‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ asks the Ethiopian official in Ax 8. This question has provided hours of fun for theological students down the ages, but of course we all know that this was a prophecy about Jesus’ passion which was to happen 500 years or so in the future. Or was it? Of course it is easy to see how the NT writers could see Jesus as having fulfilled this and other OT passages (such as Psalm 22, the Psalm set for today), but to read this merely as a fulfilled prophecy is to break the golden rule of hermeneutics (interpretation): ‘a passage means what the original author meant the original hearers to understand by it’. That’s why context is so important. So we need to forget Golgotha for now, and ask about historical and literary context.
The passage is part of the writings of ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, an unknown prophet who ministered in Babylon towards the close of the exile, and whose works were attached to the book of Isaiah of Jerusalem written around 200 years earlier. Chapters 40-55 of our book of Isaiah are essentially an extended commentary on its first couple of verses:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
The exile is coming to an end, and the people will soon be on their way home.
Part of this writing is four ‘Servant songs’ of which our lectionary passage is the final. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, scholars have debated long and hard who it is that these songs refer to, but the general consensus is that the nation as a whole is God’s servant. They have been battered, disfigured beyond all recognition, they have been the recipients of violence and cruelty, but through all this suffering salvation is coming. The nations will discover through Israel the way to salvation, and will come to her to find wisdom and life. And – and here is the most profound message of this passage – this wounding and suffering didn’t happen by accident, or simply because of the cruelty of others. It was all within God’s plan. Through suffering salvation comes.
Of course it is easy to see how Jesus fits the bill perfectly, and there are some uncanny similarities between the sufferings of exiled Israel and their archetypical manifestation in Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Of course the NT writer could not help but write up Jesus’ passion using the language of Isaiah 52-53. But what a contextual reading of the passage tells us is that the ‘salvation through suffering’ motif belongs not just to Jesus but also to his followers. On this day the Church traditionally prayed for all ‘Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks’, a somewhat politically incorrect reminder that down the ages God’s people have suffered persecution at the hands of others (Common Worship prays more sensitively for ‘God’s ancient people’ and for greater understanding). But the fact is that today Christians around the world are in exile of various kinds, are treated cruelly and even martyred for their commitment to Jesus. Jesus’ followers are indeed called to take up our crosses and follow him. We can’t, of course, win our own salvation through suffering, but we do walk the path of the cross because of the salvation won by our pioneer.
My personal favourite collect was the one we used a few weeks ago on Lent 3, but it is as relevant today as then:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Why this blog series on the OT readings from the lectionary? For two reasons: firstly, I love the OT and feel keenly its neglect in a church which has become in practice if not in theology virtually Marcionite*, and secondly because there is so much richness to be found in its take on some of our lectionary themes. Maundy Thursday is perhaps one of the most guilty manifestations of Gospel-centricity: I’m sure that in the vast majority of churches sermons or meditations today will be about servant leadership and/or the importance of the Eucharist. But by looking at the OT background we can add layers of richness to the tired and politically correct footwashing narrative.
So what themes emerge from the instructions given for the first Passover? The immediate thing to strike me was the sense of new start: ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’ v.2. The Passover represented a brand new beginning’. That’s the significance of unleavened bread. Part of the previous batch of bread would be left to go mouldy, and that would form the starter yeast for the next. So to eat bread without yeast meant a sharp discontinuity and the need to start from scratch after the break. We might meditate on the discontinuity for us before and after coming to Jesus on the cross, particularly in these days when we are told that ‘Damascus Road’ conversions are no longer the ticket.
Then there is the theme of salvation, seen here as rescue. After nine unsuccessful plagues God was about to unleash his most powerful weapon, and this, finally was going to be the means through which Pharaoh’s will was broken and the Israelites freed. Now it is the Father who loses his Son, and we who can be set free from the cruel and oppressive rule of sin in our lives. Again, my guess is that we rarely see it like that, and that for most of us Jesus is the icing on the cake of a comfortable life, not the means of rescue from a life bound for destruction. This can lead to a devaluing of the cross and a cheapening of what Jesus has done for us. It really is rescue.
Thirdly, how about the sense of journey? One of the memorable events in our family history is of eating our meal on Maundy Thursday with our coats and hats on and with walking sticks in our hands (no easy task). Our grown-up boys still talk about this, and the symbolism contains elements of haste and urgency, and, we know from hindsight, a long and winding journey to freedom. The footwashing symbolism is about arrival and preparation for the banquet: the Passover is about setting out. The cross is for us both a departure and an arrival. In the famous words, we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. But we have a long journey of sanctification, becoming more like Jesus, ahead of us, and our Passover meal provides rations for that journey.
My fourth theme from the Passover institution narrative is a particularly poignant one at the moment: that of sharing. Verses 3-4 give instructions for the meal to be shared with others, and God’s care for the solitary, whom he sets within families (Ps 68:6), is shown in this caring passage. Today we will worship via the gift of Zoom or Facebook, and sharing with others, particularly those who have no-one else, will need more creativity than usual. Let’s remember that what we are being called to by our government is physical distancing, and need not mean social distancing, and as we remember and journey forwards, let’s remember those with whom we walk.
*Marcion of Sinope was a 2nd century heretic who taught that the God of Jesus was a different God from the one of the OT, and so tried to expunge from his Bible the OT and all NT references to it. It was a very thin book!
The NT writers saw many OT passages, including the Psalms, as being fulfilled by Jesus in his earthly ministry. Ps 118 has long been associated with Palm Sunday, and it is not difficult to see why. The Psalm is a complex one, and our lectionary fillets out the middle section, which seems less easy to apply to Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But what was the Psalm about originally? Was it merely a prophecy about something which was to happen centuries later? What would the original users of this Psalm have made of it?
Like Psalms 15 and 24 it looks very much like an entrance liturgy, rather like an introit in churches today, and may have been used at the gates of the city by pilgrims coming for one of the festivals, probably the Feat of Tabernacles. Like Psalm 24 it is a kind of antiphonal ‘Who goes there? Friend or foe?’ kind of dialogue at the city gates. This is an important question, because the ‘gates of righteousness’ of verse 19, or, more correctly, ‘the gates of the righteous’ are there to allow only those who are righteous to come in, and to keep out anyone else. The congregation assert that they are allowed in, because God has been good enough to save them and therefore to declare them righteous. They are stones which have been rejected, but are now seen to be important enough to be part of the building of God’s people, all because of the grace of God. God has acted this very day, not at some remote point in history, and so it is a day of rejoicing. So, as God’s people, let’s go! Join in the procession, and come to worship the God who has saved us and declared us righteous.
This is an interesting twist on the Psalm which is so often read as being about Jesus. Yes, he was rejected but then exalted, and yes, he did ride into the city in a triumphal procession, but that is NT spin, not OT exegesis. So today let’s make the bold step of reappropriating the Psalm for ourselves, because it is about us, not about Jesus. We are those who this world so often counts as nothing, labelling us as ‘religious nuts’, ‘hypocrites’, ‘losers’ and several other less than flattering epithets which are often flung at Christians. But God has welcomed us! God has forgiven us, set our feet on a rock, turned our lives around, and invited us to join in the procession of worship.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Superstar Jesus gets this nuance completely:
Sing me your songs, But not for me alone. Sing out for yourselves, For you are blessed. There is not one of you Who cannot win the kingdom. The slow, the suffering, The quick, the dead.
In this difficult period of isolation, fear and anxiety, let’s sing out for ourselves this Palm Sunday, for we are indeed blessed, and privileged beyond all measure.