Lectionary Commentaries for March 24, 2013
Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)
Commentary on Luke 22:14—23:56
Arland J. Hultgren
Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a
Isaiah 50:4-9a is part of a larger poem that extends to 50:11.
Its subject is a servant of God (50:10), who speaks of his life in God’s service with both pride and pugnacity. The poem begins with his boast of being attentive to the word of God (verse 4), and he proclaims that his calling is “to sustain the weary with a word.” Then the poem takes a surprising turn: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from disgrace and spitting” (verse 6).
This poem is in that portion of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) written in the final years of the Babylonian exile, so speaking a message of comfort to the weary exiles of that time would seem to be a compelling and attractive calling. Inviting torture is less so. And yet this servant, suffering so horribly, goes on to declare, “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced…” (verse 7a) and “he who vindicates me is near…” (verse 8a), all the while daring those who would oppose him to come forward and confront him!
He is a compelling and strong character, whose dignity and ferocity are at odds with his beaten visage, and the prophet of Second Isaiah offers him to the people in exile as a powerful symbol of courage and hope in the midst of profound suffering. Indeed, the prophet offers the model of the servant to the people and calls them to be like him — to understand their own suffering as he does — rooted in the call to be faithful servants of God.
There are several poems in Isaiah 40-55 whose focus is this individual whom God calls “my servant.” These include 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12. While there has been a tendency to view these poems as sounding a distinct note within Second Isaiah and excising them from their context, contemporary scholarship has moved away from this treatment of the servant poems and made solid arguments for regarding them as integral to Second Isaiah’s work and message.
Understood within the context of Second Isaiah, the servant poems are best seen as part of the prophet’s effort to inspire and transform the people in exile from seeing themselves as helpless slaves of Babylon (see Isaiah 49:7) to servants of God, endowed with dignity and purpose. This commentary is not the place for a comprehensive study of the imagery of the servant in Second Isaiah, but a few notes on servant imagery within the book might be helpful:
The servant of God is never given a name in these poems, suggesting that the poems about the servant are not descriptions of a historical individual (or, at least, are not only descriptions of an actual person) but are deliberately non-specific in order to allow the people to imagine themselves as the servant. When there is a particular name associated with the servant, the name is “Israel” or “Jacob” (41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3, 5-6), indicating that the prophet’s intent is for the people as a whole to see themselves as the servant and not to associate the term with one particular person.
The servant of these four servant poems is a blameless individual, whose faithfulness to God is unparalleled and whose suffering is extreme (see especially 52:13-53:12). Some have argued that the servant cannot possibly be the people in exile because they were not beyond reproach, but Second Isaiah begins with the admission that the suffering of the people has exceeded the fault: “[Jerusalem] has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:2b).
Also consider the perspective of 52:4-5, which reads: “Now therefore what am I doing here, says the Lord, seeing that my people are taken away without cause?” The above examples demonstrate that there is room within the framework of Second Isaiah to regard the people in exile as suffering undeservedly.
The people to whom the prophet writes were living in exile, but there is only a single mention of the people serving Babylon in Second Isaiah. In fact, Babylon is not even mentioned by name in that single text: “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers” (49:7a).
The Hebrew word translated “slave” here is the same word translated as “servant” in the texts that speak of God’s servant in the rest of Second Isaiah. Considering the fact that the people in exile were under the control of Babylon, it is surely significant that the prophet does not speak of their lives and their labor as belonging to anyone but God. As God’s own servant, the people are divinely called and empowered, and they will ultimately be vindicated (42:1, 6-7; 43:10; 44:1-5; 49:1-6; 50:4, 7-9; 52:13, 53:5, 10-12).
Reading Isaiah 50:4-9a in light of the servant imagery we find throughout Isaiah 40-55 highlights the fact that the servant is not to be viewed simply as a description of a particular person in history. Open ears, learned and sustaining speech, a staunch faith and a willingness to suffer are the hallmarks of the ideal servant of God. God’s calling to be “my servant” is issued to the people in exile, struggling to maintain their identity as God’s own people in the midst of the Babylonian empire. It is a powerful calling, and it issues through the ages to Judea in first century ce and to us as well.
This poem is, of course, the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, which is the Sunday of the Passion. This text will serve as background for most sermons delivered this Sunday, but it is my hope that it will deepen our sense of gratitude for the one we profess as Christians to have fulfilled the calling to be God’s servant in the truest sense.
I hope that gratitude is not the only response to this servant song and to the story of the Passion, however. In both the Passion of Christ and the suffering of the servant of God in Second Isaiah, a call is issued. The call is not to a life of ease but to a life in the service of God, grounded in our faith. May our ears ever be open to the word of God and our mouths ever ready to speak a word of comfort. May our faces never be hidden out of fear or shame because the God “who vindicates me is near.”
Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16
Three psalms in particular have served as a treasure trove of evocative imagery for the Gospel writers’ renditions of the crucifixion.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction, quoting the opening words of Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46 in Aramaic) is the best known, but the derisive wagging of heads, sarcastic mocking of Jesus’ trust in God, division of his garments, his thirst, and final prayer can all be traced to Psalms 22, 69, and our text, Psalm 31. As a result, the Church has used these Psalms as liturgical commentaries on the events of Holy Week down through the ages.
In addition, Psalms 22 and 31 also share unusual formal characteristics. Both are essentially laments, prayers for deliverance that alternate petitions with statements of trust and conclude with extensive hymns of praise or thanksgiving. Both make reference to the psalmist’s shame and humiliation at the hands of persecuting enemies.
This juxtaposition of lament and praise has troubled commentators with regard to the actual genre of the psalm, the recognition of which is so crucial to interpretation. It seems, however, that what we have here is a creative rearrangement of the salient portions of the lament in a concentric array that highlights the psalmist’s dread of being humiliated for his faith and his thankful praise when his prayer in this regard is answered:
A Petition: May I never be disappointed 1-2
B Reason 3-4
C Statement of Trust 5-6
X Vow to Praise 7-8
B’ Reason 9-13
C’ Statement of Trust 14-15
A’ Petition: May I never be disappointed 16-18
X’ Praise and Exhortation 19-24
- The Petitions are linked by the repetition of ‘al-‘evoshah “may I never be disappointed” verses 1, 17 (see JPS, NET for this translation of bosh instead of the usual “let me never be ashamed”).
- The Reasons are linked by three instances of “for” in each (two occurrences of ki and a causal min or ulema‘an).
- The Statements of Trust, not surprisingly, echo each other with batacheti “I have trusted” verses 6, 14 and beyadecha “into your hand” verses 5 (the source of Jesus’ “Into your hand I commit my spirit [Luke 23:46]), and 15, chiastically arranged, it should be noted.
- The Praise sections are connected by the common reference to God’s hesed “faithfulness, commitment (NRSV: “steadfast love”)” verses 7, 21.
The combination of concentric (A A’, B B’) and paneled (B C, B’ C’) structuring while setting the salient aspects of the lament in stark relief, has the effect of obscuring the timeline of the psalmist’s experience and suggesting to readers that we are dealing with a double prayer, here, one in verses 1-8, and a “rerun” in verses 9-18. Actually, the literary architecture is meant to clarify the psalmist’s problem. He clearly asks never to be disappointed/humiliated/ashamed (Hebrew, bosh) because of his faithful stance with regard to Yahweh.
The Lectionary has chosen to utilize the second of these supposed dual prayers as our Psalm Reading for Palm/Passion Sunday. Apparently, this is to save time needed for the pageantry of Palm Sunday and/or the drama of the reading, or acting out, of the Passion Narrative should the congregation be observing the day as Sunday of the Passion. While this is an important consideration, much of the psalm’s rhetorical effect is lost, not least of which is the prayer in verse 5 that Jesus offers on the cross (Luke 23:46).
It might be asked why the psalmist is so worried about being humiliated for his faith. We need only think of Job, John 9, or even Psalm 32 that follows our text to realize that biblical culture as a whole closely connected sin and illness and that the shunning of the ill because of their supposed sinfulness was common (see Psalm 6:3, 8; 22:7; 38:11; 88:8-9). Here, he protests that although he is ill, it is not due to any lack of trust on his part.
As such, this text provides a profound glimpse into the cultural humiliation of Jesus’ Passion and accounts for the psalmist’s repeated relational testimony in which he calls God my rock, fortress, stronghold, and refuge (verses 3-4) and points to God’s faithfulness (hesed) to him (verses 7, 16, 21). In the same way Jesus was mocked and humiliated by the crowds despite his innocence.
In fact, this marvelous psalm, for all its rhetorical flourish, is essentially a testimony to the hesed that marks all of God’s relations with us. It should not be missed that both the center of the structure and its climax are replete with praise for that divine hesed shown to the psalmist and that it concludes with an appeal to experience this for ourselves.
Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
The Imitation of Christ, likely written by Thomas à Kempis in the early fifteenth century, is widely held to be the most popular and influential book of all time outside the Bible.
The author provides a devotional reflection on how to pursue true understanding and holiness by modeling oneself after the character and life of Jesus Christ. He describes the realization of the highest goal in words that reflect our text from Philippians: “To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom” (II.4).
The Story of Jesus in a Hymn
Like The Imitation of Christ, Paul looks to the story of Jesus for the pattern of Christian living in our text. Most often, Paul imparts propositional truths that make statements about the story of Jesus, such as Christ died, Christ was buried, and Christ was raised (1 Corinthians 15:6-8). But in our text Paul portrays the story of Jesus in the adaptation of an early Christian hymn in order to capture and transform the imagination of his readers. In other words, Paul shows rather than tells what it is to imitate Christ.
Connecting the Story of Paul’s Audience to the Story of Jesus
In the verses preceding our text, Paul has told his readers to act with humility and to consider others in their community as more important than themselves (Philippians 2:1-4). Paul connects the story of his audience to the story of Jesus in verse 5. The RSV translation accurately brings out the sense of the language: “Have this mind among yourselves.” Paul does not call on individuals to imitate Christ in the privacy of their prayer closets, but he calls on the community to imitate Christ as individuals live among one another. Paul aims to form a collective mind that informs collective actions.
Today we may consider a collective mind to be a bad idea. Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the word “Groupthink” in 1972 to describe the phenomenon in which group pressure results in flawed or senseless decisions that may hurt others. Paul calls for a different kind of Groupthink, in which a community of people exhibits a transformed mind by following Jesus’ example of humility and service to others.
The Shape of the Hymn
Verses 6-11 are divided into two sections: what Jesus did for humanity (verses 6-8) and what God did for Jesus (verses 9-11). We may explain the movement of these sections by following three key verbs: Jesus emptied himself (verse 7); Jesus humbled himself (verse 8); God has exalted him (verse 9).
What Jesus did, verses 6-8
Let’s start with verses 7-8. Paul portrays a double downward movement with the first two key verbs. Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a slave (in the incarnation), and he humbled himself by submitting to death on a cross. Paul defines “he emptied himself” not by what Jesus gave up, but by what he took on. That is, Jesus emptied himself not by divesting himself of equality with God, but by assuming the form of a servant (verse 7). The pre-existent, divine Jesus did not consider his status to be a reason to avoid the incarnation, but to embrace it. True humility meant using his status not for exploitation but for self-sacrificial service to others. Ultimately, Jesus’ humility took him to the cross where he demonstrated the magnitude of his love for others (verse 8).
Now we may look back at verse 6. The language ambiguously states, “existing in the form of God….” Most translations render this verbal form similarly to the NRSV, “who, though he was in the form of God.” However, we may correctly render it “because he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”
This would mean that Jesus did not reveal his character in spite of his divine nature (“though…”), but because of it (“because”). That is, it is the very nature of the divine to act in humble, self-sacrificial service. In the Gospel of John, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus answers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). The hymn suggests that Jesus’ revelation of God is most conspicuous in his humility and death.
What God did, verses 9-11
Notice that Paul does not portray the imitation of Christ only in terms of self-sacrificial service. The example Paul gives to his audience continues, “Therefore (because Jesus so humbled himself) God has exalted him to the highest place. Imitating Jesus does not only mean to follow his example of humility, but also to follow his example in exaltation. It is God who makes the promotion, not Jesus himself. So Paul’s audience must not be concerned with self-promotion, but with God’s promotion of them. James expresses a similar point: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).
Connecting Our Story to the Story of Jesus
Later in his letter, Paul tells the Philippians that he wants to send Timothy to them because “I have no one like him, who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. They all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:20-21). Timothy could have pulled rank as Paul’s right-hand man and sought his own welfare. But Timothy knew what it meant to imitate Jesus by not insisting on his own interests but acting in humility and service to others.
Like Timothy and like Paul’s audience, leaders and members of our own congregations are called to imitate Jesus by refusing to insist on their own prerogatives or status, whatever they may be, and serving others in humility. In fact, the example of Jesus shows that to serve others sacrificially is not to deny our rights or status but to exercise them truly. As we reflect on the passion of Christ in a cultural climate that values self-interest and self-aggrandizement, let us help our congregations to enact his imitation.
The “longer” reading assigned for this Sunday consists of 114 verses; the alternate, “shorter” reading (Luke 23:1-49) consists of 49.
The preacher has to make a decision about which is to be read during worship. Moreover, if one makes use of the reading for the “Procession with Palms” (Luke 19:28-40), an additional 13 verses will be read.
In regard to the sermon, not all the features of these texts can be dealt with in much detail. In fact, if there is a Procession with Palms and the reading of either the longer or the shorter Gospel for the Day, it is particularly necessary to make a crucial decision about where one’s focus should be.
As background for further consideration, there are a few distinctive things about Luke’s Passion Narrative that stand out. Only those that pertain to the “shorter” reading of 23:1-49 will be listed here (they are relevant to the longer reading too). They include the following:
(1) On Thursday evening, after his arrest, Jesus is brought to the high priest’s house (22:54) and is apparently kept in the compound as a prisoner over night. The Jewish Interrogation (22:54-71) is set on Friday morning (22:66) rather than on Thursday evening, as in the other Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:53 and Matthew 26:57). Following the interrogation, Jesus is brought that same morning before Pontius Pilate (23:1) where the shorter reading begins.
(2) The charges against Jesus in 23:3-5 are distinctive to Luke. They are more political than in the other gospels, and therefore of more interest to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The charges are threefold: Jesus perverts the nation, forbids taxes to Caesar, and claims to be a king.
(3) As in the other gospels, Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges brought against him. But what is unusual is that he does so three times (23:4, 14, 22), as in the Gospel of John (18:38; 19:4, 6).
(4) The scene of Jesus before Herod (Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, 4 B.C. to A.D. 39) in 23:6-12 is found only in Luke’s Gospel. Significantly, Herod also finds Jesus innocent of any crime (23:15).
(5) The scene provided in 23:27-32 is also distinctive to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has a large following on the way to his crucifixion. That following includes women from the area (“the daughters of Jerusalem”). But there are more that show up later on. Early in his gospel Luke (alone among the evangelists) told of women accompanying Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and providing for him out of their resources (8:1-3). The same women from Galilee are present at the crucifixion (23:49).
(6) In addition to the declarations by Pilate and Herod of the innocence of Jesus, there are more. One of the two thieves declares him innocent (23:41), and so does the centurion at the cross (23:47). Moreover, Joseph of Arimathea, “though a member of the council” that brought accusations against Jesus, “had not agreed with their plan and action” (23:50-51), which implies that he too thought that Jesus was innocent of the charges against him.
In all of this and more, Luke tells a story of an innocent man who was accused by the leaders of his own people for leading Israel astray and being seditious against the Roman government, and who was consequently put to death by the Roman authorities. As we read the story, it becomes clear that there was a miscarriage of justice. This execution should not have happened. Despite the motives of the accusers, no one in authority actually thought that their charges were valid. In the end, however, Pilate caved in and went along with the wish of the leaders of the Sanhedrin and the crowds.
In spite of the blatant injustice committed by those in power, Luke is explicit concerning a larger drama that was transpiring. Quoting Jesus’ own words, all took place to fulfill the Scriptures (18:31-33; 22:37; 24:26-27, 44, 46). Jesus had a vocation to fulfill, which Luke spelled out back in 9:51, still quite early in his earthly ministry: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” His being taken up refers to his resurrection and ascension, which would take place in Jerusalem.
Essentially the grand story of Luke’s Gospel is that which is summarized in a speech by the apostle Peter, as reported by Luke in Acts 10:36-43. It is the story of one who was anointed by the Spirit and power, who went about doing good and healing those in need, was killed, was raised on the third day, and appeared to his witnesses. In regard to the significance of his death and resurrection, those events were the means by which Jesus would “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26) and there assume a role that extends his ministry beyond the confines of Galilee and Judea.
All this can be expanded upon. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus carries on an extensive ministry of preaching and healing. He is a sympathetic figure to those in need. That is particularly highlighted in the Passion Narrative. There he expresses sympathy for the women (“the daughters of Jerusalem”) who were following him to the site of the crucifixion (23:27-30). In addition, Jesus expresses sympathy for the thief on the cross who asks to be remembered by Jesus in his kingdom. Jesus says to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).
Another feature of the ministry of the earthly Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is that he forgives sins. Instances can be seen at 5:20-24; 7:47-49; 19:7-10. Those acts were restricted to particular cases. But everything changed with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ suffering and entering into glory, and his being enthroned as Lord, the forgiveness of sins is available from him to “all nations” (24:47). That is the message that the apostles and missionaries of the early church had for the world. As Peter put it in the Book of Acts, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).
The compassion of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins in his name (on his behalf) are two of the themes that have drawn people to him in both is earthly ministry and in the centuries that have come and gone. Those themes are still powerful. They are also so very central to Christian faith. Christians may disagree on many issues. But the image of the compassionate Christ and the good news of the forgiveness of sins are at the heart of the matter for all believers.