Lesson 25: It is Finished. Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19 #BCCSundaySchool2019

The Seven Words of Jesus.

These chapters deal with the consummation of the ministry of Jesus: his suffering, crucifixion, and atoning death on the cross.

It’s first worth reflecting on the bizarre enormity of this event, and the extent to which the centuries have normalized it. It’s cliché among Christians to say that the faithful Jews of Jesus’s day did not expect a Messiah like him, but it’s worth pointing out exactly how logical this was, and how consistent with human nature.

It is easy in retrospect to valorize persecution and condemn persecutors: many religious groups (the Saints included) do this cultural work. Witness how the Church today remembers the arrest and imprisonment of Joseph Smith in Missouri, absolving him from any wrongdoing and attributing to him only righteous anger and noble sentiments. But how might we react today should the president of the church, say, storm into the Capitol Building in Washington DC, vandalize and destroy it, and be arrested and tried for treason?

How comfortable are we with a truly countercultural faith; one which would undermine those embedded assumptions that nearly all Americans take for granted: the comforts of our wealth and leisure, our fixation on our consumer-driven lifestyles, our shared devotion to meritocracy?  How many of us would, like Peter, James, and John do in the Gospel of Mark, willingly give up our incomes and jobs and homes and begin to live as roaming, wandering preachers, if Jesus asked us to? To what extent do we see Jesus in the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, and are we really ready to do what it takes to be with them and stand with them? Or would we uncomfortably call following in Peter’s footsteps cultish and wait for the Netflix documentary?  Are we too satisfied with the easy prejudices that come with assuming that our own lifestyles and traditions and tastes are (luckily) the same as God’s?

Indeed, the Jews were expecting the Messiah to offer political liberation from the Romans, because their scripture and tradition and expectations had taught them to. The analogue to Jesus in the Hebrew Bible was King David, God’s “messiah”—which means, simply, God’s anointed one. The Hebrew prophets repeatedly affirm that God’s kingdom would come again, and, of course, David had created that kingdom before. They were comfortable with a faith which conformed to their cultural expectations, and so, very often, are we.

So when Jesus begins preaching, as Matthew puts it, the “gospel of the kingdom of God,” how are we to understand that?  How does Jesus challenge the ways in which we are blind to the kingdom of justice, mercy, and redemption that he calls us to? How does the crucifixion shatter the ways that we are blind to the injustices and sins which must be eradicated before that kingdom might come forth?

Across the four gospels, Jesus speaks seven times while on the cross. These utterances are called the “seven words” of Jesus, and given the traditional order, they mark a progression to the kingdom of God; Jesus enacting and creating what he has so often promised and taught.

***

The first word is the word of forgiveness: Luke, 23:33-34. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

This word comes immediately before and immediately after violations upon Jesus; immediately after he is placed upon the cross, and immediately before his clothes are stolen and gambled for.

It’s not an easy prayer to make, but it shows Jesus practicing what he preaches; as he taught in Matthew 18, we are to forgive seventy times seven.

Forgiving is hard because it feels like granting of absolution. But here it helps Jesus transcend his own suffering; it’s a prayer that demonstrates his confidence that God is greater than the hurt which he suffered. Indeed, it not only signals that Jesus understood that these people did not understand—but also awareness that their cruelty was paving the way for a victory that they did not understand. This passage was, justly, repeated by Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed the same: that the cruelty of those people who beat and spat upon, and of those systems which oppressed and imprisoned, the marchers of the black-freedom movement were in the end the instruments of their own undoing.

****

Which leads us to the second word: the word of affection. John, 19:26-27: When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” 27 Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

It might easy to be sentimental about this, and to read it as analogous to the patriarchal language that suffuses nineteenth century wedding ceremonies; the one man giving a woman to another.

But note here a few odd things. Jesus does not use names. Here he calls Mary “woman” and “mother.”

The author of the gospel of John has Jesus address a woman as “woman” two other times. Each time, he seems to use the term as a way to signal that he is saying something portentous about his ministry. Each time, he promises that an “hour” is coming in which things shall be fulfilled.  In John 2:4, Mary tells Jesus that the wedding feast at Cana has run out of wine, and he oddly says to her, Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.

In John 4:21-23, Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, and she has just realized that Jesus is, as she says, “a prophet.” And Jesus declares to her, Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father . . . But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.

In John 12, the hour has come. Jesus has entered Jerusalem and is announcing to his disciples that he will be crucified. In verses 23 and 24, he says, The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.

The grain Jesus produces here on the cross is the spiritual family he has made of his disciples; his command to them that they care for each other and take each other into their homes. Indeed, John drives this home by telling us in verse 27 that the disciple, From that hour he took her to his own home.  The hour, here, has produced its glory in the community of mutuality which the church must be.

Jesus also calls Mary not simply his own mother, but the disciple’s mother as well. And of course, this should evoke to us Genesis 3:15-20, in which the woman was called Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

In Genesis God promises Eve that the serpent will be crushed under her heel, and indeed, as the next word will teach us, this is what the crucifixion is accomplishing: the restoration of that paradise lost in the Garden of Eden.

***

This word mirrors the third word, that of salvation, spoken to the thief on the cross, who said (Luke 23:42-43), “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

The word Luke uses to describe the two thieves on the crosses to Jesus’s left and right is often translated as “malefactors.” It’s the same word in Luke 10:30, describing those who attacked the poor man saved by the Good Samaritan. Immediately prior to that story, in Luke 9, Jesus and his disciples were rejected by a Samaritan village and the disciples asked Jesus to call down fire to destroy it. It’s telling, then, I think, that Jesus chooses instead to invoke the hated Samaritans as models of charity.

Here, on the cross, he does something even more radical: He offers salvation to those who committed the crime. The first malefactor verbally abuses Jesus, attacking him and demanding that if Jesus is really the son of God he should save himself and them right then. The second confesses and begs for mercy.

Indeed, as the story of the Good Samaritan tells us—we may all be the Samaritan, but we are all also in need of the Samaritan. We all need mercy we cannot hope to deserve or earn.

Jesus promises the man they will be together in Paradise. The word Luke uses here is the Greek word for “garden.” This is not merely a description of the afterlife; this is an invocation—made so often in the New Testament—that Jesus’s work is the work of restoration of the pure world of the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve walked with God.

***

The fourth word, the pivotal word, the one at the center, is the word of grief; Matthew 25:45-46: About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)

This is one of the many places in scripture where a Psalm is quoted. Jesus is echoing the 22nd Psalm, which begins with that same phrase. Eli is a formal term for God. In verses one and two of the Psalm, the speaker anguishes that God does not answer prayers. All around the speaker abuse him and mock him for his belief. Indeed, in verses 6-8 the Psalmist mourns that those near him tell him that if God really cares for him God will save him, but God does not—an eerie echo of the first malecfactor’s abuse.

But the end of the Psalm shifts into confidence. It may not happen immediately, the Psalmist says, but God does not forget his promises: God is on the side of the “suffering and afflicted,” and “the poor will eat and be satisfied,” while the “rich of the earth,” who “go down to the dust and kneel before him” will be saved as well. (v26-29).

Indeed, in his cry Jesus is not simply expressing separation: he is calling for a revised and renewed world, one which echoes that that his mother prays for in Luke 1: where the suffering are exalted and those who cause suffering are humbled.

Jesus, is, then, telling us that he stands with the suffering; that the crucifixion places him among their ranks, and as the first word implies, will enable suffering’s redemption.

***

The fifth word is the word of suffering, drawing upon the themes of the previous. John, 19:28-29: After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth.

The author of the gospel here alludes to scripture, appropriately so, because this passage should bring a host of others to mind. In Exodus 12:22, God commands the children of Israel to smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts with a hyssop branch. John wants us to draw that connection as well, and to see how Jesus’s suffering ultimately directs us toward redemption.

More, throughout the gospel of John Jesus calls people to drink from him, for he is the living water; this, then, is a cruel irony—but also one which deepens the metaphor: the living water redeems suffering, as the prior words have indicated, and often finds us within that suffering. Indeed, we should remember Luke 22:42, where Jesus begs his father to take the cup from his lips, and should look forward to John 19:34, in which blood and water flow from his side after the spear is pulled from it.

***

The sixth word is the word of victory. In John 19:30, Christ cries “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up the ghost.

Calling this the word of victory should emphasize the powerful inversions of this whole story, and is the reason why I offered the hypotheticals I did at the beginning of this post. Ours is a world of power of different sorts; we seek power of prestige, of money, of fame, of sheer domination. And we enjoy power we do not always recognize: power of social standing.

Jesus here repudiates seeking that power. We would do well to not overglamorize his suffering. We should avoid embracing persecution in rhetoric on the one hand, and avoid using Jesus’s weakness as a mere excuse for the injustices of the status quo on the other.

Rather, we should see here Jesus deliberately and intentionally rejecting these systems of power; refusing, that is, to play the game by on the one hand accepting the temptations of the first malefactor to wield his own power on the one hand, and on the other, here understanding that true salvation comes when those systems are overturned.

***

In Luke 23:46, Luke gives us in the last word (the word of peace) an alternative to John’s word of victory; When Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last.

As with the third word, Jesus is here quoting a psalm, the 31st, whose verses four and five read,

Pull me out of the net which they have secretly laid for me,

For You are my strength.
 Into Your hand I commit my spirit;
You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.

This word is a powerful contrast with the fourth. There Jesus refers to God in formal language; here he refers to God as Father. There he mourns that God is not responding to his prayers; here we see the fulfillment of the hopes of the third: God’s safety overwhelming his fear.

John, later in his gospel, gives us something similar. After the death of Jesus, Mary and the disciples are overwhelmed with fear, fear of those same structures which killed their Lord: Mary fears a mysterious “they” who have stolen, so she imagines, Christ’s body. The disciples lock themselves away out of fear that those who killed Jesus would come for them.

And Jesus appears to them, and says what this word is named for: “Peace be unto you.”

In that appearance, in that resurrection, and in these words: he tells us of his kingdom. It is here to redeem us from suffering, the suffering of oppression and pain and fear. It is made through forgiveness, through community, and through mutuality. It is here to restore us to the Garden of Eden, the familial ties made there and the presence of the Spirit of God. These seven words, then, are Jesus’s message and ministry in microcosm.

Comments

  1. nobody, really says:

    We had seven speakers in church on Easter, with each person covering one of these exact scriptures. One of the best Easter sacrament meetings I’ve seen. Even better than the years when the topic was “Church Welfare” or “Friends of Scouting”.

  2. Jared Livesey says:

    How many of us would, like Peter, James, and John do in the Gospel of Mark, willingly give up our incomes and jobs and homes and begin to live as roaming, wandering preachers, if Jesus asked us to?

    That number would be roughly equal to the number of us who actually do what Jesus asks us already. As an example, Jesus asks us all to not store up stuff for ourselves but to instead personally and voluntarily redistribute our excess possessions directly to the poor. This means instead of socking away our excess money into a 401K, or Roth IRA, or retirement fund, or savings account, or building up a year’s supply of food, or buying an RV, &c., we personally give it with our own hands to the homeless and the poor.

    The ultimate destruction of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon is an example of the group consequences of breaking this commandment (3 Nephi 27:32).

    Moreover, Alma taught that we are not to accept as teachers, nor ordinances performed by, anyone who does not do what Jesus says to do – which includes this commandment (Mosiah 23:14).

    To what extent do we see Jesus in the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, and are we really ready to do what it takes to be with them and stand with them?

    To the exact extent that we actually do directly give our excess money to them as Jesus commanded us to do, instead of socking it away for ourselves as he has forbidden us to do.

  3. Sidebottom says:

    It should be emphasized that the chronology and “progression” of the seven utterances is a synthetic (and insightful) commentary rather than an intentional literary construct by the original authors.

  4. Corina Bolivar says:

    Muy buen analisis. Me emociono. Tremendo!

  5. “The fourth word, the pivotal word, the one at the center, is the word of grief; Matthew 25:45-46:”

    I have just read each of the 7 in my scriptures. Fourth should be Matt 27:45-46.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful message.

  6. D Christian Harrison says:

    I love this and used it in my lesson, today.

    Two quibbles: 1) The scripture reference for the fourth word (Matthew 25:45-46) is incorrect—that reference is to the “least of these” scripture; and 2) in all the lists I’ve seen, AFFECTION and SALVATION are third and second, respectively — is there a reason why they’re switched here, or was it just an error?

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