The Palm and the Passion

Welcome back. THis week we delve into the Passion Sunday texts...

Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a:

Ah, the Suffering Servant. The trap into which we fall is to read this as if it is about Jesus and not a literary device which used frequently in this and other forms to help Israel and then Judah make sense of the world in which they were no longer an important player. The ‘empire’ of David and Solomon was long gone and the Jews needed to find their way as models of God’s preferred behavior in world now dominated by alien cultures and mores. (This is NOT Rome and we will NOT do as the Romans do… or the Greeks, for that matter). In this text, the suffering servant is a teacher, who humbly listens to the Word of God and then speaks with boldness and authority to that alien world and those who are tempted to surrender to it.

It is not a word that alien culture – or his intended audience – wants to hear, though perhaps for different reasons.

His intended audience in comprised of ‘the weary’ from verse 4. Weary of what? From the yoke of oppression; from laboring for the benefit of their conquerors. To them the teacher offers a word of resistance and empowerment against the oppressor. And, we know that the oppressor does not take kindly to this word, because of what the teacher then must endure – his back is beaten, his beard is plucked out. But, the weary also join with his detractors because it is easier to remain a slave than to do what one must to gain respect and daily necessities.

Still, the teacher does not give up, nor will he be silenced. As Timothy Simpson observes, “He commands no armies, wields no weapons.  All he has in his defense is his body to be given up for the sake of the weary and the LORD who will not leave him, nor let him be ashamed (vv. 7-9).  The concern for the teacher’s physical protection appears to be of secondary importance to him.  What matters is that the essential justness of what he has said be not impugned in any way.  He does not seek to avoid that which he must suffer, nor does he expect the LORD to stop him from being hurt.  But he trusts in the LORD that he will be proved right in the end…”

The text implies that for anyone who opens his or her ears to hear what God is saying, will hear a word that is directed at those who are marginalized, and that is going to make some people very uncomfortable.

Philippians 2: 5 – 11:

What a difference a week makes… Contrast Hebrews observation from the Lent 5 lectionary, that Jesus is the human, ‘adopted’ son of God with this week’s Philippians text: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…” (Ask me over coffee, please…)

Now Paul, in writing to the Philippians, is not trying to pick an argument with the author of Hebrews – whoever that may have been – because, after all, these people did not write their letters thinking that one fine day they would all be bunched together in something called the New Testament. The epistles were written over the span of a century and their authors were not always in agreement where their theology was concerned. (Always remember that). But, my point centers on Paul’s admonition to be in the ‘same mind’ as Jesus, following his example of renouncing our nature.  For Jesus, it was to ‘empty himself’ of his divinity and take on the role of slave to all others. We are to aspire to that same station, by emptying ourselves of those things that corrupt our ‘true’ nature, that trace of the divine within us, the imago dei. We are to renounce - as we do in our baptismal promises – the darker proclivities for violence, self-preservation, and – my favorite word from the blog a few weeks ago – covetousness.

Mark 14 - 15: 

So many details, so little time…

One of the interesting things to note in this story is the notion of power, and who is in control. The crowd seems to wield it. Just as Herod’s fear of the crowd forces him to behead John the Baptist, so Pilate is given no choice but to deliver Jesus to be crucified.  The Sanhedrin seems to have it – it’s their crowd after all – and they are able to take Jesus into custody and rig a trial against him, in spite of the in adequacy of the witnesses.

But, Jesus is the one who is ultimately in control. He submits to arrest, thwarting the violent impulse of one of his number to defend him; he submits to the trial, offering no defense, but in so doing reveals the subterfuge and desperation of the religious establishment; he surrenders his body, but not the struggle; and, as mentioned, draws the power of Rome into conflict with the crowd, exposing the limits of empire to enforce its will. Ironically, he is even called the ‘King of the Jews’, a title not lost on those who read this narrative through the eyes of faith; and proclaimed ‘Son of God’ by an officer in service to the Empire.

Which may be the deep truth of this story. Power is not what it seems, and when it is only sustained through violence and deception and cruelty, it is soon exposed and once that happens, its days are surely numbered. It is this same confidence in violence that evoked the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah.