How it was more than a lament

Credit: ordinaryfool on Flickr

Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”

In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

– Matthew’s account of the crucifixion

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On a hill outside the holy city, the religious might of Jerusalem conspired with the military might of Rome to kill the one who threatened them both. Convicting Jesus of blasphemy and treason, they strapped him to a tree and strung him up — a warning to any other who defied their stranglehold of power.

Those who passed by played along, voicing their approval of his execution — perhaps out of fear or perhaps because the current state of affairs between Jerusalem and Rome suited them just fine.

Even the insurrectionists strung up next to Jesus hurled their abuse. Maybe they resented him. At least they’d had the nerve to wield a sword in the face of oppression. Maybe they thought Jesus wasn’t worthy of dying next to them.

Utterly alone and abandoned, Jesus cried out:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The opening words of Psalm 22.

But it wasn’t the only line quoted from that psalm on this day. Matthew’s account of the crucifixion is, in fact, a reenactment of Psalm 22 in its entirety. Notice the insult that prompted Jesus’ lament:

He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him.

Matthew attributed this line to the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders — the religious establishment. It too came straight out of Psalm 22.

I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Matthew appropriates the language of Psalm 22 to show us who’s playing what part in his story: the righteous sufferer and those who “hurl insults” at him. All of Psalm 22 was activated on Good Friday, in a manner of speaking.

I will fulfill my vows,” the psalmist resolved in the face of his own suffering.

Even when a pack of villains encircles him.

Even when they divide his clothes among them.

Even when the people stare and gloat.

The crucifixion of Jesus was a cruel reenactment of Psalm 22. It was, as one singer put it, “a strange way to do performance art.”

Understanding the interplay between Matthew’s crucifixion story and Psalm 22 brings something else to the surface. About two-thirds of the way into this psalm, the plot takes an unexpected turn: the psalmist predicts that from abandonment will come deliverance.

Not just his own deliverance, but rescue for all who are afflicted.

As a result of his hardship, the psalmist predicts, poverty will be no more.

All the ends of the earth will remember God and turn to him.

The rich and the poor will feast side by side — equals in God’s kingdom.

Those who cannot keep themselves alive” will be sustained.

All because of the sacrifice of one who chose not to keep himself alive.

On this Good Friday, try reading the original crucifixion story.

Read Psalm 22.

How this is foot-washing day

Jesus footwashing

It was just before the Passover meal — the most sacred feast on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the night the Hebrews made their hurried escape from Egypt.

It was not a meal to be lingered over.

Meat roasted quickly over the fire, not braised in liquid till falling off the bone.

Bread made without yeast — no time to allow dough to rise.

The meal was eaten with bags packed and ready to go:

Cloak tucked into your belt.

Sandals on your feet.

Staff in hand.

Eat it in haste,” God had said. Because things are moving fast.

Much like that first Passover night, Jesus knew his time was running out. “The hour had come,” John would later recall.

The meal was already in progress when Jesus abruptly interrupted it.

He got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he got down on his hands and knees and crawled from one disciple to the next, washing their feet.

Hours before he would die, just minutes before Judas would slip out to betray him — in the middle of a meal that was supposed to be eaten like there was no tomorrow — Jesus stopped everything to perform one of the most mundane tasks of hospitality.

Foot-washing was servant’s work.

In those days, when a guest arrived at your house, it was common courtesy to volunteer your servant to wash their feet — or, in the event you had no servant, to invite your guests to wash their own feet.

With the minutes ticking down — with “the hour” at hand — Jesus took the role of a servant.

And it wasn’t even his house.

It would have been strange enough for the owner of a house to personally wash his guest’s feet. Stranger still for another guest — who also happened to be king — to do the honors.

It would be like the new pope washing the feet of an AIDS patient.

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

The question is, an example of what?

Peter famously objected to this bizarre display, until Jesus explained, “If you don’t let me do this, you can’t have any part of me.”

Ever the zealot, Peter swung quickly to the other extreme, begging Jesus to wash the rest of him as well.

“You’re already clean, Peter,” Jesus replied.

Sensing that some explanation was required, Jesus turned to the other disciples:

You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Jesus’ act of foot-washing was no mere gesture of hospitality. It was an abhorrent act of self-humiliation. It was an abdication of power by which the rightful Lord traded his kingship for servitude.

This was a foreshadowing of what was going to happen the following day.

This is what being “the way, the truth, and the life” — something Jesus talked about just moments later — was all about.

And this is the life to which Jesus called his disciples. This is the example he called them to follow. To set aside any notions of grandeur or glory. To hell with the urgency of the moment or whatever cause we think matters more than people.

To lay down our arms, our pride, our agendas and become the servant of all.

How Jesus brought down the temple

Sometime during the last week of Jesus’ life, in what we now commemorate as Holy Week, he went to the temple and got into an argument over taxes.

(The more things change . . . )

The religious leaders were still licking their wounds from the last confrontation with Jesus a day or two earlier, when he had driven the merchants and the money changers from the temple courts — specifically, from the court of the Gentiles.

Roman money wasn’t allowed in the temple and had to be exchanged for temple coinage which could be used inside. By setting up shop in the one place reserved for Gentiles, the religious establishment managed to simultaneously line their pockets at the expense of the poor AND crowd out non-Jews from the temple.

Economic and ethnic exploitation. In what was thought to be the holiest place on earth.

Is it any wonder Jesus got angry?

Is it any wonder he engaged in a bit of performance art meant to symbolize the coming destruction of the temple? The “robber’s den” would give way to a new reality — to a new house of prayer. One for all nations. One for all those previously kept outside.

But the religious establishment would not go down without a fight.

So its leaders resorted to desperate measures. Pharisees teamed up with Herodians. (Think Fox News partnering with MSNBC.)

The Pharisees opposed Roman imperialism with every fiber of their being, while the Herodians, being more pragmatic (or opportunistic, depending on your point of view), freely collaborated with the Roman authorities.

Together the Pharisees and Herodians devised a trap for Jesus. Like the last confrontation, this one involved money.

“Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

This was not a question about taxation in general. It was about one very particular tax. Every time the Jewish people paid the imperial tax, they were reminded of their subjugation and humiliation. This was tribute money, designed to enrich their oppressors while reinforcing exactly who was in charge.

If Jesus answered one way, the Pharisees would denounce him as a traitor to his own people. Answer the other way, and the Herodians would accuse him of inciting rebellion against Rome.

So Jesus asks for a coin. Specifically, a Roman denarius used to pay the imperial tax. On one side of this coin: the face of Tiberius, emperor of Rome. On the other, this inscription:

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.

(It’s not clear whether this exchange took place in the temple, but if it did, imagine the tension as one of the leaders reluctantly produced a coin — a coin which to carry in the temple would have bordered on idolatry.)

Jesus looks at the face and the inscription. Here he is, the Son of God — face to face with a rival to the throne. Not just any rival, but the emperor who kept Jesus’ people in subjugation and insisted on being worship as the son of a god.

“Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” Jesus demands.

“Caesar’s,” came the answer.

“Well, isn’t it obvious?” Jesus says (more or less). “The image and inscription belong to Caesar. Give it back to him.”

Jesus’ counsel was neither accommodation nor revolution but a far more subversive kind of defiance.

To hang onto the coin was to legitimize Caesar’s power and his claim to divinity. It was to become an accessory to oppression and idolatry, as the Herodians had.

But “give it back to Caesar” wasn’t Jesus’ only counsel. He also told the religious leaders to give “to God what is God’s.”

You see, the Pharisees and Herodians were equally guilty of hoarding power for themselves. The Herodians did it through collusion with Rome, while the Pharisees used religious law to keep people at arm’s length from God. One relied on self-serving political power, the other on self-serving religious power.

But there was only one true king, and it wasn’t Caesar. It wasn’t the religious establishment. As Jesus’ earlier confrontation in the temple revealed, the one true king would not use his power to oppress or exclude, but to bring all sorts of people to himself.

Any institution which caused oppression or exclusion — whether Caesar in Rome or the temple in Jerusalem — would not survive.

To walk alongside Jesus through Holy Week is to walk against oppression, injustice, and every form of exclusion. It is to confront the powers and institutions which perpetuate these things.

And it is also to remember: this was the path which ultimately cost Jesus his life.