suffering on behalf of others (cf. Mother Theresa). The phrase, “take up the cross,” must refer only to the sufferings that could be avoided (not all suffering should be so understood!). The servant’s “offspring” are those who follow his example and carry on his way of being for others in the world (see I Peter 2:21).

One haunting question: Why is suffering given such a prominent place in the divine economy for both OT and NT? Why do God, the suffering servant, and Jesus, the righteous one, suffer so?  We may be helped by noting how the passion story draws especially on Psalms of lament (22, 31, 34, 35, 69) to express the plight of the righteous sufferer. These psalms and the servant songs (and other texts with suffering servant themes, such as Job and Jeremiah) show that it is nothing new or unusual for faithful followers of God to suffer. This is the shape of life needed to rid the world of suffering. Jesus stands in a long tradition of righteous ones, whose mission on behalf of life is carried forward in and through suffering. His followers are called to give a suffering shape to their daily lives for the sake of the life of others (I Peter 2:21).


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

Sandra Hack Polaski

The book of Hebrews is often seen, not without reason, as one of the New Testament’s most difficult texts.

Students who have mastered much of New Testament Greek run aground on its rocky stylistic shoals. Its imagery may seem illogical — how can Jesus be both sacrifice and High Priest? And many Christian preachers find it hard to proclaim the messages of Hebrews without lapsing into supercessionism. Why, on Good Friday of all days, should we even attempt to make sense of what Hebrews has to say? Yet today’s lectionary text reflects on the central theme of the day in ways that help us think differently about the meaning of Christ’s sacrificial death.

While most commentators see a major section break between verses 18 and 19 (signaled by the “therefore” at the beginning of verse 19), the lectionary passage includes verses 16 through 18, thereby incorporating the quotation of Jeremiah 31 that is cited more fully in Hebrews 8:10-12. The theme of the “new covenant” was popular with early Christians who understood their scriptures to be fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Here, as often, the emphasis is on the interior nature of the covenant, laws placed in the hearts of believers and written on their minds. Omitting the middle section of the quotation brings the first and last pieces into a neat parallel: when God has written the law in believers’ minds, that they might remember it forever, then God will no longer remember their lawless and sinful deeds.

The previous section of Hebrews has developed a detailed argument based on the notion of Christ as the true and eternally effective sacrifice, and this is the image to which this passage returns. Those of us unaccustomed to sacrifice as a part of worship practice may be somewhat put off by references to Jesus’ “blood” and “flesh” as effecting access to God. Yet it is self-evident to the author of Hebrews, steeped in the sacrificial tradition of the Hebrew Bible, that any act that makes divine forgiveness of sin possible must necessarily entail the shedding of blood. As the previous section of Hebrews argues, Jesus’ shed blood means that no further cultic sacrificial practices are necessary. The blood sacrifice of Christ is perfect and permanently effective.

What is likely to prove more interesting to us about this passage is what the author claims Jesus’ sacrifice means to us. The Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) tradition of the high priest entering the holiest part of the sanctuary only once a year, and only after the most careful preparation, makes the “confidence” with which believers enter into the “sanctuary” an almost comic bravado. Who would dare do such a thing–except that the Christ event has changed everything?! This “confidence” also suggests boldness even in the face of opposition, a sense likely not lost on the first readers, who lived under the threat of persecution for their faith.

Most readers familiar with the Synoptic Gospels will likely read the reference to the “opened curtain” and “his flesh” as an allusion to the tradition of the Temple curtain being torn at Jesus’ death (cf. Matthew 27:51). Yet scholars suggest that this particular tradition may not have been known to the author of Hebrews. Rather, the reference to Jesus’ “flesh” in opening the curtain may emphasize that Christ did not provide believers access to God by some heavenly journey or spiritual act, but by the obedience that brought his physical body to its painful and humiliating death (as Philippians 2:8 says, “even death on a cross”). In the situation of persecution which the first readers of Hebrews faced, their discipleship might come to entail the same sort of physical suffering. For us, the reminder is that neither Jesus’ obedience nor ours is something that involves just our spiritual being. Our entire selves — physical, mental, spiritual, emotional–are involved in our Christian existence.

In certain ways, then, this text is a variation on the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, transposed, as it were, into a different key. In contrast to the likely Gnostic beliefs of the writer’s opponents, who would have insisted that Christ’s spiritual being transcended his earthly, material body, the author insists that it is through Christ’s body — his broken flesh, his shed blood–that believers have access to the “new and living way” (verse 20). His sacrifice makes possible his exaltation to the “high priest[hood] over the house of God” (verse 21) and our participation in the house of God.

Christ’s sacrifice enables believers to have a “true heart” (cf. Isaiah 38:3) and to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and love, mentioned in verses 22, 23, and 24 successively. There is no reason to suppose that these virtues, mentioned in this order, are an allusion to Paul’s discussion of love in 1 Corinthians 13, although it is entirely possible that both stem from a very early Christian liturgical use of the triad. In any case, Hebrews understands these three to be intimately intertwined. Faith, the author will say in chapter 11, entails hope; love is the outward working of both.

Although the book of Hebrews rarely speaks in positive terms either of the physical body or of religious ritual, both come in for commendation in this passage. Just as Christ reaches his exaltation through his physical sacrifice, we approach God in our physical bodies, “washed” in the ritual of baptism. Moreover, while we do not engage in the ineffective ritual of repeated sacrifice, we are not therefore free to “do our own thing” religiously, to make our faith practice whatever we want it to be. Rather, the regular practice of corporate worship remains important, not only to engage in ritual but also to “encourag[e] one another” (verse 25). Hebrews is not particularly concerned with details of the Parousia, although the fact that God will one day bring about the End is an important part of the Christian confession. More important is the real, physical faith community, the locus of the faith, hope, and love that are products of the Christian life, made available to us through Jesus’ sacrifice.