Talkin’ about the passion

14 April 2019
Palm/Passion Sunday
Year C (RCL)

Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14 – 23:56

None of the Gospel writers, it seems to me, are very interested in developing a doctrine of atonement, in which Jesus’ death in some way deals with the problem of human sin. Paul is certainly interested in developing a theology of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection establishes a new righteousness, but the Gospel writers wrap any such attempt in a narrative.

Central to that narrative is Jesus’ trial. The trial motif has been central to Israel’s attempt to understand its relationship to God, particularly in the light of the Exile. In the final chapters of Job, God shows up and demands that Job defend himself before the divine tribunal. Many of the servant songs in Isaiah (not to mention other material in that book) take the form of a trial. In more than one instance in the literature, a prophet, or the nation, or a poet (like Job) demands that God show up and defend the divine behavior. A graffito scrawled on the wooden walls at Auschwitz read something like, “If there is a God, he will have to explain himself.”

Luke’s Passion narrative reads like a trial. At the end of our reading today, the centurion declares, “Surely this man was righteous.” Jesus is on trial, and as readers of the Gospel would know, Jesus stands in a unique relationship to God (we, of course, would say that Jesus is the Word Incarnate). In some sense, then, God is on trial in the face of human violence.

We often ask in the face of violence, “Why would God allow that?” That was the question raised by the Exile. Jeremiah and Ezekiel and others answered that it was just punishment for the sins of the nation in worshiping false Gods. Isaiah struggles with Israel’s election, and determines that the suffering of the servant in some way expiates for the violence done, in order that Israel may be a light to the nations.

The third servant song (which is the OT reading for the Sunday) is a song of confidence. The servant knows of God’s favor, despite the shame. Paul seems to use this song as the basis for the eighth chapter of Romans. The Roman mythology saw evidence of the gods favor in victory. The servant finds evidence of God’s favor in the face of defeat. Luke’s telling of Jesus trial, and it’s references to the suffering servant, overturns our expectations of justice.

When Luke narrates Jesus’ ascension into heaven, he makes reference to the apotheosis of Caesar. He overturns our understanding of victory. If Luke has a doctrine of atonement, it is that in Jesus, God accepts the results of human violence into the divine self. We should look for evidence of divine favor, not in the victor, but in the victim.

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