Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 1 April 2012
Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
Jesus prayed the opening line of Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – as he hung dying on the cross. The psalmist’s words of anguish and description of physical suffering, mockery and betrayal by close friends are echoed in many details of the passion narrative. They remind us of the intensity of the suffering in Jesus’ faithful journey to death. But the psalm does not end on a note of desperation. It looks forward to the salvation that lies ahead, to the moment when the sufferer will be able to praise God in the midst of God’s people. Like the hymn from which Paul quotes in Philippians 2, it recognises that the journey of the faithful servant of God will end in exaltation and vindication.
Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah a number of times in the Gospels. Today’s Old Testament reading comes from what is commonly termed the ‘Servant Songs’. Jesus’ understanding of his calling and of his journey with God would have been profoundly shaped by these scriptures. In this song, the servant of the Lord is gifted with the ability to speak a word of life to the weary. But this compassion, paradoxically, arouses the ire of the powerful, who violently oppose him. The servant is able to continue, neither violently striking back nor cowering and slinking away in the face of opposition. He chooses neither fight nor flight, but steadfast endurance, confident that the Lord God is his help and will vindicate him. This is not passive acquiescence to evil powers, but an active refusal to be swayed from the path of love. The story of the Passion narrates the closing stages of that earthly journey.
I am struck by how this servant song characterises the servant as a listener: “Morning by morning the Lord God opens my ear that I may hear.” The cultivation of a listening ear is perhaps the most important of the spiritual disciplines. The servant knows how to speak the rousing word to the weary because he listens beyond their words to their unspoken needs. He knows what to say because he has listened to God. He is able to face with courage into persecution because he has listened to his own fears and allowed them to be stilled by the whisperings of God’s love for him and the intimations of God’s purposes.
The chief priests and scribes were listening opportunistically for their moment to seize Jesus without causing a riot. They were listening to the political undercurrents and to the reports that suggested that this carpenter from Galilee was slowly but surely eroding their religious authority in the minds of the people. They heard their own injured sense of self-importance.
Many of those at the meal in Bethany heard the clinking of money being poured down the drain as the woman poured the perfumed oil over Jesus. The woman had heard the sound of the gathering storm, the mounting sorrow in Jesus’ voice. Jesus heard her love, and her spiritual intuition. Jesus insists that those who follow, including us, are to hear her story.
Judas Iscariot was so busy listening to his own script of what the Messiah should be like that he couldn’t hear Jesus’ counter story. He listened to his own disillusionment and greed, and then started listening out for the opportunity to betray his friend. Jesus, listening to that disillusionment, and to the fear and confusion of his disciples, predicted their betrayal and desertion. He also spoke the words to encourage them in that dark moment to come, when they would be haunted by their faithlessness, and to point the way forward. Poor Peter could only hear his own inflated sense of his bravery. He could recognise his love for his teacher, but not the cowardice hiding in his breast. Later he heard the servant girl’s words as accusation and threat, and listened to his own fear. How his words of denial must have run over and over in his head, mocking and condemning him!
While Jesus poured out his heart to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane and listened desperately for the words of comfort, his disciples were too afraid to really hear his anguish. They couldn’t listen and pray with him, but escaped into sleep. So when the crisis arrived in the form of Judas and the mob, Jesus had the resources to move forward on his journey whereas the disciples panicked and fled.
Those at the trials listened maliciously for the words that could be twisted to serve their own purpose. Pilate hears Jesus’ innocence, but the voice of caution telling him not to allow a riot drowns out his conscience. He listens to the crowd. The crowd hearing the refrain ‘crucify him!’ take it up and repeat it unthinkingly. They hear only the voice of the mob which pulls them in.
The soldiers have listened well to their conditioning that causes them to dehumanize their victims and to bolster their own sense of worth and power by humiliating them. The passersby succumb to the lies told by those in power by joining in the mockery of the crucified victim. They hear the script of violence and choose to identify with the powerful. They cannot hear Jesus’ cry of spiritual desolation for what it is and so re-interpret it as a request for physical help. Ironically, it is a foreigner, the Roman centurion, who recognises something of what is happening: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” He has heard what the religious elite and the callous mob alike have missed, because they do not know how to listen for the voice of God in unexpected places.