The Gospels’ passion narratives press us to consider multiple realities regarding Jesus’ prosecution and death
These three currents flow as a single stream. The Gospels and Acts show no interest in trying to parse the relationship between divine will and human activity, at least not with the precision that would satisfy our philosophical questions. The mixture of realities proclaims that Jesus’ execution was the result of willful opposition and tragic ignorance, and yet this ugly death was somehow totally understandable and even purposeful.
(This seems as good a place as any to mention that I’ve just published a book–titled The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament–which explores Jesus’ trial in the Gospels and the trials of Peter, Paul, and others in Acts. What I have to say here about Luke’s passion narrative is developed in greater detail in chapter 5 of the book.)
The Passion in Luke: A Contest of Wills
Luke’s passion narrative frustrates many interpreters. The crucifixion lacks the raw agony of Mark’s and Matthew’s versions, and there isn’t the clearly scripted theological emphasis like John’s. Elements of the Lukan trial scenes are bewildering, for it isn’t clear what motivates Pilate, Herod Antipas, and “the people” (whom Pilate summons for the first time in 23:13) to act as they do.
In many ways, it’s a story about whose “will” or intentions will hold sway, and how.
It’s a story that insists that, at the end, God’s will is accomplished. Moreover, this will is accomplished by manipulating other powers and the structures of human society. No matter how corrupt or bent on self-preservation those forces are, God’s will nevertheless perseveres.
Luke offers a political drama in which truth and justice are overwhelmed by the will of those who reject Jesus and by the will of a governor bent on exploiting Jesus for political gain.
But Pilate cannot fully control the venue that he is supposedly empowered to control. When the story is done, neither the imperial machinery nor the temple establishment are the agents who ultimately manage (or thwart) justice, at least not in Jesus’ case. Nor, really, are the strangely fickle “people.”
And so, Luke also offers a theological drama in which God’s will accomplishes itself through the course of human misperception and political maneuvering. In the strange coexistence of these two dramas, Luke declares that God’s salvation actualizes itself even within the apparatuses of opposition.
The Passion Narrative, God’s Will, and Preaching
Although it is the heart of the Christian story, the passion narrative is not the totality of that story. Luke’s account of Jesus’ demise compels preachers to consider the passion in light of God’s wide-ranging design for the world’s salvation.
For Luke, the passion is the pinnacle of the inevitable rejection of God’s specially anointed prophet. It is also the route that this Messiah must take toward his eventual glorification.
Jesus’ rejection is messy. The participants exhibit behavior that is both familiar and improbable, highlighting the misperception and fear behind it.
By asserting that God accomplished God’s design through Jesus’ passion, even through the messy power struggles waged among those human beings who brought about Jesus’ death, Luke hardly fixes everything or makes the passion palatable.
God cares too much about the work of saving the world to leave it in our hands. Salvation required God’s incursion into all aspects of our existence. It still does.
The first reading for this week is the third of Second Isaiah’s four Suffering Servant Songs.
The Song itself falls naturally into four strophes, each of which is introduced by the refrain “The Lord GOD (verses 4, 5, 7, 9):
A The Lord GOD has given (perfect) me the tongue of a disciple (verse 4) Result: preaching consolation
B The Lord GOD has opened (perfect) my ear (verses 5-6) Result: suffering a did not hide face b disgrace
B’ The Lord GOD will help (imperfect) me (verses 7-8) Result: vindication b’ no disgrace a’ set face like flint
A’ The Lord GOD will help (imperfect) me (verse 9) Result: no one can declare me guilty
The first two strophes A (verse 4) and B (verses 5-6) are further characterized by past tense (perfect) verbs describing what the Lord God has done, namely, given the servant the tongue and ear of a disciple. In contrast to this, the last two strophes B’ (verses 7-8) and A’ (verse 9) are characterized by future tense (imperfect) verbs describing what the Lord God will do; in both cases God will help him. All four strophes conclude with the results of God’s activity. The two middle strophes are further linked by their repetition of “disgrace (NRSV: “insult”) and “face” as the servant describes the vindication of his suffering. An exhortation identifying the speaker as the “servant” closes the song (verses 10-11) as indicated by the setuma before verse 4 and the petucha following verse 11, though the lectionary, as usual, leaves the rather negative sentiments contained in verses 9b-11 unheard.
The first strophe begins with the servant declaring that “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a disciple” (limmudim), not the tongue of a “teacher” as conjectured by the NRSV. That is, he has been equipped by God for the prophetic office. The purpose of his calling is that he “may know how to sustain the weary with a word,” that he may console those who are suffering under the burdens of life. He has received this “tongue of a disciple” because every morning the Lord God wakens his ear to listen as a disciple (in Hebrew, the same word as above).
In the second strophe the servant describes what has happened to him as a result of his acceptance of this call and his unwillingness to shrink from the burdens that call entailed. He suffered the physical hostility of being scourged and the ultimate ancient near eastern humiliation of having his beard plucked out and being spit upon, as well as the mental anguish and disgrace that accompanied such abuse.
The third strophe describes a reversal signaled by the change from past tense verbs descriptive of God’s activity to future tense verbs. Despite the disgrace and humiliation the servant experiences, he goes on to declare his unwavering trust in and reliance upon God. He is convinced that the God who called him to this disagreeable office is with him in the midst of his suffering: “he who vindicates me is near,” he cries out in verse 8, and this confidence results in the strength he needs to courageously bear the disgrace and humiliation he has encountered, knowing that in the end he will be vindicated.
In the final strophe, he reaffirms that the Lord God will help him and he challenges his adversaries to a trial, let those who judge him so harshly now dare to face him in the court of heaven where the Lord God will stand beside him as advocate. The outcome is not in doubt, his cause will be vindicated and his adversaries will perish, deprived of victory and like a garment that falls apart to rags or is consumed by moths.
Following the Song itself, Second Isaiah has added a concluding exhortation addressed to those in the community who are now suffering themselves (verses 10-11). This is notoriously difficult to translate as a glance at various modern versions will show. NRSV and RSV place a question mark at the end of verse 10. Other translations place the question mark in the middle of the verse after “obeys/listens to his servant.” Recent commentaries often opt for no question mark at all! If the majority of modern translations are correct in placing a question mark in the middle of verse 10 it becomes clear that four synonymous terms for faith (“fears,” “obeys,” “trusts,” and “relies on,”) frame a central description of “those who walk in darkness and have no light.”
“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys his servant?” Second Isaiah asks. Answer: “Those who walk in darkness and have no light,” those who suffer persecution. And all because despite their suffering and affliction they “trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon their God,” and they will be vindicated.
Powerful as this message is this week, Christians must read and hear these words the way the church has always read and heard them: as descriptive of the suffering experienced by Jesus in his life-giving passion and death. Just as the servant was persecuted for his faithful obedience to God, maintaining that faithful obedience to the end, so Jesus was persecuted for his message, remaining obedient unto death, “even to death on a cross” as Paul reminds us in our epistle.
We enter Holy Week hearing “Hosannas” from the crowd and move from triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the cross of humiliation.
The words of our Psalm for today have a very familiar ring. These verses will not let us go for they bring us to the cry of Jesus and the agony of death by crucifixion.
Within this surrounding context of faith, confidence and praising the LORD for deliverance (verses 1-8 and verses 17-24), our text for Passion/Palm Sunday draws upon the central verses of the Psalm (verses 9-16), expressing the lament of the Psalmist. The words of lament are set within this framework.
The opening verses of the Psalm express the faith and confidence of the Psalmist in God: “In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, and strong fortress to save me!” (verses 1-2). As we enter Holy Week, verse five in this Psalm is familiar to us in Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The verses that immediately precede our text express the joy and confidence of the Psalmist in the presence of the LORD: “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversaries, and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place” (verses 7-8).
The verse that immediately follows our text encloses our text in the faith of the Psalmist who lives in the faith of deliverance from the wicked: “Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol” (verse 17). The Psalmist continues to enclose the lament of the Psalm, praising the LORD for deliverance: “O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone! In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues” (verse 19-20).
The cry of the Psalmist opens our text: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also” (verse 9). When we are in distress, the many members of our body are affected. The grief, aloneness, and despair encompass us in our hopelessness. It is a downward spiral from which we can not free or save ourselves. The graciousness for which the Psalmist prays expresses faith and confidence in the midst of lament.
The lament spirals even deeper as the Psalmist expresses the reality of life: “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away” (verse 10). As strength fails and the last breath of life is taken, we are in the presence of the Holy. We have all been there with a loved one as life ebbs away; there is nothing more to be said in the silence of the moment and the rattle of death.
The scene changes from the dying one to those who stand by: “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the stress flee from me” (verse 11). The scene of persons fleeing from us and being left alone is one we all fear. Who will hold my hand? Who will wipe my brow? Who will wet my lips? We ask, “Where are Jesus’ disciples?” as we move in this week to Good Friday.
The Psalmist walks with us into the valley of death: “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel” (verse 12). The gift of mind is a treasure that we hope will never leave us. When it does we are like “a broken vessel” that is useless. The valley of death comes to each of us as the lament draws us deeper and deeper into the reality of death. Can it get any more profound?
A person lies dying and you are by the bedside thinking that the sense of hearing has left your dying friend and you are probably wrong. Listen to the admonition: “Don’t say anything you don’t want your friend to hear.” Hear the experience of the Psalmist: “For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, and they plot to take my life” (verse 13).
At the deepest point of lament the words of faith and trust come forth: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God'” (verse 14). God is not absent at the point of death as others whisper and scheme and plot. The only one the Psalmist can trust is the one whom we call LORD. The LORD God, who created us from the dust of the ground and breathes into us the breath of life, is the same God who is present with us for our last breath: “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (verse 15). Even death is God’s time, a time of deliverance. This is the faith in which we live and proclaim: “You are my God.”
A benediction concludes the assigned verses from this Psalm: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love” (verse 16). All of life from birth to death rests in the hand of the God who created us and who redeems us. God’s face shines in benediction love upon us all the days of our lives. This is the faith the Psalmist proclaims and the faith in which the Psalm calls us to live as servants of the God whose steadfast love is with us always.
We will hear Jesus’ final words from the cross on Good Friday express the faith in which the Son lived in the steadfast love of the Father. The prayer of the dying Jesus teaches us to pray: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Paul was first and foremost a pastoral theologian.
His preoccupation was for the spread of the gospel, but principally through the vitality of the communities of believers scattered through the Roman world. That was the lens through which he looked when he reflected on the story of Christ’s death and resurrection: what does that twinned event of crucifixion/resurrection have to say about our life together?
Paul is writing to a congregation precious to him, to folks who have supported him and his ministry, even to his present situation in prison (1:12-14). With good reason they are concerned for his safety and survival, since many people did not survive Roman prisons. Their concern, though, was more than just personal concern about the possible loss of a friend. The Greek term koinōnia (1:5; 2:1; 3:10), translated in the NRSV as “sharing,” is actually a term found in Roman commercial law. The meaning is like the English word “partnership,” and the legal provision was that if any party to the partnership were to die, the entire enterprise would be dissolved. The danger that Paul (or his companions Timothy or Epaphroditus; see 2:19-30) might die, threatened the whole ministry in Philippi.
The fact that commercial law figures in the Philippians’ framework for understanding life, including the community of believers, suggests that they are a community of some means. Economic poverty does not seem to be an issue in Philippi, as it was in so many others of the communities where Paul’s churches were located. The Christians in Philippi were, however, suffering at the hands of “opponents” (1:27-30), and had been for some time. Two women in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche, are apparently at odds (4:2-3), and their disagreements are affecting the rest of the congregation. In other words, economic well-being notwithstanding, they were suffering. In order to guide them through this difficult time, Paul includes the hymn that is today’s lection.
The carefully constructed parallelism of verses 6-11 establishes it as a poem or a hymn. There is no way to know whether Paul himself was the poet who composed it, or whether like many African American preachers, he incorporated a well known and beloved hymn of the congregation into his own message. That hymn sets forth the “Christ-mindedness” Paul commends to them to see them through the difficult time (2:5). That “mindedness” and consequent actions had two movements (verses. 6-7c; 7d-8); and they were followed by a glorious response from God (verses 9-11).
The two movements in verses 6-11 trace Christ’s journey into human life, then through that life to death on a cross. Though that journey involved “emptying himself” of power and status (kenosis), it is not the journey of a victim of someone else’s oppressive policies or actions. Rather, it is a path freely chosen from a position of power. Christ begins in God’s “form” and equal to God. This is more than an affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth, like every human being, is in the image of God. Here he is on a par with God, equal to God, just as he takes on “human form” (verse 7d) and becomes fully human. Instead of remaining in his initial place of power, or trading it for a human role of honor and prestige, he lives as the lowliest of human beings, a slave, and accepts the form of execution reserved for slaves, namely death on a cross (verse 8).
This embodied “Christ-mindedness” took Christ and would take the Philippians on a path contrary to the wisdom of the world in which they operated. Competition and the effort to acquire ever greater status and power rule the world of commerce, and from there the rest of our social interactions as well. One does not deliberately choose a downward spiral for one’s life. Indeed, success is often taken by people of faith to indicate that God is rewarding their diligence, and failure is often read by the same logic as the consequence of laziness, ineptitude, or the just punishment for some wrong done. We identify more readily with the theology of Job’s friends than with a theology of God’s abundant grace!
This hymn, though, identifies such humble obedience and kenosis as the reason for God’s exuberance and response described in the last half of the hymn (verses 9-11). The same Jesus who has abandoned the safety and status of equality with God to follow the path just described is given a new name–“Lord” (verse 11)–that is also the name of God. Every aspect of the creation will recognize that name with appropriate honor and accolades, and in that praise God will be glorified.
This lection turns the dial on our lens, to give us a new focus through which to perceive and understand the horrendous events of Jesus’ passion. It is not the story of Jesus as victim, nor is it a one-time event that can remain safely in the remembered past. Rather, it is a narrative of freely chosen obedience that models for us how to live faithfully in the communities where out lives are cast. Paul invites us to make it our story as well.