Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1460, depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane Photo/Wikimedia Commons

Humble, loving servant can’t lose

  • March 19, 2015

Passion (Palm) Sunday (Year B) March 29 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47)

Receiving instruction directly from God is not a ticket to an easy or conflict-free life. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah is a case in point. This Servant was most likely an unknown prophetic figure in the community of Israelite exiles in mid-sixth century B.C. Babylon. He must have been an exceptional individual, since he was the source of comfort and encouragement for so many.

But prophetic words also provoke a terrible backlash — there are always those who lash out at the light in fear and rage. Then again, people do not like to have their ideas challenged — just look at the rancourous conflicts in today’s Church. But the instruction that the Servant received from God gave him the fortitude and courage to let the abuse and violence roll off his back. He did not try to avoid his mistreatment, nor did he respond in kind. This was not a case of masochistic self-punishment. He knew that he would not be put to shame and that God would defend and ultimately vindicate him.

To know God personally and deeply is to be free of fear, especially of harm or death. This was the model and paradigm for prophets throughout the centuries — many have followed in his footsteps. The supreme example of the Suffering Servant was Jesus, and the writers of the New Testament were quick to see the analogy and to apply it in the writing of the Gospels and Passion accounts, especially in the Gospel of Mark.

The beautiful early Christian hymn about the self-emptying of Jesus expressed the same theme in stark but poetic terms. Paul adapted it for his spiritual advice to the Philippian community as the perfect model of Christian humility. The human default is self-preservation and self-advancement. People fear the loss of power and prestige, and do their best to avoid helplessness and weakness. Jesus, on the other hand, willingly laid aside all the powers and privileges associated with His divinity. He took on human weakness and limitation and even the status of slave — all for the sake of love of humanity and the desire to do the Father’s will. This resulted in the ugliness, shame and suffering of the cross, but Jesus deemed the price acceptable. Rather than losing, He gained: God exalted Him above all and gave Him the name above all. When we sacrifice our own comfort, convenience or safety for the sake of another — and it is done selflessly and with love — we too are spiritually empowered and transformed. Those who devote themselves to humble and loving service will never be the losers.

Mark is not a pretty Gospel, for the primary focus is on suffering and death. It was possibly written in Rome in the aftermath of the persecutions under the Emperor Nero, so suffering and dying for the Gospel would have been a vivid and painful memory for Mark’s audience. Mark’s Jesus exhibited the same sort of steely and stoic passivity in the face of persecution and suffering as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Like the Servant, He was confident that He was obeying the divine will and that God would vindicate Him. Before that vindication, however, there were incredible hurdles to overcome. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He had to face His own dread of His impending passion. Jesus had to endure betrayal at the hands of one of His disciples and cowardly flight on the part of the others. Human fear was given full rein as frenzied and contradictory accusations were hurled at Him during the trial. Imagine the pain and disappointment of hearing the mob request freedom for a terrorist in His place. The pain of the humiliation, torture and death was topped only by the fleeting fear that even God had abandoned Him. He certainly gave away everything in the accomplishment of His earthly mission.

We celebrate Passion Sunday not to immerse ourselves in sorrow or to lay blame, but to celebrate the ultimate expression of love. The fact that Jesus suffered and died for us should not give us the impression that it is all over. Wherever and whenever human injustice, cruelty, violence or ungodly behaviour exists, there Jesus is crucified. But wherever there is love, self-giving, hope, faith, humble service and obedience to God, God’s reign is present. The work continues — what will be our part?