Jesus' truth cannot be overpowered

  • March 30, 2009
Passion Sunday (Year B) April 5 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47)

How are saints, prophets and reformers able to persevere in their commitment and mission? What is the source of their courage and stamina? Often they must endure ridicule, rejection, arrest, torture and even death. The pressure is great to compromise or take an easier path.

But they are instructed and guided from a higher source. This knowledge gives them courage and strength — and even joy — in the midst of their struggles. Many great names have questioned themselves while suffering the agony of doubt and loneliness. But they persevere because they can do no other — the spirit of God sets their hearts aflame. They are still human beings with all of the weaknesses and flaws that accompany our humanity. The difference is that they have learned to listen — and in the Bible both “hear” and “obey” stem from the same root word. One must listen with more than ears and see with more than eyes in order to be inspired by God.

It is not about being vocal and “in your face” about our own opinions, convictions and prejudices. We have far too much of that in our world and often it gets cloaked in religious language. Our perceptions must be joined with openness and wisdom as well as a willingness to be led. Gandhi insisted that truth — when lived as well as proclaimed — is a force in its own right that cannot be overpowered. This passage from Isaiah was given new life by the first generation of followers of Jesus, for they were convinced that it described perfectly His life, ministry and death. His life was an example of perfect obedience, non-violence and acceptance — as well as a total surrender to the Spirit dwelling in Him.

This well-known description of the self-emptying of Christ is the paradigm and model for a life of Christian discipleship. It means renouncing and letting go of many things, especially privilege, power, status and control. Hearing the Father’s voice, Jesus was willing to challenge all human distortions of religion, society and humanity. He was given a name and honour above any earthly power — even that of Caesar. This was a direct challenge to people and systems that play God. Jesus and His message was a threat to the established order and for that He died. And when the domesticated and co-opted message of Jesus in our own day is liberated and allowed to do its work it is again a threat to the status quo.

Each of the four evangelists presents the passion of Jesus with a different theological slant and emphasis. For Mark, it is the abandonment and desolation of Jesus as He is faced with His passion bereft of friends, relatives or disciples. He is utterly alone. It is a story of human failure: there is cowardice (Peter), betrayal (Judas and ultimately all of them) and misunderstanding (most of them) as Jesus moves resolutely towards His destiny. Most of the disciples don’t have a clue about the impending arrest and trial even though He had made His fate clear to them on several occasions. They cannot even comprehend the extent of the unnamed woman’s devotion and kindness as she anoints Jesus for His burial.

But amidst the false witnesses, the venality and the brutality there is hope. It is hidden in Psalm 22, which the evangelist uses to give meaning to his account. He places the opening words of the psalm in the mouth of Jesus on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” The psalm’s casting of lots and the jeers of the passersby also find their way into the narrative. But there are also expressions of heartfelt praise and devotion to God interwoven throughout the psalm as God’s greatness and kindness in the past is recalled. The psalm ends with a crescendo of praise and confidence that God is trustworthy and can be counted on.

Our own feelings are reflected in the narrative and the psalm: people can feel abandoned and filled with despair as they face pain, struggle, tragedy and failure. But we should also remember God’s faithfulness and kindness — we may face pain and struggle, but never alone and never abandoned. Those who hope and trust in God do not do so in vain. This was the faith of Jesus and it should be ours too.