Jesus' Last Words

It was customary for Roman soldiers to keep the garments of persons they had just executed.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

April 17, 2014

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Commentary on John 19:23-30

It was customary for Roman soldiers to keep the garments of persons they had just executed.

They divided Jesus’ garments as a prize among themselves. The tunic was so well made that they thought it better not to tear it but to gamble for it. Surely, gambling for the clothes of the condemned constituted the final indignity for the prisoner who sees this while he is slowly, helplessly, and painfully dying.

John sees this as a fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, the same psalm quoted in the Synoptic Gospels but at a different point: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Psalm 22:1). Evidently, this psalm played a major role in the early church’s understanding of the mission and ministry of Jesus. Moreover, while the fulfillment of Scripture has been primarily associated with Matthew’s Gospel, this reference tells us that fulfillment of the Old Testament was important in early Christianity beyond Matthew’s church.

Reflections on John 19:25-27

In this section, Jesus shows concern for his mother. In first century Judaism, a woman was considered the ward (to put it politely) of her oldest, closest living male adult relative. This usually meant her husband, her father, or her oldest son. In some instances it could mean a grandfather, uncle, brother, or cousin. It was believed that women needed to be protected and have someone to provide for their needs. While there were numerous contradictions to this belief at every level of Roman society, cultural norms often outlive their applicability and/or relevance. This one is no different.

Note the manner in which Jesus addresses his mother, “Woman” (see also John 2:4). This would not have been seen as disrespectful then as it is today. As her oldest adult male relative, Jesus was both her protector and provider and could speak to her in this manner. This is a cultural norm and not a theological one.

John identifies four women at the cross as Jesus dies (slowly). Two are relatives and two are disciples. By being there, they have risked being identified with him and opening themselves to arrest. Their presence connoted their fidelity to, affection for, and piety toward Jesus. The only man mentioned, and presumably present, was the Beloved Disciple. His presence would have connoted the same manner and degree of fidelity, affection, and piety associated with the woman.

If this fact were unclear to any reader, it becomes clear when Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” And he says to the Beloved Disciple, “Behold, your mother!” Jesus empowers the Beloved Disciple to take his place as the senior son, the provider and protector of his mother from that moment on. To the original readers this would have been a powerful sign that the Beloved Disciple was “the man,” the true successor to Jesus not only in Jesus’ biological family but also in the family of faith, Christianity.

The Beloved Disciple’s closeness to Jesus was probably in dispute in some early Christian circles because he was not a biological relative. Also, we should note that he was never called an apostle in the Gospel of John. This scene would have conveyed that even without those credentials he was Jesus’ most dear confident and colleague and, more importantly, that the Beloved Disciple has passed on to his group of early Christians a true, valid Jesus-tradition.

In turn, this would have been a tremendous boost to Johannine Christianity in succeeding generations. They could point to the closeness between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple as proof of their religious propriety. This would have been important as Johannine Christianity encountered other Christian traditions that were not exactly like their own, for example, law-abiding Matthean and Lukan Christian movements and law-free Pauline Christianity.

Finally, we would be remiss if we did not also mention the very human element in this scene: Jesus loved his mother so much that as he was dying he asked a worthy friend to take care of her for him.

Reflections on John 19:28-30

Again we note the fulfillment of Scripture identified by the fourth evangelist (Psalm 69:21). These fulfillment-references in this section are generally consistent with their original contexts, but they also indicate that the Crucifixion was not an expected event and the early church sought Scripture for explanations. (During the first Christian century, the collections considered Scripture by most Jewish Christians were probably the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.)

Jesus suffers another indignity: he asks for water and the soldiers give sour wine to a man dying a slow, painful, and dehydrating death. Compassion clearly was on vacation. The means of grace received no grace.

Jesus then announces that his mission has been completed and he breathes his last and dies. His hour has come. He accepts it. He moves on to the next stage. Jesus provides a good example for all sorts of transitions. We need to accept when it is time to move on and do so. All around us we see examples of people who need to retire or who need to step aside at church so that someone else might have the joy of serving. Or we see parents who still want to govern the affairs of their adult children or, worse, their adult grandchildren! Clearly, they need to recognize what time it is and govern themselves accordingly.

When Michael Jordan was voted into the NBA Hall of Fame, his comments were that now he knew that there could not be a comeback to play in the NBA. How sad that when one lives so completely in the past that one cannot enjoy the present. In turn, one cancels out the future. Without the death, there is no Easter and its glory. As with Jesus, unless our pasts die in some way, our futures cannot be born.