Tuesday of Holy Week
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
ISAIAH 49:1-7 Israel’s mission as God’s servant people is further elaborated in another of the four Servant Songs found in the latter part of Book of Isaiah. Here the mission is not only to return the Israelites to their homeland after two generations in exile in Babylon, but to bring the good news of God’s redemption to the world. The once humiliated and enslaved people are not only to be restored but especially chosen this divine mission.
PSALM 71:1-14 This psalm appears as a traditional lament, but does not repeat parts of the classical form of an appeal, a complaint, a petition and a vow of thanksgiving in regular sequence. While we do not have the whole psalm in this reading, we do see how the psalmist makes several urgent appeals to God for deliverance from unnamed enemies.Throughout his prayer, he prefaces his appeals by confessing his trust in God as his only refuge and hope.
I CORINTHIANS 1:18-31 The tension between living in the real world and living by Christian values was as serious an issue for the Corinthians as it is for us today. Here Paul made his forthright views on this struggle as clear as can be.
The power to live the Christian life lies in the self-sacrificing attitude of Jesus who gave himself in love on the cross. All who would be disciples of Jesus are called to a similar standard. As foolish and ineffective as it may seem to unbelievers, this is God’s only plan for saving the world.
JOHN 12:20-36 A group of Greeks came seeking Jesus. John has Jesus predict his own death and resurrection, and makes a deeper analysis of what this means. Through his sacrifice, like a seed planted to grow and bring forth much fruit, a new relationship with God would be established. His crucifixion would draw the whole world into this new relationship with God.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
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Israel’s mission as God’s servant people is further elaborated in another of the Servant Songs found in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah. Here the mission is not only to return the Israelites to their homeland after two generations in exile in Babylon, but to bring the goods news of God’s redemption to the whole world.
The whole chapter is a twelve strophe poem consisting of two parts (vss.1-13; 14-25). It introduces the remaining segment of the prophetic poetry scholars attribute to Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55). The general theme of these several chapters is the redemption of Israel from exile. This reading contains only the first three strophes of the poem and describes the prophet’s call and mission.
The specific description complicates the question of whether the servant was an individual or the nation as a whole. Vss. 1-6 read as if an individual is intended; but vs. 7 appears to change the focus to the nation. At the same time, vs. 3 definitely identifies the servant asIsrael. The concept of the corporate personality identified as an individual indicates that both may have been intended.
Several metaphors in vs. 2 seem to point to a military event as the historical context of this poetic oracle. Hence the prophet may well have been drawing these metaphors from what he saw happening around him. The capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Mede was such an event which undoubtedly had great significance for the exiled Jews. Yet the prophet is discouraged (vs. 4) that his faithful witness has had little or no effect upon his compatriots.
The inspiration he received, however, is that his work has not been in vain. Not only isIsraelto be brought back to its rightful master, Yahweh; but as Yahweh’s servant he and they are given a still greater mission: to be “a light to the nations” that Yahweh’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (vs. 6) The despised nation which has been subservient to many rulers will be seen to rise and receive the obeisance of kings and princes because this is the will of Israel’s faithful God (vs. 7).
In spite of being interpreted as a messianic prophecy which Jesus fulfilled, there is nothing in this passage to indicate anything other than the very specific historic context and the promise of Israel’s return from exile. Yet that is exactly how the early church dealt with the scriptures they had inherited from the Jewish tradition. They searched the Hebrew Scriptures and reinterpreted selective passages as if they were direct prophecies of what they had seen and heard of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
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In some respects, this psalm does not conform to the traditional style of a lament with its sequence of appeal, complaint, petition and vow of thanksgiving, such as we find in Ps. 56. Here we have a sick, fearful and depressed old man (vss. 9, 18) who appears to have reached the end of his resources. He feels that God has all but deserted him. He makes several urgent appeals to God for deliverance from unnamed enemies. Yet, throughout his prayer, he prefaces his appeals by confessing his trust in God as his only refuge and hope (vs. 3).
We must conclude that the psalm was composed at relatively late date. It draws on material found in other parts of the Psalter: vss. 1-3 = 31:1-3a; vs. 6 = 22:10, etc. Be that as it may, the psalm still expresses the intensive search of the lonely and distressed soul for the assurance and hope of a living relationship with God in the utmost extremities of life.
Could this not also be the prayer of those who even now endure unexpected natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis? And what of those many millions who flee for their lives in terror caused by war only to face starvation and death in refugee camps? Are there not also many single parent families or elderly people, ill, alone and threatened with being forced out of their homes because no one cares about them and governments have withdrawn support for the most vulnerable of this richest society ever in human history? The profound sense of justice implicit is so much of Hebrew prophetic literature comes to the fore in this psalmist’s lament.
1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31
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The tension between living in the real world and living by Christian values was as serious for the Corinthians as for us today. Here Paul made his forthright views on this struggle as clear as can be, but he had no illusions about how these would be perceived by those outside the Christian fellowship: they would see the faith as utter foolishness (vs.18)
In the exegesis of this passage, Clarence T. Craig speculated that it may have been the Apollos faction in Corinth, imbued with Jewish wisdom tradition, which laid too much stress upon moral precepts. (The Interpreter’s Bible. vol.10, 28.Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953) Undoubtedly Paul knew Israel’s wisdom tradition very well. He would have none of it. His first appeal is to scripture (vs.19) where he melds two quotations from Isaiah (29:14 and 33:18) although it is difficult to understand the relevance of these two quotations. For him, there was one source of spiritual power to live the Christian life in present circumstances, then as now: the cross of Jesus Christ.
The power lies not in the pieces of wood as mediaeval relics implied, nor in the religious symbol worn as a decoration today, but in the self-sacrificing attitude of Jesus who gave himself in love on the cross. All who would be disciples of Jesus are called to a similar standard. As foolish and ineffective as it may seem to unbelievers, this is God’s only plan for saving the world.
We must emphasize that Paul did not belittle learning or reject knowledge. He himself was a well educated man for his time. He was equally certain that this was not the course that led to God’s presence and power. He also believed fervently that his fellow Jews were on the wrong track because they rejected the crucified Christ. No Jew could ever believe that the Messiah would be executed in such a merciless manner. Instead they sought credible signs that the Messiah had come to bring them freedom from all oppressors. In fact, as William Barclay stated, two such supposed messiahs had appeared within the decade when Paul wrote. Thousands of credulous Jews had followed them. (Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Corinthians.Edinburgh:St. Andrew Press, 1954.)
Greeks, on the other hand, also spurned the whole idea of the incarnation of God. They sought wisdom in philosophy. Paul’s attempt to convert Athenians with a philosophical diatribe did not achieve great success (Acts 17:16-34). Paul did not seem disturbed by the lack of response from those whom the world thought wise or thought themselves to be so. he gospel he preached was for simple folk like those in the Corinthian congregation (vs. 26). God chose the little people, not the great ones, to be witnesses to the initiative of grace offered in Christ Jesus.
As a young man an eminent scholar served a pastorate in a Scottish coal mining community where the men of the congregation worked in considerable danger at the coal face. One evening after discussing point of faith with one of the elders of the congregation, the minister remarked, “Jock, that’s narrow, but deep.” To which the elder replied, “At the coal face, one has to be both narrow and deep.” Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians conveyed a similar simplicity.
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A group of Greeks came seeking Jesus. John used the incident to show how Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, and made a deeper analysis of what this meant: It is God’s way of giving eternal life to all who believe. Through his sacrifice, like a seed planted to grow and bring forth much fruit, a new relationship with God would be established. His crucifixion would become God’s way of drawing the whole world into this new relationship.
It would not have been unusual for Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) to seek out Jesus in Galilee, but this meeting occurred in Jerusalem “at the festival,” one of the Jewish high holy days. We are not told why they asked to see Jesus, but many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism for its rigorous moral standards in an amoral civilization. As Paul later discovered, it was the covenant symbol of circumcision which made Gentiles hold back from a total commitment to the Jewish tradition.
Writing many decades after Paul’s successful Gentile mission, John appears to use this pericope as a means of including them in the Christian community based on faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ/Messiah for all of humanity, not for Jews alone. Throughout his gospel narrative, John has Jesus use the word “glorify” in reference not only to his death but also to his resurrection. Perhaps by the end of the 1st century early Christian art had already begun to portray the crucifixion in more attractive ways than it must have been experienced. Or perhaps knowledge of the resurrection had already caused the dark horror of that scene to have diminished before the brightness of faith in the risen Lord. The tradition of the seed that dies to give new life (vs. 24) obviously had been a strong apostolic tradition because Paul had also used it in his letter to the Corinthians, as had Jesus in his parable of the seed and sower. Here John tied it to Jesus’ teaching about service also found in the other gospels.
More difficult to understand, however, are the subsequent words John attributed to Jesus. One commentary gives this pericope the title of “The Agony and the Voice.” (W.F. Howard. The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, 664). Howard also notes that this passage in John replaces the synoptic narrative of the agony in Gethsemane, but closely resembles Mark 14:33-35. The voice of reassurance (vs. 28) is similar to the voice in Mark 9:7 at the Transfiguration. Three different interpretations are given to the voice: by some of the disbelievers in the crowd who thought they had heard thunder. Others said it was an angel, possibly recalling two stories from Genesis 21:17 and 22:11 when God spoke to Hagar and Abraham in crucial situations. The final word, however, came from Jesus. The hour of crisis had come when people must decide between walking in the light or the darkness (vss. 35-36). For some reason the reading excludes this interpretation.
This whole passage focuses on the meaning and cost of discipleship. Without ever naming the crucifixion, it holds up the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice that discipleship entails. More than likely John wrote for a Gentile audience, so he used commonly recognizable metaphors such as a fruitful seed of wheat and contrasting light and darkness to explain in a positive manner, just what any Christian might expect in making such a commitment at the end of the 1st century. In common with the other gospels, he wove into this pericope elements of the apostolic tradition of the words Jesus himself had used. John also ties these to his theme of the mighty works of Jesus glorifying God. The effect is to lift the whole experience of discipleship from the ordinary mundane level of suffering and sacrifice to the sanctified holiness of accomplishing God’s eternal purpose.