Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)
By Dennis Ormseth
Sunday of the Passion in Year C
or Luke 23:1-49
Recapitulation of the argument: Jesus refuses the way of domination over neighbor, nations and nature. Our comments on the readings for the Sundays of Lent have shown that the texts consistently address the way of domination in a manner that involves both social justice and care of creation. All four readings from the Gospel of Luke and a fifth from John’s Gospel support this view, often in combination with either or both of the first and second readings. First, Jesus’ refusal in the wilderness to test God in acts of domination in relationship to nature and the nations is coupled with Moses’ expectation that, as they enter the promised land, the people of Israel will experience relief from their wandering and the alienation from the land that accompanies the violence visited primordially by Cain upon Abel. Second, in an encounter with Pharisees who warn, probably falsely, that Herod seeks to kill him, Jesus refuses to be intimidated and persists in his teaching and acts of healing as he proceeds on his way toward Jerusalem, whose people he would shelter as a hen its chicks under its wings. There he can expect to be greeted with cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;” it is a blessing, that, like God’s promises to Abram in the first reading, looks forward to “the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life.” Third, a second encounter with Jesus’ opponents further develops this theme of resistance to domination: they again attempt to intimidate him with a report of brutal action, this time by Pilate against a party of Galileans on their way to worship, faulting their sinfulness. Jesus exposes the incipient cultural and religious dualism of their view, as to relations between Galileans and Jerusalemites, and counters it with the “horticultural” parable of the fig tree given another chance by its vine dresser, who resists the command of the land’s owner to rip it out, promising to fertilize it; this image of God as patient and generous sustainer of life is doubled by the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God as an extravagant host who offers free water and food to all, in order to overcome all divisions between nations. Each of these sets of texts exhibit aspects of the way of intimidation and domination characteristic of the opposition to Jesus, and counter that way with prophetic teaching and actions.
Our argument is advanced, fourthly, in a third encounter with opponents, in which scribes and Pharisees object now to Jesus’ table fellowship with persons they, too, regard dualistically as sinners; he counters their rejection with the parable of the man with two sons, the younger whose prodigal behavior wastes the family’s wealth, and the elder who accordingly saw him only as a debauched sinner who destroyed the father’s honor. The parable reminds us that in the patriarchal narrative of Israel, the roguish younger son is expected to receive the blessing of the father. But this father loves both sons equally and seeks to overcome the elder’s alienation by assurance of his companionship and grace, thus reconciling both sons as beloved children. Left open is the question of what happens next, particularly concerning their shared participation in the blessings of the family farm. The latter’s significance is an aspect of the story that is underscored by the first reading’s account of Joshua’s crossing the Jordan into the promised land, where the people enjoy release from the shame of Egyptian oppression, and for the first time feast from the land, reminding us of Moses’ instructions to the people from the first Sunday: the people are to gather in remembrance of the Passover and offer the first fruits in thanksgiving for restoration to the land and its sustenance.
Then the texts for the fifth Sunday both recapitulate the narrative of these Lenten encounters and move the action towards a climax. The account from John’s gospel of the meal in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem and just prior to the observance of Passover, re-frames for us the themes of Luke’s narrative. The dualism of the opposition of the “scribes and Pharisees” to the sinners in Jesus’ company is now linked to the decision of the Sanhedrin to seek Jesus’ death; their threats are thrust into Jesus’ fellowship by John’s anticipation of Judas’ act of betrayal. Jesus’ teaching in opposition to the intimidation of his opponents and his steadfast procession to Jerusalem, moreover, culminate here in the confrontation between Jesus and Judas over Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet. While she reveals the future servant role of the community that follows Jesus, Judas will link up with Jesus’ opponents in order to become a player in the power struggle of the nation. Thus we are at the crux of the development which we have plotted along the way, in terms of Jonathan’s Sacks’ description of how social dualism develops into religiously sanctioned, “altruistic violence.” Which way will prevail, the way of domination or the way of service? As the older brother’s resentment prompted an attitude of victimhood in relationship to the father and destroys his relationship with his brother, so the action which Judas intends to join is premised on the idea that Jesus’ death will relieve the dishonor and danger represented by the Jewish leadership’s submission to the Roman occupation. Jesus will be sacrificed as scapegoat in order to save the nation. But as Isaiah’s watery renewal of creation envisions and as Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet foreshadows, something new is happening that will be revealed in and through the events to be unfolded in the narrative of Jesus’ passion. We can hope that Jesus will somehow persist in his resistance to the way of domination, whether of neighbor, nations, or nature, because the God whose rule he advances leads to the restoration of all these relations in the great community of life.
Reading the passion narrative as a rejection of the way of domination for the benefit of community and creation. The readings for Passion Sunday open with the account of Jesus’ triumphal procession through the streets of Jerusalem. He is welcomed as “king,” but as Luke Timothy Johnson observes, the evangelist takes immediate care here at the outset to make clear that this kingship is not about domination of enemies, neither his nor Israel’s. “This emphasis on Jesus as king in Luke’s version must be understood in light of the kingship parable of 19:11-27,” Johnson insists, but not as that parable is commonly interpreted: it is about “the successful establishment of a kingdom” but not an apocalyptic prophecy of the end time. It is rather Luke’s “authorial commentary on the narrative,” and it refers to “events unfolding in Luke’s own story”:
Who is the nobleman who would be king, and who in fact gets basileia so that he cannot only exercise it but also bestow it on followers? It is obviously Jesus himself, who will immediately be hailed as king, dispose of basileia to his followers, grant entrance to the thief, and as risen Lord, continue to exercise authority through his emissaries’ words and deeds. Who are the fellow citizens who do not wish to have this one as their ruler, who protest it, and then defeated, are “cut off”? They are the leaders of the people who will decry the proclamation of Jesus as king, accuse him of royal pretensions in his trial, mock him as king on the cross, reject his mission as prophet, persecute his apostles, and find themselves at last because of all this, “cut off from the people.” Who are the servants whose faithful use of possessions is rewarded by exousia (“authority”) within the realm of this king? The Twelve, whom we shall see in the narrative of Acts, exercising just such authority over the restored people of God (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 294).
This king, in other words, is the agent of the “constitutive blessing”,’ in Terry Fretheim”s terms, who brings about “the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life” (See our comment on the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent for Fretheim’s concept). Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem at 19:41 signals that his “arrival is the visitation of God that offers peace; the rejection of the Prophet will lead to destruction,” yes, but not by forces led by him. Thus Luke has no “waving of branches found in all the other Gospels,” which “might be perceived as the nationalistic implications of Jesus’ kingship,” which is “not simply that of the Jewish nation” but “the rule of God over the people of God” (Johnson, p. 297, 298, 301).
The lectionary’s reading of the passion narrative proper develops these themes of the parable, beginning with the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and his followers. In his account of the meal, Luke is first concerned to establish the character of Jesus’ community. As Johnson points out, he “stresses the special relationship between Jesus and his followers,” almost entirely ignoring Judas’ presence. “Jesus’ blessing and sharing of the cup” signifies “in a truly complex fashion, the role of the disciples after Jesus’ death. They are to “divide among themselves.” At one level, this is an implicit bestowal of authority and fellowship, for such was the status of those who drank from the same cup as the king.” But this shared company’s authority is not about domination. “At another level, sharing equally in the cup signifies as well a sharing in the suffering of the Messiah, for as we shortly learn, this is the cup of suffering in which his blood is being poured out for them. This destiny, as well that of the apostles, will be fulfilled in the narrative of Acts, when they “suffer for the name of the Messiah (5:41).” Jesus’ words over the cup establish a powerful connection to the symbolism of the Passover celebration. As Johnson writes, the primordial experience of liberation that was the Exodus was more than an escape from Egypt. It was God’s formation of a people by the giving of Torah and the establishment of the covenant, sealed by the sacrificial blood sprinkled alike on the book of the covenant and the people. Luke therefore portrays the cup given by Jesus in equally “foundational” terms. The restoration of Israel by the prophet Jesus is equally sealed by sacrificial blood. But now the blood is not of animals, but of the Prophet himself. It is by the giving of his life in sacrifice—donation to God for the sake of others—that a regeneration of the people can take place (Johnson, p. 342).
So also with the thickly layered symbolism of the bread: the actions reveal the true meaning not only of this meal, but of both the feedings Jesus has provided earlier and those to come, following the resurrection. “Jesus is the servant who gives his life for others. And as the bread must be broken to be shared, so is his body to be broken in death so that the life-giving spirit might be given to them.” But “when they in turn ‘do this as a remembrance of him’ in their ‘breaking bread’ together (Acts 2:46; 20:7), he will be present not as a fond memory but as a powerful and commanding presence (24:44)” (Johnson, pp. 342).
There is deep irony in this, of course. The sacrifice of the scapegoat which the Sanhedrin counts on to save themselves from Roman punishment is subverted to become the cornerstone of a rebirth of God’s people on a new and vastly larger scale. As Norman Wirzba puts it,
Christ is no mere scapegoat, nor is his death reducible to lessons people should learn about their implacable thirst for violence. Jesus’ death speaks to God’s way of being with the world and thus also to creation’s inner meaning. On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life.
In this perspective, we begin to see the cosmic significance of the passion narrative. “The movement of sacrifice that characterizes God’s life also characterizes created life. Creation is an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 125). And yet, we cannot fail to observe, the use of bread and wine as the sacramental means of that cosmic presence will for all time bind both the celebration of this meal and the ministry of Jesus’ followers to the earth from which those elements are locally harvested.
So the way of domination is countered by the subversion of the very means by which it is to be effected. When Luke finally mentions the “hand of the betrayer at the table,” it is because “this is how the sacrifice of the prophet will be accomplished”:
Because the covenant is being established anthropologically—in the very fabric of human freedom—the offer of the gift and the rejection of it as well must be carried out in the messy tangle of human decisions, and the decision of Judas is part of the larger process that no human agency controls. The Son of Man moves toward a destiny determined by God.
As Jesus will emphasize in his “farewell discourse” while they are still at table, the authority shared by him is not about domination. That is the way of the Gentiles, he observes, but it is not his way, nor is it to be that of his followers (Johnson, p. 344). The authority they are given, as Johnson summarizes it, “is to be carried out as a practical service to others. Their wrangling over status (philoneikia, 22:24) is entirely inappropriate. They are neither to dominate nor to regard themselves as benefactors (22:26). Like their teacher, they are to serve humbly those they teach” (Johnson, p. 349). And in the action that follows the meal, Luke is equally insistent that Jesus will tolerate no violence: when a disciple strikes a slave of the high priest and cuts off his ear, Jesus not only forbids further such acts, but heals the wound with his touch. This gesture, which only Luke mentions, as Johnson points out, not only shows “the continuation of the ministry of healing that has accompanied Jesus’ proclamation of the good news from the beginning,” but also exemplifies “the attitudes of forgiveness and compassion toward those ‘who hate him’ that he had enjoined on his followers” (Johnson, p. 353).
Is Jesus resistance to domination truly a viable way to follow in the actual give and take of human life? The events following on the meal demonstrate both its strength and its cost. In his denial of Jesus, Peter submits to the intimidation of the crowd when he is identified as a Galilean, recalling for us the social dualism presupposed in the report of Pilate’s brutal action against Galileans. But an exchange of glances between Peter and Jesus will set Peter on the way to repentance (Johnson. p.). So also the report of Jesus’ questioning by Pilate and Herod makes note of Jesus’ Galilean origins (Luke 23:5k) as a factor in the development of friendship between Pilate and Herod (Johnson, pp. 357-358, 364, 366; see our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent). Since Jesus’ “stirring up the people” allows Pilate to act against him because ”anyone encouraging such revolt could be executed simply as a warning to others,” the Galilean connection if significant: “if this is not a local commotion at the feast, but a deliberate program of propagandizing, Pilate must take it more seriously into account” (Johnson, p. 365). But Jesus’ careful answers to Herod and Pilate give them no grounds to punish Jesus beyond the mocking and flogging he has already received. The Sanhedrin’s attempt to draw Jesus into the orbit of officially sanctioned violence thus fails on account of Jesus’ own reticence to claim his kingship in the face of its inevitable exploitation by his opponents. As Johnson points out, their charges “are plainly deceptive. The title of Messiah, which Jesus refused to acknowledge unequivocally before the Sanhedrin (22:67), is not only reported as his own claim but is cast in its most dangerous political form: Messiah, a king (23:2).” The murderous Herod and Pilate are “astonishingly reluctant to murder Jesus when they have the legal opportunity to do so!” They are forced finally to draw on the psychology of the gathered mob to force Pilate’s acquiescence (Johnson, p. 368-69). All of this is in full accord with Luke’s view, widely shared in the early church, that Jesus is to be understood as the suffering servant of Isaiah 50, our first reading for the Sunday, and Isaiah 53: he is innocent of all charges brought against him; he is the “suffering righteous one, whose death is not one of punishment for his own crimes but one of sacrifice for others;” and the violence that is carried out against him is of a piece with the suffering of the people that will take place when their leaders eventually bring down upon them all the wrath of Rome (Johnson 374-75).
The full vindication of Jesus’ refusal of the way of domination awaits the good news of Easter, of course, and the active implementation of practices of resistance, the post-resurrection re-gathering of his community. The exploration of the cosmic significance of this death will await the later writings of the community such as our second reading from Philippians 2. But Luke’s narrative offers along the way meaningful if spare witness to the full creation’s interest in relation to these events: Jesus’ words to the Galilean women following him to the cross invokes the barrenness of wombs that spares them from seeing children suffer, and the falling mountains and hills that might save them from starvation during the siege to come (Johnson, pp. 372-73). Jesus’ promise of paradise to the criminal beside him invokes the image of the “garden of joy and pleasure, mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament only twice (2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelations 2:7), the garden prepared by God for the first humans (Genesis 2:8), the most noteworthy feature of which was the ‘tree of life’ (Genesis 2:9). As Jesus cries out, commending his spirit to God, the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, perhaps to “symbolize the end of the division separating Jew and Gentile, giving all equal access to God” (Johnson, p.378). A pious Jew named Joseph sees to it that Jesus’ body is buried in a newly dug tomb; his reverence for that body will be shared by the Galilean women who come to anoint it with oils and so become first witnesses to the resurrection (Johnson, p. 380). And thus will the resurrected body become a sacred center for the restoration of the creation.