Jesus responds with radical, self-giving love

  • April 16, 2007
Passion Sunday (Year C) April 1 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56)

Passion Sunday cannot be celebrated in isolation from the reality of our contemporary world. Part of this reality is violence and injustice in one form or another, nearly always answered in kind.
As we meditate and pray over these texts we must keep in mind that they are only partly about Jesus. They are more about us and what God is trying to communicate to us through His various messengers and Jesus Himself. The message is about courage, integrity, commitment and most of all, the power of loving non-violence.

There are two streams that run throughout both Testaments: the one bears witness to a compassionate and non-violent God, while the other treats us to the all-too-familiar images of a violent and punishing God and the idea that violence is an appropriate response to injustice. It is the first that struggles to supplant the other in our consciousness, for it manifests the true nature of God. The second image stems not from God but from people throughout the centuries who are still imprisoned in human thought and behavioural patterns.

The Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah does not portray one who is weak, insecure or passive. The individual described — originally a prophetic figure during the Babylonian exile — is inspired by the spirit of God to proclaim and to teach. He is absolutely certain of what he proclaims and of the mission he is fulfilling. And because of this, he will not be swayed or cowed by violence, ridicule, threats or unjust displays of power, nor will he respond to these provocations in a similar fashion. He can endure all of this with a reasonable degree of peace because of his absolute trust in love, justice and the God whom he represents. The Suffering Servant is not about gratuitous suffering for its own sake, but fidelity to the ways of God as revealed in the life of Jesus. It should never be used to minimize or spiritualize injustice and suffering.

As in the passage from Isaiah, the famous hymn of Christ’s self-giving in Philippians has a twofold message. It shows us how to respond to injustice and to the challenges that the world presents, and implicitly how not to respond. Lurking in back of both texts is the expected human response: meet violence with violence, insult with insult, and injustice with injustice. Jesus responds to the human situation with radical self-giving love — He is willing to give away everything that He can claim as His own. It is because of this that He is given a position and name above all the earthly pseudo-powers — Caesars, kings, generals and power systems of all kinds.

These two texts not only reveal the nature of God. They indicate that if we pattern ourselves on them we will begin to find our way out of the darker aspects of human experience into the light of true freedom. This pattern for authentic human living has not been fully grasped and applied by individual Christian believers or by churches. All too often we opt for the convenience of authoritarianism or worldly influence.

Luke’s account of the Passion is similar to Mark and Matthew in many respects, and yet there is a unique contribution. He portrays squabbling at the supper about who is the greatest. There is betrayal; there is false courage and promises of loyalty. The arrest is followed by interrogation, humiliation, mockery and finally crucifixion and death. And He is declared innocent by three unlikely individuals: Pilate, the bandit and the Roman centurion.

But there is also forgiveness from the cross, both for those responsible for His death and for the repentant bandit at His side. But what does all of this mean? The mission of Jesus was not to die, and as the scene in the garden illustrates, He did not want to. But He did want one thing with His whole mind and heart — to do the will of God the Father. And that was to be the model or paradigm of true humanity and true divinity by consistently responding to hatred and violence with faith, hope, love and forgiveness. He gifts us with a tantalizing vision of what our world could be like if we would do likewise. It’s a lesson still waiting — begging — to be learned. Â