“Clean out the old yeast… for our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” (I Corinthians 5:7)
Good Friday is supremely the day of the Suffering Servant. Two of the most powerful portrayals of that figure in the Hebrew scriptures are the prophetic and psalm readings for this day. The ultimate expression of the figure is, of course, the passion narrative. Traditionally, the Passion according to John—presenting the passion especially as a public event—is used on Good Friday.
The prophetic reading is the climax of the Suffering Servant songs. Like the other Good Friday texts, this is a complex one. It involves different scenes and speakers, and we need a map to follow the full drama. Here is a rather simplified one.
The text makes clear that God is speaking in 52:13-15 and in at least 53:11b-12. It makes equally clear that someone else is speaking—a plural, as in “we” and “for our…”—in 53:1-6 at least, and perhaps all the way to 53:11a. What the “we” passages describe is the astonishing career of the Servant (whom God introduced). This Servant was disfigured, despised, and generally hounded to death—a fate that he submitted to like a sacrificial animal taken to slaughter. Further, this suffering by the Servant was on somebody else’s account, or for their benefit. “…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6, NRSV). The Servant suffers for someone else, and that someone else has finally come to realize the truth of all this, and is declaring that truth as a new revelation (“Who has believed what we have heard?”, 53:1).
Thus we have the following structure:
God introduces the Servant as newly exalted , 52:13-15. A group proclaims the suffering was for their sins, 53:1-11a.
God announces the Servant’s reward for that suffering, 53:11b-12.
Let’s begin by focusing on the God speeches together, without being distracted by the details of the Servant’s labors. We will use the New Jerusalem Bible translation (Doubleday, 1985).
Look, my servant will prosper,
will grow great, will rise to great heights.
As many people were aghast at him
—he was so inhumanly disfigured
that he no longer looked like a man—
so many nations will be astonished
and kings will stay tight-lipped before him,
seeing what had never been told them,
learning what they had not heard before.
After the ordeal he has endured,
he will see the light and be content.
By his knowledge, the upright one, my servant will justify many
by taking their guilt on himself.
Hence I shall give him a portion with the many,
and he will share the booty with the mighty,
for having exposed himself to death
and for being counted as one of the rebellious,
whereas he was bearing the sin of many
and interceding for the rebellious.
In between these two God speeches, the “many” speak, saying such impressive things as,
Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing,
ours the sorrows he was carrying,
while we thought of him as someone being punished
and struck with affliction by God;
whereas he was being wounded for our rebellions,
crushed because of our guilt;
the punishment reconciling us fell on him,
and we have been healed by his bruises.
The whole passage spoken by the “we” or the “many” is designed to evoke great compassion at the suffering and disrespect endured by the Servant. But even more, it evokes wonder because this suffering was not only undeserved but was endured on behalf of others, to spare them from guilt and punishment because of their rebelliousness.
What is this really about? What lies behind the imagery of the Suffering Servant? A fairly straightforward reading sees here an interpretation of Israel’s historic destiny. The Servant’s career is Israel’s historical decline, defeat, and apparent extinction—beyond any reasonable hope of recovery. (That is to say, it is the destruction and exile of first the old Northern Kingdom and then of the Kingdom of Judah. Ultimately, we are talking about political entities.)
The divine announcement is that there was a secret purpose working through that defeat and disaster—a secret purpose that, when known, will be astonishing to both the other nations and kings as well as to the defeated and exiled offspring of Israel themselves. From the other parts of Isaiah 40-55 we learn the following: The sinfulness of Israelites in running after other gods (who are really no-gods) is manifest to the nations as futility and falsehood. This is because there is really only one Lord of history to whom unqualified loyalty is due. It is through Israel that other nations will learn this. Israel suffers vicariously so the other nations can learn from the error of its ways. It was through Israel’s sinfulness [unfaithfulness to Yahweh], leading to punishment and death, that the greatest lesson of all was learned: idolatry and multiple gods are a way of death. Israel has demonstrated this lesson to the world, suffered for its waywardness, but will be raised up again to live among the nations as Yahweh’s restored and honored Servant.
In the later twentieth century, scholars shied away from seeing royal features in the Servant. The Servant songs never say clearly that the Servant is a king. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the collective-individual character of the Servant probably makes most sense as a royal figure. He will stand honored among kings and he certainly plays a representative role: his experience is Israel’s collective experience, in some sense. In any case, the Servant makes most sense to me as a royal figure, the figure seen also in several psalms (22 and 118, for example). He stands as a personification of Israel’s leadership that exactly parallels the personification of City Zion, which is celebrated so exuberantly in the text immediately following this last Servant song (that is, in Isaiah 54). In the sacral realities and the prophetic rhetoric of that age, City and King were the makers—and the victims—of all major historical developments. In our passage, God declares that such a major development is about to occur for the insignificant community of exiles that still responds to the name “Israel.” Furthermore, that community will soon be led in prosperity by God’s Servant, to the astonishment of all the nations!
The Psalm for Good Friday has, with good reason, been read as a Suffering Servant liturgy.
The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s past actions:
1a. I am abandoned and unheard, vv. 1-2;
2a. You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, vv. 3-5;
1b. I am a worm, despised and mocked, vv. 6-8;
2b. You have known and kept me since my birth, vv. 9-10.
The logic of this alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker, expressed in the simple plea of verse 11: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”
The piteous descriptions of slaughter in verses 12 to 18 are intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty inflicted upon the speaker. Besides the opening line of the psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), this description of physical death has the closest ties with the Passion narratives in the Gospels.
In this passage, a single metaphor is sustained, that of a hunted animal, probably the “deer” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm. This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all about, bulls and lions. The attention is directed steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward the center of its body, as that body is violated: “Many bulls encircle me … they open wide their mouth at me, / like a ravening and roaring lion.” As these beasts pierce the skin of the victim, the inner organs are exposed and torn open: “I am poured out like water, / and all my bones are out of joint; / my heart is like wax; / it is melted within my breast.” And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter: “… my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, / and my tongue sticks to my jaws; / you lay me in the dust of death.” Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of compassion.
The imagery of the animal hunted and surrounded by beasts is repeated, more briefly.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled [been “pierced” in KJV];
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots” (verses 16-18, NRSV).
In this imagery, the “clothes” divided among the hunters are, of course, the victim’s skin, to become “garments” for the hunters.
The agonizing and suffering part of the psalm concludes with the speaker’s final plea for deliverance. “Deliver my soul from the sword, / my life from the power of the dog! / Save me from the mouth of the lion!” (verses 20-21).
The rest of the psalm proclaims a total reversal! The prayer has been answered, and the delivered one thanks God for salvation. God raised the suffering one from ignominy to glory. “For he did not despise or abhor / the affliction of the afflicted; /…but heard when I cried to him” (verse 24). Furthermore, this deliverance has world-wide significance: “All the ends of the earth shall remember / and turn to the Lord; / and the families of the nations / shall worship before him” (verse 27). The sufferer in this drama is not just a marginal resident; this is a figure of destiny (a royal figure) whose rescue from death is good news for others far and wide.
The basic movement in the psalm is the same as in the Suffering Servant passage. Great suffering to death by a faithful servant is finally rewarded with exaltation by God. And all of that is recognized by the nations as an amazing work of God for their benefit!
When the Passion stories report Jesus’ great cry of god-forsakenness on the cross, the hearers know what’s in the rest of the psalm! The suffering one was on his way to exaltation.
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
(This is the alternate reading; the first reading is Hebrews 10:16-25. I choose the alternate as closer to the human suffering Jesus.)
The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the most difficult major Biblical writings for modern progressive people to fathom, much less enjoy. However, this Good Friday reading gives us more of the human Jesus than usual in this work. Let’s just listen to that.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin…. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death [thinking of Jesus reciting Psalm 22?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered [like the “Israel” who = the Servant]; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (4:15 + 5:7-9, NRSV).
The Passion According to John
The Passion in John is an appropriate reading for Good Friday only if we emphasize that it is the public action of the Passion that is lifted up. It is not a good reading for Maundy Thursday with its attention to the more private and agonizing moments of the Passion. (1) Compared to the other three Passion narratives, John gives the least attention to the suffering, the humanity, of Jesus. The Jesus of this narrative is already (or still) the Jesus of power—before which armed guards fall back helplessly (18:6)—with the reality of that power only suspended for the time being (see Jesus’ discussion with Pilate about his kingship). (2) John’s narrative completely omits Jesus’ praying in Gethsemane, where the other Gospels most dramatically portray Jesus’ agony, inner struggle, and surrender. (John seems to have a kind of combination of the Gethsemane prayer with the Transfiguration tradition in 12:23-33, just prior to the Last Supper.)
The John narrative shows signs of long reflection and elaboration since the time of the actual crucifixion. This narrative was written about sixty years after Jesus’ death. The story and its details had been told many, many times by then. What we have here is one community’s most authoritative re-telling of the story as it was eventually dictated (perhaps by the witness described in 19:35) to a scribe, and later proof-read with added editorial touches, perhaps several times.
One example of this long development: All the Gospels know that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes. Someone had discovered early on that Psalm 22 said this would happen. John has a more elaborate explanation, however, for why the lots had to be cast. There were four soldiers in the death squad, so the garments were divided into four piles (19:23). There was one garment, however, which could not be divided into four—the “tunic,” which was seamless, woven from top to bottom. They would destroy its greatest value if they cut it up; so, only one soldier could have it. To decide which one, they had to cast lots (19:23-24). Someone had mulled the traditional events for a long time before the insight of the seamless robe was revealed. (Lloyd C. Douglas also mulled it a long time and produced the novel, The Robe.)
In John’s narrative, what were otherwise somewhat discrete actions flow together and are interwoven. For example, Peter’s denial is a single narrative unit in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but in John it is interwoven with Jesus’ appearance in the high priest’s residence (18:12-27). Also, the appearance of Jesus before the high priests has become almost a non-event in John. There is one report that Jesus was questioned about his disciples and his teaching (18:19), but there is no report of what was asked and how it was answered. Instead we have only Jesus’ defense that he has always spoken publicly and they can ask those who heard in public – for which he is whacked on the face by a guard (18:20-23). The charges that the Jewish authorities would bring against Jesus are learned only from the Pilate scenes, not from the appearance before the high priests! The “trial” by the Jewish authorities has virtually disappeared from the action, except as an occasion for Peter to deny Jesus three times.
That makes the appearance before Pilate the dominant scene in John’s Passion. It takes up 37% of the total narrative (the whole crucifixion is only 25%). (Pilate is always called by name; he is not called “the governor,” as in Matthew.) As we move through the Passion narratives of the Gospels, from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John, the appearance before Pilate becomes bigger and bigger. This is not because responsibility for the condemnation is being shifted from the Jews to the Romans—the responsibility of the Jewish authorities is just as clear in John’s narrative as in the others. But in John’s narrative, the Jewish accusations and hostility are first heard explicitly as part of the Pilate scenes instead of in an earlier “trial.”
As in the other Passion narratives, the actual suffering of a crucifixion is ignored. We would learn virtually nothing about the technology of crucifixion from the Gospel narratives alone. What our narrative spends its time on in the crucifixion scene is the public charge against Jesus, the dividing of the clothes, the women at the cross, and especially the unbroken bones and the pierced side (both unique to John). John’s narrative knows nothing about cosmic reactions such as darkness and earthquake. The world is not externally altered by Jesus’ death; it is only the world of the spirit that reaches its climax in this event.
On the non-breaking of Jesus’ bones: crucifixion caused death by suffocation; the weight of the body eventually becomes too much for the diaphragm muscles to work. The agony was prolonged by putting a wedge on the upright of the cross so the victim could use his feet to temporarily relieve the pressure on his upper body. Breaking the legs eliminated that temporary relief and hastened death. This was unnecessary in Jesus’ case because he was already dead. Therefore, his leg bones were not broken and his skeleton remained in perfect condition, like the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:46).
John’s Gospel introduced Nicodemus, the Pharisee and wanna-be disciple, to the world (3:1-9; see also 7:50-52). In the Passion narrative he is given a last gracious moment in the Jesus story. He assists Joseph of Arimathea in the charitable deed of burying the abandoned dead. They appropriated a nearby tomb (19:41), making sure “his tomb was with the rich” (Isaiah 53:9), and from that tomb would come the great reversal that all hearers of the Passion narrative knew was the actual meaning of the injustice and suffering told in the story!
Below is the Passion narrative according to John, in the New Revised Standard Version translation. Only section titles have been provided to suggest interpretations. (The relative size of each narrative unit has also been indicated, as a percentage of the total narrative, based on word counts in the Greek text. This assists in seeing where the narrative actually invests its time.)
The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus (18:1-11, 200 words, 12%).
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Jesus before the High Priests (18:12-27, 301 = 19%)
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Jesus before Pilate (18:28-19:16a, 590 = 37%).
First Accusation: King of the Jews (vv. 28-40, 290 = 18%).
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Second Accusation: Son of God (19:1-16a, 300 = 19%).
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
The Crucifixion of Jesus (19:16b-37, 408 = 25%)
The Inscription. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
The Clothes. When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
And that is what the soldiers did.
The Women. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
The Death. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Unbroken Bones, Pierced Side. Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” [Exodus 12:46; also, Psalm 34:20.] And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” [Zechariah 12:10]
The Burial of Jesus (19:38-42, 111 = 7%).
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.