Narrative Lectionary Reflection
March 25, 2018
All glory, laud, and honor
to you, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children
made sweet hosannas ring.
You are the King of Israel
and David’s royal Son,
now in the Lord’s name coming,
the King and Blessed One.
This hymn, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” is the song we sing on Palm Sunday. It’s kind of an odd hymn to sing on Palm Sunday because we know what’s going to happen a few days down the road. But it is also revealing something about Jesus: Jesus as king. Of course, when we see Jesus on the cross it doesn’t feel like Jesus is the king. But it is in weakness that Jesus truly reveals who Jesus really is.
Today’s text seems out of place for Palm Sunday (the narrative lectionary gives you the option of preaching from John 12: 12-27 where Jesus enters Jerusalem). Many churches use Palm Sunday to preach the texts of Jesus’ Passion (the time leading up to Jesus’ death). Our text today continues the story of Jesus in John and places us in the middle of the passion.
To see Jesus suffer, gives us the thought that Jesus is out of control. Jesus is just a victim of the Roman state. But looks can be deceiving. Jesus is suffering and Jesus is a victim, these shouldn’t be minimized, but what we are seeing here is a person in control of the narrative, of telling the story of the king, the suffering king who lives and dies for the sake of the world.
Engaging the Text
19 Pilate had a public notice written and posted on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.21 Therefore, the Jewish chief priests complained to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews’ but ‘This man said, “I am the king of the Jews.”’”
22 Pilate answered, “What I’ve written, I’ve written.”
For the last two weeks, we have been subject to an ongoing argument primarily between Pilate, the governor of Judea and the Jewish religious leaders with Jesus adding a few comments now and then. Today’s passage is mostly focused on Jesus, with one final argument between Pilate and the religious leaders.
Let’s take a look at the two part of today’s passage
All By Myself
The first thing to realize is that in the ancient world, to die on the cross was the worst way to die. It was called, “the most cruel and horrifying death” by Cicero and a “despicable death” by Tacitus. The Persians were the ones that started the practice. They viewed the earth as sacred and they didn’t want it defiled with the body of an evildoer. The person was nailed on the cross and then left to die, with the vultures and other carrion birds disposing of the evildoer piece by piece.
The Romans have a certain way of crucifying a person. It was very specific and very unnerving:
The condemned man was placed in the centre of a quaternion, a company of four Roman soldiers. His own cross was placed upon his shoulders. Scourging always preceded crucifixion, and it is to be remembered how terrible scourging was. Often the criminal had to be lashed and goaded along the road, to keep him on his feet, as he staggered to the place of crucifixion. Before him walked an officer with a placard on which was written the crime for which he was to die, and he was led through as many streets as possible on the way to execution. There was a double reason for that. There was the grim reason that as many as possible should see and take warning from his fate. But there was a merciful reason. The placard was carried before the condemned man and the long route was chosen, so that if anyone could still bear witness in his favour, he might come forward and do so. In such a case, the procession was halted and the case retried.1
As we have said throughout this gospel, John’s narration of the crucifixion is different from the telling of the Synoptic gospels. One example is found in verse 17 where it says, that Jesus carries the cross alone. In the other three gospels, we read that Simon of Cyrene is commandeered to carry Jesus’ cross. Why is this not mentioned in John? There is probably a theological reason for this; it shows that Jesus is in command of what is going on here. John 10:17-18 reminds us that Jesus is the one that chooses to give up his life, he is not the victim of events.
Where and when Jesus was killed is listed as something very specific. The fact that Jesus is crucified between two people. In the other gospels, they are depicted as bandits. In John 3 Jesus says that being lifted up will bring salvation: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life,” (John 3:15-16). Above Jesus on the cross was as sign written in three languages, Hebrew, Latin and Greek; “King of the Jews.” The writing in three languages reminds us that this act was for the whole world and not just a specific group. The universality of the sign reminds us who is the object of God’s love: the whole world. The crucifixion continues Jesus’ coronation as the King.
Vereses 23-25 tells us that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus garments. Will learn that one of Jesus clothes is seamless, which would indicate the clothing of a high priest, the one that would bring together God and humanity.
During the crucifixion, we see two groups of people, Pilate and the Jewish leaders and the women.
Responding to the Cross
As said earlier, Pilate and the Jewish leaders had been in an argument over what to do with Jesus. Now that Jesus is on the cross dying, the Jewish leaders are upset about the sign above Jesus on the cross. Pilate had written “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” which is translated to “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The chief priests complained to Pilate to not write King of the Jews, but instead “This man said, I am king of the Jews.” They wanted him to be viewed as either crazy or blasphemous. They wanted Jesus claim to be reduced to a claim, something they could easily refute. They also had to keep up what they had pledged to Pilate, that it was Caesar and not Jesus, that was their king. But Pilate, who gave into the religious leaders when it came to crucifying Jesus, held his ground. “What I have written, I have written,” he says. In doing this, Pilate is announcing a reality, that Jesus is king, which is not an idle claim.
Finally, there are the women. In the other gospels, the women were far off, but in John, they are front and center. The mother of Jesus (who is unnamed in John) and the Beloved Disciple are right there at the foot of the cross. Jesus’ mother was there are the beginning of his ministry in John 2 and she is here now at the end. The Beloved Disciple has a prominent role throughout the Passion. His being here shows his loyalty to Jesus. The gathering of the women and the Beloved Disciple is symbolic of the community that will carry on Christ’s mission as Jesus leaves the scene.
The passage ends with Jesus saying “It is finished.” He then dies.
The concept of Passion Sunday came about for a reason. Palm Sunday is usually a day of celebration, where we remember Jesus being entering Jerusalem like a triumphal king. It is the day in many churches where the children and youth will parade around the church, while the rest of the congregation waves their palms. Beacause Maundy Thursday and Good Friday take place during the week and are low attended, there was a concern that the person who only comes on Sundays would only see celebration during Holy Week. We would welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and we would praise Jesus rising from the grave on Easter. It would give people a faith that went from strength to strength, with no sense of the pain and horror of Good Friday.
In the same way churches can bypass Good Friday, people can do the same thing when we get stuck on certain aspects of the event. It is easy to debate what theory of atonement works or even if atonement exists at all.
But it is important to read the crucifixion (no matter which version) and be left with some of the feelings of disgust and some of the questions that are left. We should shudder at how horrible the method of crucifixion works because it was horrible. We have to ask why did Christ allow himself to be crucified and why does it matter?
In First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul explains what Christ’s death means to outsiders and what it means for Christians and the meanings are different:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach[b] to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Why is cross looked at as folly to some and as salvation to others? Why does cross remain a stumbling block and sheer folly?
Many have tried to explain the cross in a way that makes sense, but does it? Does the cross make sense? What does the cross, which doesn’t make sense mean to you and me?
What we do know is that the cross is where Jesus is finally king. After that, the cross is the beginning of our questions and discoveries and not the end.
1.Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of John (Vol. 2, p. 292). Louisville, KY: Edinburgh.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.