By Paul S. Nancarrow
The Isaiah passage is a classic statement of faith on the part of the prophet who is faithful to God’s call in the face of great opposition. Although the prophet is beaten over the back, assaulted in the face, spit upon and insulted, he does not cease to bear witness to the truth he knows in God. In fact, the prophet is not simply a passive victim in these attacks, but gives himself to them willingly, actively, as part of the process of bearing witness. His assurance that he is not disgraced, even though treated disgracefully, his confidence that he will not be found guilty, even though he is treated as one already condemned, rests solely on his faith that “It is the Lord GOD who helps me” and that “he who vindicates me is near.” The help that comes to the prophet from God is not merely external, but constitutes the prophet’s own character. Verse 4 describes the prophet’s relationship with God: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” The prophet is a teacher, but only because he is also one who is taught; he receives from God both the ability to listen and the capacity to speak; his receptivity and his generativity are equally the work in him of God. The parallels here to Jesus’ confidence in God and his bearing witness – even teaching – through his Passion are clear. But these are also words that can encourage our own active witness. To have the ear of those who are taught, to be receptive to God’s creating work within us, is an indispensable factor in our having the tongues of teachers, our bearing witness in our particular circumstances to the truths of justice and peace we proclaim on behalf of God’s mission. When the Lord God opens our ears to the cries of the poor and the call to justice, then it is necessary for us to put our confidence in God and not turn backward in our witness.
The Psalm echoes the motif of faithfulness in the midst of suffering, and adds a specific note of appeal to God to save the poet from misery and wasting. In view of the Passion narrative – and notably the account of the via dolorosa – to come, the psalm verse “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me” is particularly poignant. Similarly, the verse “I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” puts us in mind both of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and Peter’s fear of being discovered in the courtyard. What is therefore perhaps most remarkable about this Psalm on this day is what is not echoed in the Passion: where the poet appeals to God to be rescued and delivered from enemies and persecutors, Jesus, once he has prayed in Gethsemane, accepts his role without reservation or effort to escape.
The Philippians passage includes the well-known “Christological hymn” which many commentators say Paul quoted from an earlier liturgical source that would have been recognized by his readers in Philippi. In the specific context of this Sunday, the hymn serves as a kind of introduction to the Passion story that is to follow; and specifically, it sets the Passion in a broader frame of reference, showing that Jesus’ suffering is only one stage in a greater process of preexistence, incarnation, ministry, death, exaltation, and universal acclamation. Functionally, the hymn is a reminder that the story of Jesus’ betrayal, rejection, torture, and death is not the final word, but that it points beyond itself to vindication and exaltation. There is a hopeful hint of Easter given, before plunging into the terror of the Passion. But there is also here an invitation to the worshipers to remember that the reading of the Passion is the proclamation of good news: it is because Jesus was “obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” — not in spite of that death but because of it — that the worshipers themselves are now among those who “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Moreover, Paul introduces the Christological hymn with the line “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” which invites worshipers not just to hear the Passion as a story of a long-ago injustice, but to recognize in it an invitation to enact in themselves the pattern witness-and-vindication that is at the core of faith.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Luke’s narrative of the suffering and death of Jesus is the way he portrays Jesus not as the passive victim of the earthly powers of the Sanhedrin and Herod and Pilate, but as the Prophet and the King who is fulfilling his proper destiny. At the very beginning of the assigned passage, at his Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus says “the Son of Man is going as it has been determined,” and the entire remainder of the passage is dominated both by the awareness that the earthly drama is being determined by higher aims, and by Jesus’ own determination to see through to the end his messianic mission. At key points in the narrative — some of them moments when we would expect Jesus to be at his lowest and weakest — Luke shows Jesus speaking and acting with assurance, with confidence in the future, and with command.
At supper, the disciples begin to dispute which of them is the greatest, and Jesus presents them with the paradox that “greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves,” and that he himself is one who serves; yet then he immediately speaks not as a table servant but as a king, promising the disciples that he will “confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Speaking of the coming ordeal, Jesus warns the disciples that “Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat”; while of himself he says “this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled”; thus reminding the disciples that the political struggle they are about to witness is in reality being driven by higher powers.
When Judas arrives with the mob to take Jesus, he does not offer resistance, but observes “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!” Identifying this moment of apparent power over him as “your hour” implies that there will be another hour, not theirs; and identifying this power as “of darkness” implies that there is another power of light and life; this circumscribes the apparent power of the mob and reveals that Jesus is not really subject to them, but is still “going as it has been determined” by him.
Even so simple a narrative detail as Jesus turning and looking at Peter when Peter has denied him and the cock crows — something that surely would have been architecturally impossible between the courtyard where Peter sat and the inner room where Jesus was being interrogated — is intended to demonstrate that Jesus commands the circumstances around him in a more than earthly way.
Luke further emphasizes Jesus’ real but hidden command of the situation in the scenes with Pilate and with Herod: even though Jesus does not answer their questions — except for the one cryptic line to Pilate “You say so” — and significantly does not satisfy Herod’s desire to see some sign from him, which must have greatly frustrated and angered the two political rulers, neither can find any case against him. Herod is said to taunt and mock him — which Pilate never does — but Herod is not able to find any real reason to put Jesus to death, either. The scenes underline that Jesus is not really subject to these worldly powers, but instead reveals their impotence to accomplish the aims they intend. Pilate indeed wishes to release Jesus, but is unable to do so, for no better reason than that those who shout “Crucify” shout louder, “and their voices prevailed.”
Even in the depths of his physical suffering, Jesus is shown as being in actual command. To the women who weep for him on the via dolorosa he says “Do not weep for me,” but instead to mourn e destructiveness that is to come “when the wood is dry.” While the soldiers are nailing his wrists and ankles to the cross he prays to God as Father — the very designation for God that became the accusation against him — to forgive them. From the cross, as if from a throne, Jesus speaks as the inheritor of a kingdom and promises the one thief “today you will be with me in Paradise.” In his last moment, when he cries out with a loud voice, his cry is not one of dereliction, as in Mark and Matthew, but of supreme confidence in God as the source and sustainer of his being: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” If, as some commentators suggest, the line which Jesus is depicted as quoting from Psalm 30 was used as a bed-time prayer among Jews of this time, then the attitude of confidence that God will awaken him again is even more emphasized, echoing the opening verses of the Isaiah passage.
At each key point in the story, Luke shows that Jesus is not the victim of the powers arrayed against him, but is completing his determination to fulfill the aims of the mission God has given him. This is all the more remarkable because Luke does nothing to minimize the abuse that Jesus suffers, both the physical torture and the verbal mockery, but presents the suffering of the scene as real and terrible. What is important is that Jesus is not beaten by this suffering; the rejection and mockery of the leaders and the crowds, their persistent misunderstanding that he could demonstrate his power by coming down from the cross and ending his suffering, rather than taking the suffering into himself and transforming it; the actual pain of the blows he receives and his wounds — none of these things is able to deflect Jesus’ attention from and confidence in his mission and the God who guides him in it. It is in that sense that Jesus remains in command of the entire story, even when he suffers the most.
The Passion story ends, of course, with the entombment of Jesus, and with the notice that Jesus’ followers observe the Sabbath “according to the commandment.” There is an enforced period of inactivity after the intensity of Jesus’ suffering and death; but even this inactivity is under the guidance of a higher-order reality, the same reality that has been guiding the entire story. While the Passion reading stops here, the Christological hymn from Philippians has reminded us what will follow, and what the church will re-gather to celebrate in a week: that Jesus’ confidence in his mission and command of his aims, even in suffering, is vindicated by God in resurrection and exaltation. It is this mind, Paul says, that can be in us, and that can sustain our witness to the justice and goodness of God even in a world of suffering. This is not to minimize the reality of suffering, just as Luke does not minimize Jesus’ actual pain, but to bear witness that the political and social powers that clash and cause suffering in our time are not the final word, not the sum total of effective powers in our world, and that there is another power at work that makes for life and peace. Those who commit themselves to this creative power can be confident and in command as they bear witness to right relationships of mutual well-being.