- Isaiah 52:13-53:12
This excerpt from Isaiah parallels Psalm 22 which also asks profound questions: why suffering, especially of the innocent, is there some larger meaning to suffering, what is God’s role? Walter Bureggemann sees this passage as one of only three in the Hebrew scriptures that seem to expect God’s rescue after death.
- Psalm 22
In its original usage, this psalm was a familiar form to express personal lament to God for unfair (in the petitioner’s view) suffering. It may have even had a specific liturgical function for an individual to come to the Temple and seek some redress and justice for unfair treatment when the courts had failed. Robert Alter sees in this psalm a very rare summons to praise even after death. [See George Herbert’s poem, “The Sacrifice” for a re-telling of this psalm.]
- Hebrews 10: 16-25 OR Hebrews 4: 14-16
The Letter to the Hebrews is studded with excerpts from the Septuagint. The writer uses them specifically to show how all that has been said and written about the life and death of Jesus is a fulfillment of Hebrew scriptures. Jesus functions as High Priest on a universal, one-final-time capacity. And, he acts as both our defense counsel and judge.
- John 18:1- 19:42
John tells the story of the suffering and death of Jesus as if Jesus were fully in charge of everything that happens to him and is fully cooperative to achieve a larger purpose. John balances two directly contradictory roles for Jesus as both the willing victim of human folly and as royalty. The trope of “king” serves several functions in John’s narrative. In Gethsemane, when the religious leaders and political authorities come to arrest Jesus, they fall down in awe when he says the Name of the Holy One: “I AM.” Peter resorts to violence, cutting off the ear of a servant, whom Jesus miraculously restores. In the government trial, the one who presumably has the upper-hand and the authority over life and death, Pilate, completely dissembles, while Jesus tells him “you have no real power over me.” The sign placed over the head of Jesus on the cross,” King of the Jews,” is translated into the three major languages of the day, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. At his burial, Jesus is accorded the burial of royalty when his corpse is embalmed in copious amounts of myrrh and wrapped in bands of cloth.
John also uses the trope of Jesus as Passover Lamb. The allusions to Psalm 22, which are oblique in the synoptic accounts, are explicit in John’s narrative. When wine is offered to Jesus on the cross in other accounts, it is placed on a reed, but in John it is in on hyssop, which was used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed lamb on the night of the Passover of death in Egypt. In John’s chronology, Jesus is sentenced to death at precisely the same hour as the priests slaughter the lambs on the Eve of the Feast of Passover. This narrative states that not one bone of Jesus was broken, which fulfilled another requirement for the Passover lamb.
John’s narrative highlights the tragic failures of everyone around Jesus even more than the synoptics, (with the notable exception of his mother Mary and the “beloved disciple”). However, by depicting Jesus as “king” and “paschal lamb,” John’s narrative emphasizes Jesus as the one supremely able and willing to declare and fulfill the central theme of John’s entire gospel: God is love.
Donna Haraway considers the significance of the “suffering servant” passages from Isaiah and John’s staging of the trial of Jesus. She sees behind the carefully crafted juxtapositions and tangled meanings of such key words as “king” that everything is reversed. The one who presumably has the authority, Pilate, has none really. The one on trial is the one whose questioning calls into judgement the whole religious and political establishment. The one who is mocked as a “king” by his executioners is, finally, given a plaque making that precise declaration in the language of ancient religion, Hebrew, the classical tradition, Greek, and the law and politics of the Empire, Latin. She writes: “this figure of the Incarnation can never be other than a trickster, a check on the arrogance of reason that would uncover all disguises and force correct vision of a recalcitrant nature in her most secret places.” Haraway continues: “The suffering servant is a check on man….” (The Postmodern Bible Reader, p.209) The presence, demeanor, actions and, as importantly, the pose of passivity by Jesus before Pilate expose human assumptions about power, hierarchy, authority and justice.
For Jean-Luc Marion, this expose of human pretensions continues in what happens on the cross. Marion writes:
God “exposes himself before us in such innocence and such abandon that each one of us must decide our own relationship to him– we each must decide ourselves. Standing before Christ on the Cross, I cannot pass without taking notice, because even passing without taking notice constitutes a decision; I must therefore decide for myself because I am confronted with the fact of Christ on the Cross. I decide for myself absolutely, though I emit no absolute judgement, (I am lacking the criterion, the power and the right), about myself, because I enter, standing before Christ, into a free crisis, under the breath of the Spirit…. Each announcement of the crucifixion of Christ therefore provokes, in each moment of space and place of time, the opportunity to decide for himself [sic]: to reach, to know, and to settle his crisis. The long and arduous combat that we conduct with and among ourselves will have an end: we decide and will decide among ourselves on the occasion as a result of Christ on the Cross.” (Prolegomena to Charity, pp 120-121)
Medieval scholar, writer of detective stories, translator of Dante, theologian and among the first women to graduate form Oxford, Dorothy Sayers insisted in her still bracing essay Creed or Chaos? (Manchester NH: Sophia Press, 1949): “Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.” The church makes a “terrifying assertion: “that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.” (pp 24-25)
Northrup Frye insisted on the power of narrative for the present– every present, my present, this present. He wrote: “…the written word is far more powerful than simply a reminder: it recreates [emphasis added] the past in the present, and gives us, not the familiar, remembered thing, but the glittering intensity of the summoned-up hallucination.” (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, p. 227)
The public reading of the story of this crucifixion causes the original crisis all over again: “because I enter, standing before the Christ, into a free crisis….” Exactly what is the meaning of the placard placed over his crumpled body on the cross– “KING?” Is it a slur of mockery? Or, is it, finally, the accurate recognition of God’s love in the flesh? What does it mean to me?