Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.

John 13:21-32; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Hebrews 12:1-3; Psalm 70

For those who chose not to do the Passion readings on Palm Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-9a is revisited now, but not in the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (“at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”).  Now the emphasis is on the willingness of the servant to submit to the will of God: “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. . . I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”  John’s Jesus knows who will betray him, and clearly indicates who it is by handing Judas the bread after it has been dipped in the bowl – yet the disciples fail to realize what is right in front of their faces: The hour for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension has arrived. 

If the readings suggested by The Revised Common Lectionary are simply read in the context of traditional Christian belief, the story of the servant depicted in Isaiah easily becomes a prequel to the suffering and death of Jesus, the Messiah.  The Psalm then is a plea on the part of listeners to be saved from such a death: “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me . . . Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life . . .”  The verses cherry-picked from the pastoral letter called “Hebrews” reassures that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” we can indeed “run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . .” 

That portion of the sermon by the writer of Hebrews has been used by would-be preachers and genuine prophets of Christianity for nearly two millennia.  In his last speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made reference to those who did not receive what was promised in their lifetimes, but who, like Moses and King himself, had been to the mountain top and had been privileged to see the promised land.  The “cloud of witnesses” refers to a litany of the Judeo-Christian journey (Heb 11:29-40), and the promise of the power of the Christ coming again.  But if read beyond the portion selected by the RCL, the metaphor soon breaks down into a thinly-veiled antisemitism along with the usual threats of hell-fire and damnation: “. . . for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! . . . for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:25-29)

Because we already know the story from Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we assume that John’s Judas has already conspired with the high priest Caiaphas to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities for 30 pieces of silver.  We assume that the reason the “chief priests and the Pharisees” in John’s story wanted to kill Jesus was because of Jesus’s demonstration against the money-changers in the Temple.  We never read John 11:45-57, in which the religious authorities plot to kill Jesus.  We never learn that Jesus’s raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead was the last straw for the high priest Caiaphas.  “This man is performing many signs,” Caiaphas tells the meeting of the council.  “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  (The Romans did indeed destroy Jerusalem, well before John wrote his gospel, but not because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, or performed any other “signs.”)  John then says, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples” until the time came for him to return to Jerusalem for the final Passover.  “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”  The stage is set for Judas leading both Roman soldiers and Temple police to arrest Jesus in the garden, not for the exchange of silver or Judas’s eventual remorseful suicide.

Judas’s motives have been the subject of speculation since the story was first told.  Jesus hands the bread to Judas and tells him to “Do quickly what you are going to do,” and Judas goes out into the night.  John’s version of the story says that “Some thought that because Judas had the common purse,” Jesus was telling him to buy supplies for their Passover festivities, or make a donation to the poor – acts of easy piety.  The writer of John’s gospel concludes that Judas was taken over by Satan.  In The Last Week, Borg and Crossan write that “. . . it is possible to gain control of the earth by demonic collaboration.  It is possible to fall prey to the ancient (and modern) delusion of religious power backed by imperial violence.” (p. 206) Quite probably, Judas did what he thought was right.  He abandoned what had to look like a lost cause in occupied Jerusalem in order to save himself from the consequences of being associated with a man the authorities wanted to arrest.  Caiphas did what he thought he needed to do in order to survive and preserve what he perceived to be the Jewish way of life.  Indeed, John has him say that “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).  Ultimately, Pontius Pilate was absolutely correct in sentencing Jesus to death for the sake of preserving law and order and his own position as the Roman ruler of Palestine.

There is nothing supernatural about Jesus’ conviction that he would be turned over to the religious authorities, and likely ultimately executed by the Roman occupiers.  Jesus maintains his integrity in the service of justice-compassion, against the normalcy of civilization, relying upon the same kind of faith as Isaiah’s Servant.  But the kenosis illustrated by the third servant song of Isaiah is not submission to the will of an interventionist God who wants a sacrifice in payment for sin, or who “disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Heb. 12:5-6 ref Proverbs 3:11-12).  Instead this kenosis means actively listening to the desire of a relational spirit for an exiled people to live in justice-compassion.  The servant says, “Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those [do] who are taught.”  The servant listens and continues to teach reconciliation with that spirit and distributive justice among the people.  The servant does this despite persecution, torture, failure, and insult.  He empowers the people to maintain their covenant with God against the demonic forces that impel the people to collaborate with the empire that has carried them off into exile. 

The disciples could not hear what John’s Jesus was trying to tell them.  The others around the table that night apparently had no clue of the danger that he (and they) were in because of the threat that he (and they) presented to law and order under Roman occupation.  Judas was not the only follower of Jesus to be caught up in the mind-set that reduces teachings of non-violent justice-compassion to empty piety.  To live and practice non-violent justice-compassion is to actively counter the imperial forces that seduce us into going shopping, hiring illegal aliens as slave labor, and joining the military because we have been convinced that it is the only way to “be all we can be.” 

The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary leave out verses 10 and 11 of Isaiah 50, and they should not because the Servant addresses those very conditions that produce empty piety instead of an active counter to imperial retributive systems.  The Servant wonders “who [among you] walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God?”  The conclusion is, few if any.  But in a post-modern world, where the interventionist god died long ago, the Servant’s challenge to faith has meaning only if we accept the invitation to participate in the ongoing great work of justice-compassion.  Then we become partners with the kenotic servant God in restoring God’s justice-compassion to the world – which belongs to that kenotic servant God.  And the life and death of the servant-teacher Jesus is the model.

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