Wednesday of Holy Week
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
ISAIAH 50:4-9a This brief selection from the third of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah 40‑55 declares a firm confidence in God in the face of great suffering. It may be difficult for us to understand how one person can suffer vicariously on behalf of many. Here the Servant represents the whole nation ofIsrael, a sole individual representing the community. The early church regarded this as a prophecy about the Messiah fulfilled by Jesus on the cross, suffering innocent death as representative for the whole of humanity.
PSALM 70 This brief psalm consists of an appeal for God’s help when confronted by malicious enemies. His plea is delivered that others may rejoice. As in all laments of this type, it also expresses the wish that his enemies be put to shame.
HEBREWS 12:1-3 Following a long list of faithful saints in Hebrews 11, this passage encourages Christians anticipating persecution to persevere as Jesus did when facing the cross because he had faith in God.
JOHN 13:21-32 The drama of this passage has lent greatly to the imaginative way Jesus betrayal by Judas has been treated by countless assessments through the ages.
Generally speaking, John’s Gospel did not treat Judas kindly. In this instance he suggests that Jesus not only knew about the plot against him, but urged Judas to do what he was fated to do. Peter and the Beloved Disciple, possibly John, alone among the disciples seems to have been made aware of the betrayer also. True to John’s interpretation of the crucifixion, he quotes Jesus as putting the incident in the context of his glorification.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
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Being Jews primarily and having only the Hebrew Scriptures to read, it was inevitable that the earliest Christians would search for references with messianic implications. The many visions of a savior figure and other oracles of the book of Isaiah immediately met this need. Especially appropriate were the four Servant Songs in the poetry of the unknown prophet of the Babylonian Exile scholars have named Second Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12). These four songs tell the story of an individual who heals and redeems through vicarious suffering. This brief selection from the third of the four songs declares the Servant’s firm confidence in Yahweh in the face of great abuse by his adversaries.
The exact length of the poem is a matter for scholarly debate. It is likely, however, that it extends for the whole 11 verses as a poem of four strophes in a series of questions and answers (vss.1-2; 8; 9; 10). This segment contains the two middle strophes dealing with the suffering and vindication of the Servant.
It may be difficult for us to understand how one person can suffer vicariously on behalf of many. It may be more helpful to regard him as the representative of the whole nation. Here the Servant is described as a teacher who listens to Yahweh every morning. Then as one who is himself a learner (vs. 4), he receives the strength to bear the insults and injuries heaped upon him. This suffering equips him with the moral authority to challenge his adversaries and ultimately to be found innocent.
The poem conveys the image of a devout Israelite who spends much time in reflective contemplation and prayer. Unlike other prophets, however, his communication with Yahweh results not so much in divinely inspired oracles as in personal fellowship bringing an inner conviction that Yahweh will not only protect him but defend and vindicate his cause.
The setting for this contemplative experience is found in vss. 1-2a where Yahweh accuses the whole nation of impenitence in a sharply stated series of questions about divorce. In Jewish law a woman had no right to separate from her husband and could be divorced only if her husband gave her a writ to that effect. No more hadIsraelthe right to separate itself from its covenant relationship with Yahweh. A stern rebuke follows in vss. 2b-3 where violent upheavals in nature demonstrate the power of Yahweh to punish in judgment.
In some interpretations the Servant represents the whole nation of Israel. In so doing he fulfills the role of a representative of the whole nation in a way similar to a modern head of state. Here the emphasis appears to be upon the individual prophet. On the other hand, there is the concept of a corporate personality where the Servant represents the faithful covenant people suffering the hostility of an unbelieving world and thus vindicates the purposes of Yahweh to redeem that world.
More than half a century after the Holocaust, the creation of the nation state of Israel, and several wars between Arabs and Jews, is it still possible to view the suffering of Israel in the same light? Historic explosions of anti-Semitism and other violent forms of racism, at times initiated by the Christian church, do seem to point to our need to learn more about God’s ways of achieving God’s redemptive purpose.
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This brief psalm consists of an appeal for God’s help when confronted by malicious enemies. His plea is to be delivered that others may rejoice. As in all laments of this type, it also expresses the wish that his enemies be put to shame.
Curiously, this psalm is the same as Ps. 40:13-17 where it is coupled with a hymn of thanksgiving. Mixing of the two could have happened only late in a period, not as a prayer of David indicated by the superscription.
It would seem that the setting for this lament is a time of religious tension between those who remained faithful to their covenant and those who belittled such faith. That sounds very much like the present age, doesn’t it? One commentator suggested that this may have occurred at the time of a military defeat which tested the commitment of many Jews to Yahweh. As the psalm for the Wednesday of Holy Week, it reflects the gloom that must have hung over the disciples as they watched the impending disaster take shape.
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As a quick glance at the context shows, this passage follows a long list of faithful heroes of the Jewish tradition in Hebrews 11. It encourages Christians anticipating persecution to persevere as Jesus did when facing the cross and seemed unwilling or unable to prevent the inevitable. In so doing, however, later Christian generations looked back on his endurance as the example they must follow in their trials during times of persecution. Hence the terms “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
This is not an easy suggestion that we “do what Jesus would do.” Rather, it understands profoundly the deep trials of faith experienced by countless disciples of the first several centuries of Christian history. Then, after Christianity became the dominant religious tradition of theRoman Empire, one faction of the church was often guilty of persecuting another with whom they had a doctrinal dispute. But is that such ancient history?
Another aspect of this passage to be noted is contrast between the shame of Jesus’ crucifixion and “the joy that was set before him.” The Romans used this form of capital punishment for one reason: to terrify an unruly populace into subdued obedience. They chose a prominent place on a public road as the best location to carry out the execution. There everyone would see the dying offenders suffering in agony for hours on end as life slowly ebbed away. The victims were often left hanging for days until vultures had done their work of stripping the skeleton. As the gospel narrative records, when Joseph of Arimethea asked to bury Jesus’ body, it surprised Pilate that Jesus had died so quickly. What Pilate did not know was that delivered from traumatic suffering, Jesus had already entered into the presence of God, in spirit if not in body. Indeed God had been there with Jesus throughout the ordeal. As this passage attests later Christian teaching would interpret the crucifixion as the necessary means by which Jesus would be enthroned at God’s right hand. Hence, the idea that his death was a joyous experience for Jesus and a profound moral inspiration to all who suffered for their faith.
Christians have taken a long time to come to the realization that sacrificial love and radical non-violence exemplified by Jesus’ acceptance of death on the cross can be the victorious process for conflict settlement and the means of true reconciliation. But this is a costly way to live in the modern world, as it was toward the end of the 1st century when the Letter to the Hebrews was written. Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. have pioneered that way within the past half century.
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The drama of this passage has lent greatly to the imaginative ways Jesus’ betrayal has been treated by countless assessments through the ages. Most recently, Gibson’s presentation in *The Passion of Christ* had restored the mediaeval idea of Satan into the scene by depicting him as a shadowy figure that represents John’s brief statement in 13:2. Generally speaking, John’s Gospel did not treat Judas kindly (viz. vs. 29). In narrating this incident he points out that Jesus not only knew about the plot against him, but urged Judas to do what he was fated to do. Peter and the Beloved Disciple, possibly John, alone among the disciples seem to have been made aware of the betrayer also. True to John’s interpretation of the crucifixion, he quotes Jesus as putting the incident in the context of his glorification. That is the essential nuance that John has added to the familiar story of the betrayal. In fact, he has reiterated this point from the beginning of chapter 13 (vss.1, 11, 18, 21).
In many respects, this passage is the gospel rendition of the same theological viewpoint as found in the epistle. It presents us with a clear statement of both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus as well as the purpose of his life, death and resurrection. The very human pathos of the incident stands out in the first words of the passage. The intimacy between Jesus, Peter and John also come to the fore as the secret about the betrayer is revealed to them but not to the others present.
Yet Jesus’ testimony to his coming glorification in vss. 31-32 gives us the true meaning of his anticipated death. As in 3:14, 11:50-51, 12:27-28 and elsewhere, John reflects the apostolic theology that the cross was necessary to the completion of Jesus’ divinely appointed mission. Twenty-five years after the destruction of the temple and the cessation of all its sacrificial offerings, the Christian communities for which the Gospels had been written found an inspiring and lasting reinterpretation of those sacrifices in the crucifixion. The life of Christ offered up to God in complete obedience to God’s will was all that would ever be necessary to atone for human sin. (Cf. Leviticus 17:11; Mark 14:36, 45; Heb. 10:7-9, 12; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 5: 6, 12).